Jane Laplante stands with her foot tapping, listening intently to the singers competing in the 30th Annual Northern Ontario Open Country Singing Contest going on all weekend at the outdoor Bill Barber Complex in Callander.
“I love the music and the people. Everybody is so friendly. It’s great. The singers are fantastic, from the wee ones to the real old one’s. I plan on being here all weekend. I’ve got my chair set up right here and I’m not moving. Any country is good country,” laughed Laplante.
Harley Renaud, one of the founding members of the competition, never imagined it would still be such a success three decades later.
“Mary Stiller from CKAT radio, Ernie Lapalme and a bunch of us got together to start this. Ernie had done something similar up north first and approached Mary about doing it here, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Back then it was known as the Open Country Singing Contest.
“It went through the CKAT, and then it went through the city, and a number of years ago, we took it over as the Nipissing Country Music Association. That’s when we called it the Northern Ontario Open Country Singing Contest,” explained Renaud.
It has slowly evolved over the years.
“There’s a lot of differences from when we first started because back then it was a quick rehearsal and that was it, game over. Now people send their songs in beforehand, and they can do their rehearsing ahead of time with the band, and when they come it’s a lot easier for the rehearsals.”
The number of competitors has grown, even from last year with close to 60 people registered as of opening day Friday.
People have travelled from all over the province to compete, including Ottawa, Windsor, London, and Timmins.
“Since we left Lee Park, we’re in Callander here now, we had to grow again. And it’s grown pretty good. It looks like we’re going to be staying put here awhile. It’s a covered rink so there’s that outdoor feel. We did have a rain storm Friday afternoon with a little bit of lightning, so we shut it down for about a half an hour. Other than that, everybody’s was happy and away we went.”
There is a total of $10,000 in cash prizes up for grabs, split between the various categories.
“We have all ages competing. We had one here today and she’s around five, and then we have at the other end, which is the 50 plus category, we have people there in their 70’s. And we’re seeing people who competed years ago, coming back again, which is nice to see.”
Renaud believes the reason for the contest’s longevity is the friendly atmosphere, and the fact nothing else compares.
“Basically there’s not another venue like it around anymore. There used to be the Canadian Open Country Singing Contest and they closed down, so we basically took from that as well, so it added to ours. And I think that’s probably why it’s going so well for us. As well as the type of event it is. It’s still an outdoor event. It’s still a free event. I think it’s going to maintain itself and will continue to grow.”
Renaud is no stranger to competition, having won the Canadian Open Country Singing Contest three times.
“They said because I won had three times, that was it. I wasn’t allowed to enter anymore. So needless to say I had to move on, and so then I went in the duet class with my son, and we won that two years in a row. Since then we got into this one, and that’s why I stay with it. I love all the camaraderie among the different contestants and the different people you meet. It’s just great.”
It takes an army of dedicated volunteers to make an event like this a success.
Many have been around over the years, while others are new to the scene like Connie Dubreuil.
“This is my first year. I’m loving the music. It’s amazing, and I’m really enjoying driving people around in this golf cart, so they don’t have to walk far with their canes and that kind of stuff. And they like it too,” said Dubreuil.
“They seem to enjoy it because they’ve been coming here many years, and there’s a lot of people from out of town that keeps coming back. They tell me how much they enjoy it, that the fact it’s free.”
It all wraps up Sunday between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.