Hillbilly Highway – Top 5 Acts I’d Love to See Up At Birds Hill This Year


by Sheldon Birnie

With the Winnipeg Folk Festival line-up announcement scheduled for this weekend, thousands of summer craving Manitobans are itching for those five days in July. While last year’s 40th Anniversary celebraish was a snooze-fest as far as most of the line-up went, it’s always possible the head honchos were playing it safe in stacking the line-up with some old (stale? mouldy?) faves. Now that the big anniversary has passed, many feel it’s high time the Folk Fest brass does something bold in terms of lineup in exchange for charging an arm & a leg for admission. Considering a weekend camping pass now runs nearly as much as a weekend pass for a Big Time Festival like Coachella or Bonnaroo, I’ve spoken with plenty of folks who’ve given up on the whole thing, choosing instead to save a load of cash and satisfy the craving for summer camping and good tunes at one of the many backwoods parties that have sprung up across Manitoba of late.

While I’ve not entirely given up on the big WFF just yet — there’s really nowhere else I’d rather be that first week in July but up in Bird’s Hill with friends, family, and good tunes — this year’s line-up will prove decisive in whether or not I remain one of the faithful for much longer. Now, I don’t expect the head honchos down on Bannatyne to cater exclusively to my tastes, nor to the thousand others clamouring for their favourite artists. But I’d like to think that they’re open to suggestion. And, of course, it’s too late to book anything at this point. But, as an exercise in wild speculation and hopeless wishing upon fading stars, I figured I’d throw my life of the Top 5 Acts I’d Love to See Up at Birds Hill This Year to the winds and see where the Highway takes them. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky this year, or perhaps the head honchos will pay attention to those of us grinding it out in the gutters and consider some of these fine acts in the future. Here goes nothing, right?

# 5 – Turnpike Troubadours


These down to earth honky tonk heroes are a big deal on the Red Dirt circuit, and for good reason. Anyone who caught their opening set for Corb Lund on his Cabin Fever run knows these boys can bring it and they aren’t afraid to let loose. I caught a tight set of theirs at the White Horse Tavern last year in Austin, too, and they ripped the place apart. Couples were dancing, empty Lone Stars were flying, and there wasn’t nobody not tapping a toe. Admittedly, this band might be a more natural fit up in Dauphin, there’s no doubt in my mind a well placed, rowdy Big Blue Stem set by the Evan Felker & Co would go off gangbusters at Bird’s Hill.

Likelihood of happening? Slim to none, bud. Unless the boys are scheduled to rip the place open on Wednesday night, then make a mad dash to make a date in Grand Rapids, MI on the 10th, this ain’t happening. Maybe next year?

#4 – Nick Ferrio & His Feelings


Peterborough’s own Nick Ferrio is a great songwriter, and very involved in the national folk scene. He recently completed an artist residency up in the folk loving wilds of Dawson City, he’s heavily involved in his own community, and while he might not make for a Main Stage draw, he’d be a hit on many of the smaller stages, any number of workshops, or even as a tweener up on Main.

Likelihood of happening? Who knows! The guy’s a beaut, and his songs are catchy as catch can, and his posted schedule is open as far as I can tell. But his record is coming up on a couple years old, and without the buzz of a new release it’s questionable whether the Fest would throw him a spot. Here’s to hoping, anyhow.

# 3 – Hard Working Americans


Americana super-group Hard Working Americans have a lot of potential for Folk Fest Main Stage. Made up of jam band alumni like Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, Southern Rock royalty by way of Duane Trucks, and stoner folky favourite Todd Snider, the band just released their self-titled debut, a covers album featuring the work of Folk Fest faves like Hayes Carll, Gillian Welch, and Randy Newman. They’re already in the studio working on a sophomore full of originals. The band is solid, the hype is there, and the vibe is just right for a Saturday afternoon or early evening with a head full of electric or just high on life. A no-brainer, if you ask me.

Likelihood of happening? Not bad, at least as far as logistics go. Currently, the band, Snider, and Widespread Panic all have big holes in their July and August availability, which prompts one to believe they’re holding out for some upcoming festival announcements. Now, whether or not that includes our own will have to wait until Saturday…

# 2 –  Father John Misty


The mad brain child of J. Tiltman, Father John Misty is a hard act to wrap your head around. Which is why I’d to see him on the Main Stage in Winnipeg. I caught his act  at Coachella last year, and my mind was blown in the best of ways. Then again, maybe the Main Stage, with its tarps and penchant for stuffiness, isn’t ready for Father John? It’d be an interesting experiment, with many variables, and an outcome that is unfathomable from this vantage.

Likelihood of happening? Not bloody likely. His record is a couple years old at this point, and there are no posted tour dates. His bass player just released a record with a side-project, and is hitting the psych festival circuit hard. If Folk Fest doesn’t grab this act soon, Jazz Fest better jump on it. Big time.

# 1 – Jonny Fritz 


Ha. Like this is even a real consideration, but man, would my day be made of Jonny Fritz and ole Josh Hedley were to find themselves in Winnipeg, much less the wilds of Birds Hill! The guy is a straight-up performer, with clever as heck songs and a personality and style that is bound to freak the squares and puzzle even the freaks. If he don’t make it to Folk Fest, can we somehow get the guy up to the Times Change(d) soon?

Likelihood of happening? Unlikely, but stranger things have happened. Fritz is tight in with the Dawes boys, and his posted schedule is open past the Stagecoach Festival at the end of April…

Now, of course, I’ve left out local acts entirely. Don’t want to play favourites, after all. And when it comes to EDM or world music, well, I’m but a rank stranger in those realms, good sir or madam.

So, while we play the waiting game until Saturday’s announcement, what are YOUR top 5 acts you’d like to see this year?

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