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Saddling Up For Boots and Hearts Festival 2023

Country music star Breland shares his top picks for the music festival's 10th anniversary - and biggest year yet.

by Ben Boddez

Returning to the Burl’s Creek Event Grounds in Oro-Medonte, Ontario for its 10th anniversary iteration, Boots and Hearts Festival has long been known as Canada’s top destination for the country music fan that can’t wait to hit the summer festival circuit. Attracting some of the genre’s biggest superstars year after year and playing out in a 585-acre field, its status as Canada’s biggest camping music fest makes it resemble a northern Coachella of sorts – with a twangy twist.

This year, however, the fest is expanding to even more music fans by infusing the lineup with some country stars more willing to plug in the amplifiers – like HARDY and Bailey Zimmerman – as well as some straight-up rock acts as Canadian legends Nickelback ride their (ironic or un-ironic?) resurgence in popularity straight to a headlining spot beside Tim McGraw and Keith Urban.

“We’re just listening to the fans and what they’re listening to – there’s a lot of cross-genre playlists nowadays and the artists are doing it on their own. So we just give them the microphone in Canada to do it,” says Brooke Dunford, the festival’s director of booking and brand strategy. “If you’re a true rock fan that would never come to Boots and Hearts before, you can get what you love and you’ll discover some country acts. We’re servicing the marriage of the rock fan and the country fan, and if you’re both, then it’s that much better.”

Prior to taking a role with the festival in 2016, Dunford had been attending Boots and Hearts as a fan since its debut iteration back in 2012, giving her a firsthand perspective at the kinds of fans who attend – rowdier, more party-starting and dotted with more cowboy hats than your average festival-goer, according to her – and how to tailor the kind of experience that they’d be searching for. The festival’s social accounts’ dedication to the hashtag #bootslife isn’t just a slogan – it’s on a sign at their opening gates and represents an unmatchable ethos.

“It’s the sense of community that our fans have, whether it’s four days after the festival or all year long. They really embrace friends, good times, and great music,” Dunford says. “That mentality of being with people you love and celebrating. And the heart of the festival is the camping – it’s just an immersive experience. Your favourite artists are just a walk away, and it really is just a city of fans that come together to enjoy.”

Despite the newfound dedication to diversifying the kinds of acts you might find while walking from one stage to the next, Dunford’s main goal when it came to booking talent for the festival was to present a slate of artists with one key thing in common: being known for putting on a great live show.

Even for some of the acts who are closer to the beginning of their careers and don’t have the headliners’ established reputations as great live acts, she believes that the excitement of coming face to face with Canadian fans for the first time will elevate their stage presence to match the crowd’s energy. For some of the newer acts, Dunford also relishes in seeing some of them grow to superstar status after she booked them a year ago.

“That’s the most exciting part of this job. I remember when Bailey Zimmerman hadn’t even had an album yet, but the social engagement and numbers of his first song, you see that the fans are engaged and passionate about it. But you never imagined it would turn as quickly as it did,” she says. “Even HARDY – we didn’t know the album, we just knew it was going to be half rock and half country, but now you see his live show and I can’t wait for him to open for Nickelback, because it’s a rock show.”

Although most of the artists playing the festival are already known for massive arena shows, one of the biggest things that draw people to country music in the first place is the storytelling, lyricism, and relatability of the tales being told. For an experience that involves a little more connection with the artists on stage, Boots and Hearts has that covered as well with the SiriusXM Front Porch Stage, held under a massive tent, and the Emerging Artist Showcase – a competition to find the stars who might be headlining the fest in future years.

“The SiriusXM Front Porch Stage is much more of an intimate performance, and you’ll still have everyone out there because there’s nothing going on at the main stage during it. So it’s always one of those special moments between the artist and the fans because you’re a bit closer and the energy is always there,” Dunford says. “And the Emerging Artist Showcase is an all-across Canada search for eight finalists. Traditionally, some of our winners have gone on to win CCMA Awards, so we enjoy introducing them to our audience on a bigger stage than they’ve ever imagined.”

When it comes to survival tips, Dunford recommends coming prepared for any kind of weather, remembering to grab chairs, coolers, and blow-up mattresses to make the campsite a little more like home, and embracing the outdoorsy lifestyle that comes with a large-scale camping festival. After all, quite a few of the artists playing the fest are already going to be singing about it.

BRELAND’s Picks of the Fest

Although he’s getting set to play some of the first festival dates of his career, BRELAND says that he was never a big festivalgoer, preferring to connect with the artists at a more intimate show. At the same time, as a genre-melder who hopes to open doors to new possibilities in country, he’s developing a newfound appreciation for them as he witnesses crowds of music fans getting to discover their new favourite acts in real time.

“Country music is different from a lot of other genres in that the live aspect of it is so important,” he says. “There are people in other genres that might have a hundred million followers but can barely fill out a theatre, and then you’ve got people in country that might only have a million that are packing out arenas. Building that live audience and focusing on making sure you play the best show that you can is where the longevity comes from.”

After you catch his set, BRELAND recommends checking out these other five:

Nickelback:

“I think sometimes they get kind of a reputation and people like to joke, but you can’t deny that they’ve got hits. I haven’t been able to see them live, so if I’m able to stay for an additional day I personally would love to see them and see what energy they’re bringing.”

Keith Urban:

“He always brings a great show. I think people will be really pleasantly surprised with the type of energy he brings as well.”

Bailey Zimmerman:

“He’s definitely been on a rocket over the last year with the success of his album. I think he’s still developing as a performer, and he’s come a long way in a short amount of time. He’s definitely one that I think people should look out for.”

Danielle Bradbery:

She’s a good friend of mine, and we just put out a song a couple of months ago called ‘Together.’ I had a chance to get to know her a little bit, perform with her a couple times, and she’s a lot of fun. She’s got a great voice, and great stage presence.”

Travis Denning:

He’s a wild boy. He brings a lot of energy as well, so I think you can’t really go wrong.” 

Boots & Hearts Festival runs August 10-13, 2023 | TICKETS & INFO