With 42 years of history, the Country North show is looking towards its roots.
© Herald photo by Jodi Schellenberg
Ernie Rock and Terry Jones, two of the people who were involved with he first Country North show in 1972, are excited for the reunion show on Sunday.
Since it is the 50th anniversary of the Prince Albert Winter Festival, the Country North producer, Barry Mihilewicz was asked to put on a reunion show for Sunday evening. He enlisted the help of Michelle McKeaveney.
“He was asked to put together the show because it is the 50th anniversary of the winter festival but it is only the 42nd of the Country North,” McKeaveney explained. “They were looking to put together a reunion show this year because of that.”
The history of the show was important to McKeaveney, who decided to research how the show started so they could acknowledge those who were involved since the beginning.
Ernie Rock, who was the producer of the first Country North show in 1972, said when the Winter Festival first started there wasn’t a country show -- instead there was a variety show called the Dog and Sled show that was very similar to a cabaret.
A group of men in the city decided they wanted a country music show instead and Rock was nominated to put it together.
Rock said the Winter Festival committee didn’t have faith in the new show and put them in the Union Centre because they didn’t think it would be popular.
The show proved to be a success very quickly.
“It was so popular it was just packed right to the rafters,” Rock said. “It was overloaded and there was a line right to the Liquor Board store.”
McKeaveney said the show was not an impromptu jam session and a lot of thought and organization went into it. People were working on the stage and set months beforehand.
“The first show in 1972 was basically the first of its kind in the city to be an all out country music and local performers performing that music,” McKeaveney said. “Most of the people I spoke to have said they had them underrated and they were magically fooled by how it took off.”
The original show consisted of musicians handpicked by Rock to perform, but as the show became more popular that quickly changed and auditions were held.
“That is terrible to tell people they are not good enough,” Rock said. “I would never be able to.”
“That was never Ernie’s forte but that is what ended up happening,” McKeaveney added. “The show took on a life of its own and therefore they deemed it wasn’t fair to just go and handpick people. They wanted everyone to have the opportunity to be in the show and then switched it to the audition (format).”
McKeaveney, who performed in the Country North show for eight years herself, said the auditions brought out hundreds of people and only eight to 12 were chosen.
“Hundreds of people from all over the province came to audition for the show and didn’t get in,” McKeaveney said. “I felt like auditioning for the show over and over again, I wasn’t letting other people in. I stepped down in 1989 because I felt bad.”
Although McKeaveney stepped down, many other performers have been on the stage for years and will be honoured for their contributions on Sunday.
One performer, Nancy Hagen, has been in Country North for 28 years and two other ladies, Pat Martens and Marg Yungwirth, for about 19 years.
“It is really important to me that part of what we are doing on Sunday is recognizing the living legends,” McKeaveney said.
One of the living legends is George Pistun, who is an amazing fiddle player, McKeaveney said.
“He will be unable to be with us on Sunday (due to illness) but he has 20 year plus with that show,” McKeaveney said. “So many people counted on him because of his musical genius. For him not to be there Sunday is really sad because he should be honoured just as much as Ernie (Rock) and these other people should.”
Rock is also glad to hear his friend will be honoured at the show.
“We started together a long time ago and had our own band -- he is a very talented man,” Rock said. “He was perfect material for Nashville. In my opinion, he is one of the best country singers in this area.”
Another man who will be honoured is Dennis Adams, who comes from a long line of musicians.
“His father, Claude Adams, who has passed away, he wrote and recorded a Winter Festival song,” McKeaveney said. “That song became the Winter Festival theme song.”
When Adams was only 10 years old, his father was sick and had to be hospitalized so Adams performed the song for the Winter Festival by himself.
“Dennis has been either in the back up band or a producer of the show for 22 years,” McKeaveney said. “We are honoring him because of his involvement in the show.”
Not only was he a longtime performer of Country North, he was also in the Adams Brothers Band, which was quite popular in Prince Albert.
“There were no CDs and disc jockeys,” one of the original 1972 performers Terry Jones said. “It was all live bands that entertained for weddings and that type of thing.”
They also have many other former performers coming back for this show.
“The best part about this Sunday’s show is that out of that original 1972 show, we are lucky enough to have Terry and Lawrence Joseph,” McKeaveney said. “Two of the original people from 1972 will be performing in our lineup -- that is big news.”
“Then we have a lady coming all the way from Calgary to be part of the show,” she added. “And then we have some of the up and coming people, who have been in the show in the 1990s.”
The back-up band this year will be Donny Parenteau, who will be accompanied by past performer Bryan Sklar.
“Donny himself was a young fiddle player in the shows and he went onto Nashville and found great fame,” McKeaveney said. “It is a real treat to have him in there because he grew up in the show.”
While speaking to those involved with Country North throughout the years, McKeaveney said it brought back many memories for all.
“That is a great thing that in the last 42 years the show has impacted not only the community but the people who have been involved,” McKeaveney said. “I’m talking from lighting and sound people to people on the stage and in the spotlight.”
One of the most amazing comments she heard was from Adams who said he felt amazed and honoured when Frank Deschambeault told him one year that he was a great guitar player.
“Dennis just about broke down and cried because Frank was his hero,” McKeaveney said. “For Frank to compliment Dennis on his playing was like Prince saying I’m the most amazing singer.”
She has heard many wonderful stories and memories, which make her proud to part of an amazing community.
“This has been an emotional journey in looking for these people and hearing their memories of the show.” McKeaveney said. “Hearing what it meant for them back then -- It is the sense of family, it is the sense of accomplishment, it is the sense of doing something amazing.”
One year, she said, a Prince Albert Raider performed and he attracted his own fan club.
“This show has had its legends, its heartthrobs and stars,” McKeaveney said. “Really, it has had its own set of things that happened.”
Both Rock and Jones are excited to go back to a show they helped create.
“I feels like I’ve been on the moon for 30 years -- it is just great,” Rock said. “I listened to the group backing (them) up and they are really hot. I just wish I could take part.
“Maybe next year -- then I’ll show them,” he laughed.
McKeaveney said Rock is a whiz on the guitar and can play some amazing things on a double neck guitar.
“I’m just excited -- I think this is just great,” Jones said. “It is fantastic to be included.”
Although there have been amazing performers throughout the show’s history, McKeaveney is focusing on those from 1972 to 1992, although she still wants those from 1992 to 2014 to step forward and contact her if they would like to come to the show on Sunday.
“We extend an invitation out to anyone from 1972 to 2014 that has been part of the show, either in the background, on the stage in some shape or form, to please contact me if they want to attend on Sunday so I can put them on our guest list,” McKeaveney said. “I want them to consider themselves special guests whether they can attend or not. It is really important to Barry and I and the Winter Festival board is that everybody realizes that even though I haven’t personally called them, it doesn’t mean they can’t come.”
Anyone who performed in Country North who McKeaveney has not contacted can call her at 306-922-3113 to get placed on the guest list.
Tickets for the show are available at the Exhibition Centre (306) 764-1711.