Country Music Staked Its Claim at Winnipeg Folk Festival 2023

With Fleet Foxes, Charlotte Cornfield, Faye Webster, Black Belt Eagle Scout, William Prince, Emmylou Harris, S.G. Goodman

Photo: Mike Thiessen

BY Myles TiessenPublished Jul 11, 2023

Take a 30-minute drive North-East of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and you'll find a quintessential prairie forest. Innumerable trembling aspen and oak trees collide with the grand expanse of the plains, making Birds Hill Provincial Park feel infinitely vast yet comfortably enclosed. 

During the winter, the park is dotted with late-night stargazers, attempting to catch a glimpse of the vivid northern lights. The daytime sees a constant stream of cross-country skiers gliding through the endless trail systems that weave through the 35 square kilometres of protected forest. 

But there is one event in the heat of the summer that defines this place: the Winnipeg Folk Festival. This year, over 74,000 attendees dropped into Manitoba's largest music festival to see some of the biggest names in music, hear blossoming local talent, detach from daily stressors, and of course, party in the woods. 

This year, the Winnipeg Folk Festival organizers seem to have taken inspiration from the surrounding landscape as the festival's initial lineup leaned into the prairie charm with a country music-focused weekend. Unfortunately, cancellations by Orville Peck and Sierra Ferrell — who took time to look after their mental and physical health — left many alt-country fans with something to be desired. Fortunately, tent-pole artists like Emmylou Harris, Charley Crockett, and William Prince fed the country music appetite. 

Beyond that, there was a little something for everyone. Between the coffee house, folk singers, blues musicians and late-night DJs were some paramount indie-darlings. The War on Drugs, Fleet Foxes, Faye Webster, Black Belt Eagle Scout and so many more made the trek to the centre of Canada for a weekend of trippy guitar rock and heartfelt storytelling. 

You could see the disparate groups of fans as some wandered the festival with Wranglers and white Stetsons while others in Doc Martens and cut-off 511s hunted for shade and cut a trail to the beer tent.  With attendees from all ages and all walks of life, it's a testament to Winnipeg Folk Festival's organization and execution that over 74,000 people found the music they enjoy and felt at home in the longitudinal centre of the country. 

Here are some of Exclaim! highlights of this year's Winnipeg Folk Festival. 

July 6 

William Prince

Through no fault of his own, William Prince's opening performance at the Winnipeg Folk Festival never made it to the finish line. Halfway through his gripping set, an unpredicted lightning storm caused significant delays. About an hour later, mainstage host Tom Power of the CBC took to the stage to let the crowd down. 

Fortunately, Prince's half-set still commanded the crowd with vice-grip tension. Drifting through songs from his stunning new album Stand in the Joy, Prince's dynamic lyricism and John Prine-rivaling storytelling thrived in the live setting. Supported by his backing band, the songs took on brighter effervescence than the recorded versions. Opener "Pasadena" carried a country rock flair, while "When You Miss Someone" leaned into a gospel tinge. 

Few artists can pull off successful stage banter, but the way Prince weaves hard-worn stories throughout turns the performance into something beyond a simple set of songs. He said, "One day, time is going to be the only thing we ever wish for," while introducing the contemplative "Only Thing We Need."

The short but ever-so-sweet set was a textbook example of an artist working at their maximum potential; only with William Prince, you always get the sense that the best is still yet to come. 

Fleet Foxes

After over a decade of headlining festivals across the world, Fleet Foxes still know how to work a crowd. Bandleader Robin Pecknold began the show by taking a photo of the crowd with a disposable camera, and when someone from the audience yelled that they weren't ready, he graciously laughed it off and took another photo. The rest of the set saw Pecknold sneaking more photos of the unassuming crowd and making jokes, laughing along with them. 

With a storm still brewing, the breezy "Wading in Waist-High Water" contradicted the absolute downpour descending on the crowd. Some in the seating section took shelter underneath their tarps, while die-hard fans embarrassed the soggy and cold conditions, standing right up next to the stage. Pecknold also enjoyed the rain as a leak on the stage's roof began to soak him. "Let's get the rain out of the way, and we can have the best weekend of our lives," said Pecknold. 

