The South Country Fair

I sat in the middle of the Oldman River, beer in hand, beneath a blazing 35-degree sun and a cloudless sky. I realized that it doesn’t get any better than this. With all the time in the world to look around and soak up my surroundings it became clear that this was a universal, not an individual epiphany. Like a motley school of oversized fish, people were littered about the shallow, but quick Southern Alberta river that Saturday afternoon without a care in the world. All the while, a deliciously eclectic blend of folk, roots and country music danced through the air.

This is the South Country Fair, the pride of Fort Macleod, Alberta for the last 16 years. The sister festival to the North Country Fair, it is a rare event that draws a crowd of small town revelers, middle class students, nomadic hippies and families of all shapes, sizes and colors. It truly creates a unique dynamic unmatched by any event or festival I’ve ever attended before.

South Country is amazingly balanced. Brilliantly organized, performers who appeal to children played in the late morning and early afternoon, and there was also an entire stage dedicated to the all the tykes in attendance.

Another unique element is the overall theme of respect for one another. While many of the patrons are beyond coherence as early as mid-afternoon, it is understood by all that the Fair doesn’t belong to anyone, it is truly a community.

The third weekend in July begins on Thursday evening. Once the car is packed up and the passengers have been fed it is time to embark on the two-hour drive through breathtaking Southern Alberta at sundown. After passing through the front gates and being adorned with fluorescent wristbands, the time comes to lay claim to your home for the weekend.

As soon as the tarps are hoisted and the tents set up, it’s time to set out like Lewis and Clark, reacquaint yourself with the grounds and those people you know so well, even if you only see them once a year.

Wandering reveals the main stage receiving its final touches and films projected on the side of the retail tents. It reveals campfires surrounded by guitars being strummed and drums being played. It reveals a full moon in a cloudless Alberta sky and the excitement and sense of community just beneath the surface of everything. Thursday night wandering is one of the greatest moments of the entire weekend because it is then that the spirit of South Country starts infecting you, reminding you why you book the third weekend in July off every summer. It is during that annual moonlit stroll that the tone is set; it is then that responsibilities and deadlines fade away.

Another perfect element of the South Country experience is the way it seems to rain just enough every morning to stave off the Fort Macleod sun, known for rudely awakening campers by flooding tents with sticky and intrusive heat.

When you get right down to it though, Friday and Saturday are the heart of the Fair. The groggy mornings, lazy afternoons, hazy evenings and unpredictable nights are why so many make the pilgrimage every year. Whether it’s sitting around the campsite or sitting in the river, the theme is relaxation. For the more adventurous, a trip to nearby Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump is quite often a weekend tradition. For others there are the retail booths, the afternoon performers, the historical reenactments at Fort Macleod, even Lotus Land, the cookhouse cum poetry corner. Finally, once the wind picks up and the sun dies down, it’s time for dinner and a move en masse to the stage.

This year’s Fair had performers ranging from local favorites like the Corb Lund Band to people from the Middle East to Asia to Africa. Not only is there diversity of music, but the divergent viewpoints and personalities make the Fair a kind of human tapestry, enjoyed by all, contributed to by all.

South Country is not, however, a timeless experience. Almost everyone present knows exactly when Captain Tractor, the Edmonton-based roots rock band, will grace the stage. Captain Tractor are nine-year vets of the Fair and have long been the centerpiece of South Country. Blending Celtic traditions, rock guitars and a decidedly Western Canadian perspective, they whip the entire Fair into a frenzy whenever they take the stage. Somehow, they manage to steal the show each and every year.

Sunday is a bittersweet day. After a light breakfast it’s time to pack up, clean the campsite and pack the car until it’s nearly bursting. It’s always tough to walk through the area that was home to so many great memories over the past three days and see it barren, knowing that soon there won’t be any trace of the great times that were had by all. But it is always refreshing to know that a shower is only a two-hour drive away.

Tradition dictates that the weekend closes as it began, with a journey to the river and a stroll around the grounds. One last chance to sit mid stream in lawn chairs, the water washing the sunscreen off your legs, sipping the last few beers of the weekend. One last farewell to the South Country crew, a chance to say "See you next year" and exchange knowing smiles.

Then the sound of gravel being spit out by your tires, the feeling of the wind blowing against your sunburnt face and the vast expanse of Southern Alberta prairie flying by. The drive home is always so much quieter than the drive out as everyone sits, recollecting and decompressing, already looking forward to another trip down Highway 2.

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