PROVIDENCE BAY – The 10th anniversary edition of Bluegrass in the Country was a widely-popular event that carried on the strong tradition of celebrating bluegrass music while also supporting Manitoulin Island’s Special Olympians.
“Our 10th anniversary brought bigger acts and the Special Olympics angle is huge. This was also the first year we’ve had an electronic sign that showcased the athletes’ achievements throughout the year, as well as our sponsors,” said Brother John Featherstone, the event’s founder and lead organizer.
Bluegrass in the Country began a decade ago, with Mr. Featherstone describing this year’s crammed-full camping area as a “far cry” from the first year’s draw of eight campers for one afternoon of music.
Mr. Featherstone moved to the Island in 2004 and his son Austin, who has autism, soon began competing in Special Olympics events. Austin Featherstone went on to become a world champion runner by taking gold at the 2011 Special Olympics in Athens, Greece. He was also named Special Olympics Ontario’s Athlete of the Year in 2011.
Austin Featherstone originally suggested to his father that they could host a bluegrass festival as a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. The festival now covers the expenses of Manitoulin Island’s Special Olympics chapter for a whole year.
The main event at the Providence Bay Fairgrounds began on Friday with an opening performance by Bowmanville’s Alicia Robicheau and Lonesome Sound. Jim Beech took the stage next who, along with Ben Lentir, had been part of the very first Bluegrass in the Country event. Hard Ryde followed and then Bluegrass in the Country ‘house band’ The Canucky Bluegrass Boys closed off the Friday set.
Music began to flow at noon on Saturday, beginning with Different Picks, a band from North Bay. The New General Store followed, a band that came out of retirement in honour of the 10th anniversary festival. County Road 44 offered a sizzling set after them.
Mr. Lentir followed, the musician who serves as Northern Ontario Country Music Awards representative for the Manitoulin district. Alicia Robicheau returned for another set before Manitoulin’s Robbie Shawana played his selection of crowd favourites.
Following Mr. Shawana’s set, Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes popped onto the stage sporting her Bluegrass in the Country t-shirt.
“I always tip my hat to Brother John and everyone else who puts the festival together, as well as the sponsors who see the need to support our Special Athletes,” said Ms. Hughes. “Special Athletes always put everything they have in what they undertake, and we must support them. This is a great way to do that.”
She then introduced Special Olympian Austin ‘Aussie the Clown’ Featherstone to perform a hilarious clown routine as a helpless, reckless old man.
Brock and Brenda Chisholm, on behalf of Steve and Becky Chisholm of Uncle Steve’s Park and Cabins, presented Manitoulin Special Olympics with a donation of $1,365 from their annual Christmas in July event, snapping a photo with all the athletes during the hand-off.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the stands became jam-packed as the main events began. 2018 Providence Bay Fair ambassador April Torkopoulos introduced a perennial favourite show, the Manitoulin Special Olympians’ square-dancing routine. Three generations of dancers took part in the event which was called by Fred Hunter.
Hard Ryde returned to the stage following the square dance, offering energetic entertainment while the headliner act got ready behind the scenes.
Around 7:30, The Next Generation Leahy took the stage, a family band from Lakefield (near Peterborough). The phrase ‘family band’ doesn’t quite do a justice, however, to the sensational series of eight musicians on stage—mom, dad and six children between the ages of five and 17. That does not even account for the three youngest children who were not performing that evening, rounding out a full family of 11.
Their showmanship and stage presence were notable from the start. The family members are multi-instrumentalists and dancers, tapping up a storm to the delight of the crowd. During the show-stopper encore song, this reporter lost count of how many times they changed off their instruments, even rotating pianists several times.
Finally, the Canucky Bluegrass Boys concluded the evening’s performances as the sun dipped further below the horizon, leading to a dazzling display of one of Manitoulin Island’s famous sunsets.
Sunday’s events opened with Robbie Shawana, followed by more repeat performances of County Road 44 and The New General Store.
“I’m really enthused with how everything went. Every year it builds more and more, and I need to give my thanks that the camping field is almost full,” said Mr. Featherstone. “Sixteen of our 25 hydro lots are already booked for 2020, so get your tickets early and we’ll see you next year.”