FOR 10 DAYS IN JULY, Calgary throws down its two-step of frat party and Western fantasy. During Stampede, locals and tourists might rip it up with concerts (DJ Shadow, Weezer, New Kids on the…Block?), beer tents, bars, clubs, and cover bands on stage rocking Don’t Stop Believing.
Our car pulls up at an annual event called the Round Up, taking place at Fort Calgary. Classic Creedence is booming from loudspeakers: “I ain’t no fortunate son!” It’s a great sounding cover band…until I realize it’s actually old John Fogerty himself, and 15,000 people are going berserk.
I head into the crowd, where I get molested by women in cowboy hats. Ian steps on a bale of hay to get a photo of the crowds, and two women clutch at his skinny legs. There’s a bad moon rising, but it feels pretty good.
Nashville North is the seminal Stampede party, located on the Stampede grounds. It’s free to get into the massive tent, but expect to line up like steer in chutes. 2,000 people pack in every night to hear country, pop, and cover bands playing ’80s hits, pandering to the ultimate bar crowd.
I’m no country music fan, but I’m dressed like everyone else: boots, buckle, jeans, cowboy hat. Indie rock just wouldn’t fit.
The girls wear their own uniform: high leather boots, skin, tight jean shorts, loose shirt, straw hat. If you want to roll in the hay, it has thoughtfully been supplied. The drinking age in Alberta is 18 years old. Those American kids from Montana, North Dakota, and Washington don’t know what’s hit them. Weekdays tend to be younger at Nashville North, while on weekends there’s a wider age spread. Whenever you find yourself in the big tent, everybody wang chung tonight.
We forgo the 20,000sqft beer garden at The Whiskey downtown and head to Ranchmans, a year-round country-western bar, which booms during Stampede. Other clubs might throw on cowboy hats over skinny jeans, hipster haircuts, and sneakers this time of year, but this is the real deal.
We’re greeted with a huge lineup, and the promise of a mechanical bull. Photographs, saddles, and spurs of legendary cowboys line the walls. Here come the scantily clad Jagettes, looking forward to pouring gallons of Jagermeister down a smitten cowboy’s throat. A great cover band is busting out singalong ’80s hits (Jessie’s Girl, Jack and Diane) interspersed with country gold. A couple of professional dancers take the stage, twirling each other like batons.
For city slickers like myself, it’s like being at a fun wedding, completely devoid of pretension. A middle-aged couple is laughing and dancing next to a group of students. Country music line dances across the generation gap.
We finish up at Cowboys, adjacent to the Stampede grounds, where you can watch the Big Show’s impressive daily fireworks from the outdoor beer garden. This massive party tent opens up specifically for Stampede, and is several rungs above Nashville North. Lasers, giant screens linked to social media accounts (“#calgarystampede Can some ladies teach me how to two step?”), even Vegas-style corporate boxes on the upper level.
Top 40 and country hits fade in the later hours, replaced by banging house and techno. I step past couples making out with the ferocity of teenagers in a dark closet, and the overall impression I have is: Man, I wish I’d discovered this place in college; also: It’s hard not to look hot in boots and a cowboy hat.
A girl walks over, puts her index finger on the front of my hat, pushes it down into the correct position, winks, and says, “Looking good, Cowboy!” Then she melts away into the crowd.