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The Show Must Go On: Country North Celebrates 50 Years Via Online Show

With the Prince Albert Winter Festival's 50th annual Country North show just a few days away, we caught up with Executive Producer and Big Drum Media co-founder Barry Mihilewicz. Mihilewicz has been involved in Country North in various rolls for decades. Seeing as it's a bit of a different year due to COVID19, we felt it was especially important to chat with Mihilewicz on a variety of topics related to the production side of the show. For ease of reading, Barry's answers to our questions will be in red.

NSMZ: Tell me a little bit about Big Drum Media and your personal history with the Country North Show.

Barry Mihilewicz: I founded Big Drum Media was founded in 2000 with Jason Moon. My son Joel MIhilewicz replaced Jason Moon in 2011. We do sound, lighting and video production for a variety of events and clients in Prince Albert and area, including the Winter Festival (2010 - present) and the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL.

I was the sound man for several Country North Shows in the 80's and 90's. I also played in the backup band in 1983 (pedal steel guitar and keyboards). I returned to do sound and lighting for the Show in 2010, also serving as Producer in 2013, 2014 and 2020. I also served as President of the Winter Festival from 2015 - 2019, and am currently the Winter Festival Coordinator.

Joel was the show's lighting director from 2010 - 2015. He is making his second consecutive appearance as a singer this year, having previously performed as a singer in the Rock Show. He is the Video Director for all the Big Drum produced shows this year.

NSMZ: Who do you have in the backup band this year?

Mihilewicz: The backup band is comprised of all local musicians, led by Dennis Adams (guitar and pedal steel), Mick Gratias (keyboards), Dean Kushneryk (drums), Gary Johnson (bass), Kerri English (fiddle and mandolin) and Terry Lasko (guitar), along with backup vocalists Kim Villeneuve and Nancy Hagen. The Show Producer is Kim Villeneuve NSMZ: What challenges in producing this year's show have you faced this year due to the pandemic and how did you overcome them?

Mihilewicz: The strict protocols mandated by Sask. Public Health made it impossible to rehearse and perform the show as we have done in past years. We made a decision to record the show in advance, bringing in one singer at a time to minimize contact between individuals. Masks were worn by everyone, including the singers, which made it much more difficult for the sound guy, not to mention the performers who had to contend with restricted breathing due to the masks. We did not share microphones and carefully sanitized after each singer. In an effort to allow a connection between artist and audience, we recorded interviews with each singer without their masks, which was within health protocols because it was talking, not singing. NSMZ: What is the significance of the country north show in your estimation? Why was it important to move forward with a "show must go on" mentality this year during the pandemic? Mihilewicz: The Winter Festival receives significant funding from Canadian Heritage each year. Their mandate is to support local artists, so we worked together with them to develop contingency plans in the event that we could not hold a normal event. When it became apparent that we could not perform in front of live audiences, we decided to do the shows virtually. It was particularly important for the Country North Show to keep going in spite of the pandemic because the show has been running continuously for 50 years. We also felt that it was important to provide a showcase for local talent, given that there hasn't been much opportunity for local artists to get on stage.

NSMZ: Who are some of the more notable singers from past years that have perhaps used the show to springboard themselves to new heights? Mihilewicz: Randall Currie (steel guitar player in Brad Paisley's band), Rod Janzen (played with Dierks Bentley and Tanya Tucker, currently a producer in Nashville), and Donny Parenteau (solid local career following many years with Neil McCoy), have gone on from the Country North Show to play in Nashville. Many other singers have launched Saskatchewan careers from the show (Tim Toutant, Kelsey Fitch, Doyle Ironstand, Nancy Hagen, etc.), appearing at Craven and other big festivals. NSMZ: Who are some of the singers you have in this year's show and what singers are you looking forward to? Mihilewicz: Carmen Robertson is a local singer who has been involved with the Country North Show for 30 years. Nancy Hagen and this year's producer, Kim Villeneuve are perennial favourites. Maurice Villeneuve, who performed in the show in the 70's makes a guest appearance. Kim's daughter, Jaelyn Furber is an up and comer to watch, as is Brooke Andrews. The young talent in this city is amazing!!! NSMZ: Do you have any other thoughts on the show?

Mihilewicz: Big Drum Media built a set at the PA Exhibition Centre, where the Rock Show, Youth Extravaganza, Country North Show, Reunion Show and Voices of the North were pre-recorded, with myself as Executive Producer and Joel as Director. The shows are being streamed on YouTube. All previously broadcast shows can be viewed on the Prince Albert Winter Festival YouTube channel. The Country North shows airs at 7:00 pm on Thursday, Feb. 18, while the 50th Reunion Show airs at 7:00 pm on Saturday, Feb. 20. The Winter Festival ends with the Gospel Show, livestreamed from the EA Rawlinson Centre at 7:00 pm on Sunday, Feb. 21.

Thanks Barry for your time!

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