North Dakota’s music festivals: ND Country Fest, Keplinfest and Polka Fest

“Everyone knows where that cow is,” Luke Shafer, ND Country Fest founder and owner, says of Salem Sue.

Dubbed the “World’s Largest Holstein Cow,” Salem Sue is a 12,000-pound, 38-foot-tall fiberglass likeness of the milk-producing animal. She greets visitors to New Salem from a hill overlooking the Morton County Fairgrounds, just off Interstate 94. And since 2017, she’s also kept a watchful eye over attendees of North Dakota’s fast-growing country musical festival, ND Country Fest.

Neal McCoy performs for a daytime crowd at ND Country Fest 2018. Courtesy photo

Neal McCoy performs for a daytime crowd at ND Country Fest 2018. Courtesy photo

 Traditional Métis/Michif music traditions are celebrated at Keplinfest. Courtesy photo
Dancers cover the floor at Hankinson’s Polka Fest. Courtesy photo

A Bismarck native and North Dakota State University Bison football alum, Shafer saw a void in the state’s music scene.

“There’s some things that just never came to North Dakota,” Shafer said. One of those, he thought, was a large-scale music festival. “That bugged me bad.”

“Why can’t something like this (music festival) exist in North Dakota?” Shafer asked himself. “North Dakota deserves something like this.”

And so, Shafer set out on a mission, making phone calls, investing time, doing the research, and perhaps most importantly, assembling the right team.

Corey Bliss, a 23-year veteran of the music festival industry with demonstrated success in managing festivals in the region, joined with ND Country Fest in January 2018.

“I did my homework, research, before I signed on with (ND Country Fest),” Bliss says. “I did some inquiring with the bands, and some folks that I knew attended, and asked, ‘How was it for you?’”

The response was positive, and Bliss knew the budding festival presented “a ton of opportunity and potential.”

Bliss’ pulse was right. Since Michael Ray headlined ND Country Fest’s inaugural year, the event has experienced significant growth. Jake Owen, Travis Tritt and The Charlie Daniels Band are some of the announced acts for 2019.

“It’s been really amazing to see that growth and hype year-to-year,” Bliss says. “There’s such a huge buzz about this event in North Dakota.”

That excitement extends beyond state lines. People from 23 different states attended the 2018 festival, which is “unheard of in the festival world,” Bliss says.

Over 30 states are represented in the pool of ticket purchasers for the 2019 event, says John Gourley, who joined the ND Country Fest team as marketing director earlier this year.

“In terms of already being a tourism destination and the festival having an amazing reputation, (out-of-state ticket purchases), I think, speak volumes, in terms of what we already have in place,” Gourley says.

“We consider ourselves a boutique festival,” Bliss explains, because ND Country Fest is still relatively small in comparison to festivals around the country. That size allows organizers to be responsive to fans and festival-goers, making tweaks and adding elements along the way.

“We’re really plugged into the people who have been to the show, and people who have heard about it, but haven’t made it yet,” Gourley says.

Air-conditioned bathrooms, single-day and VIP ticket sales, music in the campgrounds, new vendors and a beanbag tournament are all changes that have been instituted from gathered feedback.

“The beauty of this show is that you can really plan each and every day precisely the way you want to experience it,” Gourley says.

But there are some identity features that have earned their keep and, truly, become part of the fabric of ND Country Fest. Staffing, local artists and affordability add to the festival’s uniqueness.

“Ninety-five percent of our labor is volunteer,” Bliss says. Volunteers staff the festival in a variety of capacities – parking and campground attendants, traffic controllers, concert area and gate staff, cleanup and production/backstage crew – and, in turn, raise money for their local organizations.

“Last year, we gave just below $17,000 to all the organizations and nonprofits that helped us. We couldn’t do this … without all of the volunteers,” Shafer says.

Another way ND Country Fest gives back is by providing a bigger stage for local artists to display their talent.

“We feel strongly that North Dakota has a lot of hidden talent,” Bliss says. “To have an event or venue that can highlight that at a high level, on the big stage, we’re really proud of that.”

Local acts Blind Joe, Brianna Helbling and Silverado are set to take the stage in 2019.

“It gives (local artists) a chance to really flex their muscle and show their ‘A’ game. When they get up there on the big stage and knock it out of the park, that’s what takes you to the next level,” Gourley says.

Bliss and Gourley agree that the affordability aspect of ND Country Fest is one of the draws, too.

