Country Fest 2014

In this file photo from June 2014, a crowd warms up before a performance at Country Fest in Cadott.

The cancellation of country music festival We Fest in northwest Minnesota for 2020 should have a positive impact on area country events next summer, organizers say.

We Fest, which began in 1983 in Detroit Lakes, Minn., announced Monday it is going “to take a year off” and will be back in 2021. Last year’s headliners included Keith Urban, Chris Stapleton and Brooks & Dunn.

Kathy Wright, Country Jam general manager, was on the Jam’s grounds when she learned about the press release announcing the cancellation of We Fest. Her phone lit up with requests for information about her festival.

“It was a matter of minutes, and our phone was ringing,” Wright said. “I couldn’t get back to the office fast enough.”

We Fest drew as many as 150,000 spectators as recently as 2016, and many of those fest-goers were from the Twin Cities market, roughly 200 miles away.

“This is an opportunity to reach into the Twin Cities market and say, ‘Turn east, not west,’” Wright said. “We’re excited. For years, we’ve been frustrated (Twin Cities) people haven’t been willing to drive a shorter distance, and give us a try. It’s our opportunity to shine.”

We Fest is typically the first weekend of August, while Country Jam is in late July; however, the festivals are competing for the same fans, she explained. Wright said for many fest-goers, they head to the same event every year out of tradition.

“It’s a family reunion, or a college get-together,” Wright said. “The lineup is important, but it’s secondary to the time they spend together.”

Wright was explaining to people who have never been to Eau Claire before about the festival, and what the city has to offer when they aren’t on the Jam grounds.

“It’s so funny to talk to someone who hasn’t been here before,” she said.

Wright said that in 31 years of Country Jam, organizers have never talked once about skipping a year.

“There has never been a discussion of taking a year off,” she said.

The fear is people would look to a festival elsewhere, and not come back, she explained.

“That would be the concern for me, as a promoter,” she said.

Country Fest in rural Cadott will hold its 34th annual festival next June, and Rock Fest will head into its 27th consecutive festival in July.

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Wade Asher, Country Fest general manager, agreed that he would never consider skipping a year for either Country Fest or Rock Fest.

“No, because we know we couldn’t come back,” Asher said. “We don’t think it would be fair to our fans. Even if we had to pay astronomical guarantees for the artists, we’ll have a lineup.”

Asher had heard that We Fest was taking a year off before it was publicly announced, and he was surprised.

“I know how hard it is to make festivals go every year,” Asher said. “It’s not an easy task.”

The Eaux Claires Music Festival, held at the Country Jam grounds in the town of Union from 2015 to 2018, announced they were skipping a festival this year, but plan to return in July 2020.

Asher has seen country and rock festivals spring up in the Midwest, last a year or two, then go under.

“We have an amazing team; you have to surround yourself with great people,” Asher said. “It’s not easy to do this year after year, and make it work. Starting a new festival, no matter where in the United States, it’s tough.”

Asher said he hates to see any festival go away.

“We never celebrate that,” Asher said. “We always want them to make it work.”

Part of the success of Rock Fest and Country Fest is lining up artists who are playing at other festivals within a reasonable distance of Cadott.

“Routing is everything,” Asher said. “It’s not just a quick, ‘Let’s make a call.’”

Both Wright and Asher say they have no doubt that We Fest will return in 2021, as the event is now owned by concert organizer Live Nation. Wright said that is why it is important to make a positive impression on patrons who head to the Chippewa Valley next year, in hopes they continue coming here, rather than shift back to We Fest in future years.

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