Rock the Park kicks off five nights of music with a night featuring some of the slick new stars of ‘hurtin’ music’

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The hottest genres of music right now are new country and hip hop, and Londoners will be able to see plenty of both at this week’s Rock the Park festival, a downtown mainstay at Harris Park since 2004. The five-night event kicks off Wednesday with Gone Country, a night dedicated to the hottest country acts headlined by trio Lady Antebellum.

John Winston, the head of Tourism London, calls London “a major country-music city.”

“There seems to be an insatiable desire for this musical format,” in London and Southwestern Ontario, Winston said.

“Country is a really, really hot genre. It is a genre that has an unlimiting quality to it,” he added of its appeal.

But gone are the days of acts like Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and Mel Tillis, replaced by groups whose musical licks are as slick and stylish as their YouTube videos. Heck, even Shania Twain has lost a step in the current market.

“It appeals to the average person. It’s sort of like a hybrid of country and rock and that’s the appeal,” Winston said of the modern incarnation of what was once known as country and western, “hurtin’ music.”

Gone Country, in its third year, features openers Jason Benoit, Brett Young and Kelsea Ballerini. Organizers says tickets are still available, either at Centennial Hall or down at the event along the Thames River.

Country is only part of the story. Rock the Park, originally established as a fundraiser for the Bethany’s Hope Foundation, this year offers something for everyone, including sets by Wiz Khalifia, Vanilla Ice, The Offspring and Alessia Cara.

But back to the country. Opening night at Rock the Park is just more proof of country music’s enduring presence in the Forest City, Winston said.

London has two radio stations devoted to the format. Musicians such as the Dixie Chicks and Brad Paisley have turned up at Budweiser Gardens.

Last September saw Winston and his team successfully woo the Canadian Country Music Awards to set up shop in London. Last month, the Country Music Association of Ontario Awards were hosted by Jason McCoy at Centennial Hall. Over the Canada Day weekend, the Trackside Music Festival at the Western Fair District brought crowds of country music lovers to hear the likes of big-name artists Dallas Smith, Kip Moore, Thomas Rhett and Brett Kissel.

Maybe the truth is that country, whether it’s true country or not, it’s simply good music to have a good time to.

“It’s usually a pretty good party vibe down there (at Harris Park),” said Myriah Kay, who is in charge of marketing for Rock the Park.

And although Rock the Park’s mission has changed, there is still a charity component to it. Its charity partners this year include Make-A-Wish Southwestern Ontario, Big Brothers Big Sisters of London & Area, the Brandon Prust Foundation, and Western Football. “To date, Rock the Park has now raised close to $2.7 million for local charities,” its website boasts.

Perhaps attesting to the ever-strong pull of nostalgia, the only night of Rock the Park that has sold out so far is Friday, which features nothing but acts who were big in the 1990s. Young MC? More like Middle Aged MC.

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Wednesday — Gone Country: Jason Benoit, Brett Young, Kelsea Ballerini, Lady Antebellum

Thursday — Casper the Ghost, DJ Mustard, Fetty Wap featuring Monty, Wiz Khalifa

Friday — I love the 90s: C+C Music Factory, Young MC, Colour Me Badd, All-4-One, Rob Base, Naughty by Nature, Salt n Pepa, Vanilla Ice (SOLD OUT)

Saturday — Bleeker, July Talk, Sublime with Rome, The Offspring

Sunday — Ryland James, Ruth B, Scott Helman, Alessia Cara, Marianas Trench

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