Most songs hewed closely to the recorded versions, but given that Fleet Foxes are essentially an indie-rock legacy band at this point, it was warmly received. "Your Protector" boomed with the cinematic opulence required for the monolithic track. 

It was hard to ignore the charm and swagger that Pecknold carried himself with. When he forgot the words to the second verse of "Third of May/Ōdaigahara," he stared blankly in disbelief, turned to his band, paused the song, laughed, and was deeply apologetic. At one point, Pecknold let a member of the crowd on stage to play guitar on "White Winter Hymnal." It undoubtedly made that fan's weekend and showed Pecknold's kindly reverence and warmth for his music's fans. 

July 7

Black Belt Eagle Scout

Black Belt Eagle Scout brought a certain gritty rock edge that was, until that point, missing from most of the festival's lineup of country music or late-night DJs. Leader Katherine "KP" Paul took the stage with a blazing white Earnie Ball Music Man St. Vincent signature guitar and her wickedly talented backing band. With no introduction, they launched into a thunderous and trippy version of "Fancy Dance" from their new album, The Land, the Water, the Sky; KP wasted almost no time showing off her jaw-dropping guitar skills and reverb-soaked solos on the punk rock interpretation of the song.

With the tin-like smashing of the symbols rivaling the reverb-infused vocals, Black Belt Eagle Scout's shoegaze-inspired live performance was tremendously heavy and energetic. The only moments where Paul was quiet was between the songs. She rarely spoke, though one instance saw her take a moment to acknowledge her ancestral lands in the Pacific Northwest. "The land, the water, and the sky are all very important to me. That's why I don't give up," Paul said with a direct simplicity. The band welcomed in the night as they played to a golden prairie sunset, perfectly fitting the melancholic lyrics and tremendous hope found in Paul's music.

Charlotte Cornfield

Charlotte Cornfield's affecting everyday-storytelling lyricism is something that needs to be witnessed live. You may feel the emotion on the record, but it will never capture the intimacy shared while face-to-face with the crowd. 

Quiet opener "Skateboarding by the Lake" was almost drowned out by the initial cheers from the crowd, and the smile on Cornfield's face stretched ear-to-ear. That response was particularly felt, given her performance that day was her first show in three months, following the birth of her new child and the release of this year's Could Have Done Anything. The start of the set carried a bit of nervous excitement for Cornfield, but as time passed, the rust fell off, she grooved a little more to the beat, and you could tell she enjoyed the time back on stage.

Her performance, which featured tracks from her last two LPs, showed how well-designed her songs are for a stripped-down three-piece band. Supported by a drum and bass, Cornfield's kosmische rendition of "Partner in Crime" was as mesmerizing as it was fun. "There was so much bad news before I met you," Cornfield sang with wilful tenacity. 

Confield mostly stuck to playing her powder-blue Fender Jazzmaster but took to the piano for a particularly enrapturing performance of "Gentle Like the Drugs." And well, if the crowd wasn't in tears before, they most certainly were then. 

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris's performance late Friday night was a spectacle above anything else. Beyond her legendary status as one of the most influential country artists of all time, Harris's stage presence and ability to command a crowd of thousands-upon-thousands was impressive, to say the least. She may be 76 years old, but still sounds as good as she did when she began her career.

Her set drifted through country, spirituals, bluegrass, Bakersfield and folk, all with effortless ease and backed by one hell of a five-piece band. The set felt more like a celebration of the music she loves and the people who inspired her with several covers of artists like Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch, George Jones, and Townes van Zandt. It harkened back to a bygone era of country music when the music belonged as folk songs for one another rather than a commodity for publishing. A particularly profound moment in the set came when Harris and the band crowded around a single microphone to sing the a capella Appalachian traditional "Bright Morning Stars." 

One of the most fascinating parts of the entire set was seeing old songs in the style of her late-career Daniel Lanois-type production. "Evangeline," backed by a reverberated drumkit and trippy lead guitar, was remarkably well constructed, and a similarly surprising rendition of "Pancho and Lefty" was probably one of the most inspired covers of that song I've ever heard. 

