Mike Dacey remembers sitting on a blanket in front of the stage of the first Big Valley Jamboree in 1983, so close he could see the thickness of Roy Orbison’s glasses.
“That was a pretty big deal, seeing people you’ve heard on the radio or in your dad’s car stereo,” Dacey said.
A lot about the iconic Craven, Sask., festival — now called Country Thunder — has changed in the years since. It went from country to rock and back. It has had four names.
What hasn’t changed is the strong connection to the province and its people.
“Probably 75 per cent of our staff are from Saskatchewan,” Troy Vollhoffer, Country Thunder’s president and CEO, said. “I just felt so strongly about how good and how talented our folks are.”
Vollhoffer is from Regina. His father Harold was the production manager for the first Jamboree in 1983. Troy, in his mid-teens at the time, came out as a stagehand.
“I remember the first three or four years, it was so hot out here, you were literally spitting dust. But there were some great shows,” he said.
The festival’s history is packed with country legends.
Vollhoffer’s history has its own twists and turns.
Hockey was his life in the ’80s and early ’90s. He won an Air Canada Cup as the captain of the Midget AAA Regina Pat Canadiens in 1983. He went on to play in the WHL, including a stint with the Saskatoon Blades, before signing with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
Vollfhoffer took the money he made playing hockey and, in the mid-90s, created what’s now called Premier Global Productions.
The company was already involved on the production side of the festival — then called Rock N’ The Valley — in 2004, when Volhoffer was approached by the Queen City Kinsmen to take over running it.
The first step, Vollhoffer said, was to take things back to its country roots. Or, as its slogan went, “Back To Our Boots.”
“There’s one thing that won’t ever leave Saskatchewan – that’s country music,” Vollhoffer said.
“It represents our culture. It has everything that this culture has in a song.”
The rebrand didn’t get off to a smooth start. Country superstar Tim McGraw was booked to headline the festival in 2005, but he was also performing at the Calgary Stampede.
“People were calling the office going, ‘We don’t believe that Tim McGraw is playing Craven.’ Once they understood that this was a legit organization — that there was actually going to be a show that year — things turned around fast and furious.”
Craven Country Jamboree rebranded to Country Thunder in 2017. It has now expanded into five other markets: Alberta, Wisconsin, Iowa, Arizona and Florida.
Vollhoffer said it’s important to include a good amount of Canadian talent at all of the festivals’ locations.
“There’s a strong fold of country music in Canada that needs to be exposed,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”
At the end of the day, no matter how big the brand gets, it started in Saskatchewan and always comes back to Saskatchewan, Vollhoffer said.
“This is the oldest festival continuous running festival site in North America,” he said. “I have a lot of passion for it.”
Putting Saskatchewan on the musical map
Jeff DeDekker, former entertainment co-ordinator for the Regina Leader-Post, said the festival has helped establish the province as a musical destination.
“When the event started, Saskatchewan was considered the poor stepchild by provinces like Alberta,” DeDekker said.
“The festival gave the Saskatchewan a reason to be proud and thumb its nose at the naysayers. The festival proved that Saskatchewan didn’t have to take a back seat to anyone.”
DeDekker said the festival’s longevity comes down to three things: history, music and lifestyle.
People were spoiled in the early years, DeDekker said, and didn’t realize the magnitude of who was standing on the stage.
“It was like a litany of legends,” he said. “Just to think that Johnny Cash actually was on the stage.”
Country music has always resonated with people of all ages in Saskatchewan, even as the genre changes through time, DeDekker said.
As for the lifestyle aspect, it’s all about the land of living sky.
“Being active outdoors is a huge part of living in Saskatchewan so it’s a natural fit,” DeDekker said.
“Put the three elements together and it’s a winning combination.”
These are my people
Dacey has been to almost every festival since 1983. He missed a few when he first had kids.
He credits his late father, Bob, for hooking him on the annual festival. Now he shares it with his own children.
As important as the music is, the friendships keep him coming back.
“I know there are many people who return each year to reconnect with friends and family,” he said, pointing out the special “Las Craven” sign that now marks their campsite annually.
“We’ve had the RCMP, they show up every year and take an annual photograph.”
Dacey is a fountain of musical memories, from Kenny Rogers letting the crowd finish a song for him or Garth Brooks climbing the stage rafters.
“I remember [Brook’s] energy, and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “He was right in his prime.”
Having these big stars show up in Saskatchewan is what makes it so special, Dacey said.
“We don’t have a lot of big city things in this province and city,” he said. “This is one of the special things that comes to us.”