“On an economic level, it’s the most affordable way to see the most talent,” Bliss says. “It’s an incredible bargain,” Gourley adds. “It is a fraction of what you’d probably spend just going to a regular show in one of the major markets.”

As ND Country Fest grows, Bliss says affordability will continue to be a priority.

“Our focus, and our emphasis, is to really just keep this the most affordable music festival that there is in the Upper Midwest,” Bliss says.
Where ND Country Fest will be in the next five or 10 years is unknown. Its useful life will be determined by the support it receives and the folks who attend. But for the moment, “the sky’s the limit,” Bliss says.

While some features may change or once headliners fade in popularity, Bliss, Gourley and Shafer agree on one key selling point – there’s just something about a music festival and seeing music outdoors.

“It’s got that flair to it – the sights and sounds and smells. It’s that state fair atmosphere with an emphasis on the music,” Bliss concludes.

And it has the cow, too.

•    July 11-13
•    Morton County Fairgrounds, New Salem
•    Admission: Weekend passes and single-day tickets available online
•    Camping: Purchase camp admission/campsite ticket online
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Nestled in the Turtle Mountains of north central North Dakota, a festival that combines culture and music, heritage and harmony, is getting noticed. In 2012, Mike and Sharon Keplin, along with their family, created Keplinfest, a music festival near Belcourt.

“The creation of Keplinfest came from the idea of developing a family-oriented music festival, based on our Métis/Michif ancestors and their music lifestyle,” Mike explains.

“We wanted to share that beautiful music tradition for everyone to enjoy,” Sharon adds.

Those Métis/Michif music traditions are rooted in fiddle-playing and dancing the Red River Jig, the most famous Métis dance. Additionally, Keplinfest also features country music entertainment.

The music festival experience is enhanced by the grounds, Sunnyside Trails, which the Keplin family developed on a portion of their own property 7 miles west of Belcourt. Sunnyside Trails, served by North Central Electric Cooperative, includes expansive primitive RV and tent camping, a stage and dancing facilities, craft and food vending, and 3 miles of nature trails.

Named an “event to watch” by N.D. Tourism, the eighth annual Keplinfest will be held Aug. 2-3. The Keplins promise “awesome hospitality” in addition to a great atmosphere.

“We are excited for another year of great music, lots of fiddling, singing and dancing for everyone,” Mike says.

•    Aug. 2-3 | Daily music, noon – 10:30 p.m.
•    3750 BIA Road 10, Belcourt
•    Admission: $25 per day for adults, $10 per day for persons 12-18, free for children 12 and under
•    Camping: $20 per night, primitive RV and tent camping
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Hankinson, in the southeastern corner of North Dakota, is rolling out the barrel of fun again this year. The community will welcome polka enthusiasts to town for two full days of live music, June 7-8.

“Polka Fest began six years ago at the urging of some local snowbirds who enjoy the winter polka festivals in Arizona and Texas,” says Julie Falk, Polka Fest organizing committee member.

Five popular polka bands, including Matt Hodek’s Dakota Dutchmen, the Larry Olsen Band, Barefoot Becky & the Ivanhoe Dutchmen, Malek’s Fishermen Band and Julie Lee and her White Rose Band, will keep the music going daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Two different dance floors, one in the newly opened Hankinson Community Center and the other under an adjacent outdoor tent, will invite polka dancers to cut a rug.

“The Hankinson Polka Fest has grown each year. Last year’s event drew attendees from around the region and across the United States, including dancers from 21 different states,” Falk says. “Some came from as far away as California, Washington, Vermont, Virginia, Louisiana and Mississippi.”

With many out-of-staters traveling to Hankinson for the occasion, community members rally together to provide a full, hospitable music experience. An organized group of community ambassadors volunteer to greet guests, direct parking, provide concessions and meals, and assist with event setup and cleanup.

As a previous attendee remarked, through feedback from a suggestion box at Polka Fest, “Everyone working together and with such concern and kindness makes it come together. Old and young run their legs off to make this event very pleasurable.”

•    June 7-8  | Daily music, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
•    Downtown Hankinson
•    Admission: $20 per day or $30 for a two-day pass
•    Camping: Free RV parking available, no hookups
•    Kick-Off Party: June 6, 7-11 p.m. | $10 admission | Music by Larry Rysavy
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Cally Peterson is editor of North Dakota Living. She can be reached at