Emmylou Harris' legacy is beyond description — as the clouds above the stage broke apart to reveal a star-studded prairie sky fitted with the wisps of distant galaxies and older couples swayed arm-in-arm to the music, you sensed something exceptional was taking place.

July 9 


Standing centre stage and surrounded by her band of friends, FONTINE played a deeply heartfelt set to her hometown crowd. She stared steely-eyed through her dark sunglasses as she worked through the almost hour-long performance, stacking songs from her debut EP, Yarrow Lover, introduced an exciting amount of new or unreleased tracks, and interlaced a few cover songs. The crowd flooded with fans, all piling in for the can't-miss local feature of the day.

Deciding to skip the electronic and beautifully muted production of Yarrow Lover in favor of a simple three-piece was initially a little disheartening, but in the end, it seemed to have paid off as FONTINE let most of the set breathe in a low-key, funky indie-pop nature that showcased her stunning powerhouse vocals. 

It seemed FONTINE also got the country music festival memo, performing lively covers of Stan Jones' "Cowpoke" and Townes Van Zandt's "No Place To Fall." One of the performance's highlights was the ending, which featured an extended jammed-out version of "Yarrow Lover." Grooving with her band and their goofy stage banter made a clear impact on the crowd, as they cheered her out with a standing ovation. 

S.G. Goodman

The sleepy Sunday afternoon slot was a strange time to put S.G. Goodman, and the crowd didn't seem to know how to handle her. Her particular blend of tender country and post-punk was greeted with confused looks by a mostly older crowd who weren't sure how to interpret the motorik grunge and borderline experimental instrumental flairs. Fortunately, Goodman is such a charismatic and strong performer that audience interaction really didn't make that much of a difference on the set anyhow. She just did what she does best and put on a masterful display of creative rock and roll. 

The performance opened with her band playing an extended psychedelic intro, leading into "Work Until I Die." Goodman walked onstage, beer in hand, and gave an astonishing pub punk performance. Coming from a family of row croppers in Western Kentucky, Goodman's energy on stage matched the disdain of forgotten family farmers and the plight of the shrinking rural communities that she sings about "You get trapped in the rhythm / Time it flies / You get trapped in the rhythm / You work till you die" she shouted rather than sang during the opener. 

Her deep southern drawl and preference for traditional Appalachian melodies were on full display as she turned in a rousing performance of "You Were Someone I Loved" or just talked to the crowd while tuning. "One day, I hope to grow old and be a festival attendee to hang out and do drugs like the rest of you," she joked, likely having taken notice of the crowd's dazed faces. 

The festival got to hear yet another Townes Van Zandt cover as Goodman and the band performed one of the most deranged and deeply enjoyable versions of "Lungs" ever to be heard. Hyper-extended reverberated guitars and looping rhythms went on for what felt like forever during the hypnotic interpretation of the track. Regardless of whether or not the crowd matched her energy, Goodman seemed to have enjoyed her time at the festival. "This festival is really something you folks should be proud of. It really gives back to the community and gives back to the artists," she said before closing the set out with "Keeper of the Time."

Faye Webster

The hip crowd of indieheads crammed together at the front of the stage let out one of the loudest cheers of the night as Faye Webster walked onstage, dressed in a stylishly oversized deep blue jacket and matching pants. 

The Atlanta, Georgia singer-songwriter's performance was awash in breezy, laidback melodies and golden sunset tones. Opener "Bitter Distractions" was as soulful and radiant as the recorded version, and she instantly had the young crowd eating out of the palm of her hand. Her cult-like status among the early 20s fans was apparent, as after four days of tenting and partying in the festival campground, they found new life and reinvigoration as they smoked their disposable vapes and they sang every lyric to every song.

The dreamy set might not have cleared 70 bpm, but that didn't stop Webster from showing off her skillful guitar chops. As the only six-string on stage, she effortlessly flipped between rhythms and licks, adding a whole lot of dynamic energy to her set. The band was crazy tight and showed no cracks. They easily handled the builds and comedowns of the ultra-meta "Jonny" and made her latest single, "But Not Kiss," one of the clear highlights.

Tour Dates

Latest Coverage