It’s the kind of epiphany that usually only happens to Kevin Costner in a cornfield.
For Minneapolis bluegrass band Pert’ Near Sandstone, creating the Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire seemed like the natural next step in a history of cultivating showcases aimed at supporting old time, roots, and Americana music in the city. After forming over a decade ago, the band began curating specialty shows, inviting local performers they loved and others they met on the road, eventually creating a Cedar Cultural Center event.
Still, holding a festival was a horse of a different color. But when the people behind Country Jam USA, which owns Whispering Pines Campground in Eau Claire, approached Pert’ Near Sandstone about doing something bigger, it was as though the band heard a voice saying “If you build it, he will come.”
That three-day festival has since seen the likes of Shovels & Rope, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Del McCoury Band play its stages. This year, Punch Brothers, Greensky Bluegrass, and Drive-By Truckers headline. Blue Ox might seem to be in competition with the festival conceived and curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner, Eaux Claires – both appeared three years ago, after all. But Pert’ Near Sandstone mandolinist Nate Sipe believes everything stokes the region’s creative spirit. He spoke with us ahead of Blue Ox.
City Pages: Blue Ox is entering its third year, so it’s something of a toddler now. How is it growing up?
Nate Sipe: It’s still got a couple stumbles here and there, but it’s growing its own teeth. The analogies could go on. For the first year, people were so excited and had this vision of it being the thing to replace 10,000 Lakes Festival, or that this could have the spirit of Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It’s becoming a staple for people’s summers. We’re still pinching ourselves that we’re even involved with it, let alone being the ones to pick the bands. If anything, we’re still figuring out how to throw the festival of our dreams. It’s definitely made strides, but it could always be improved upon as well.
CP: Rather than curating competition between stages and time slots, everything seems designed to offer community. Still, do you hope to see that community get bigger?
NS: Personally, I hope what we see at the festival this year is the right amount of people. At that level, you’re still able to recognize people; you’re still able to meet the people that you’re camping with and form those really tight bonds with them. If it gets any bigger than that, people build barriers in themselves and maybe don’t act as friendly. Not that that’s a rule once a festival gets too big, but it’s easier to be anonymous when it’s a larger festival, so people don’t spend as much time meeting new people and building friendships. Where we came up as a band, we really enjoyed that aspect of the music scene.
CP: Right, you’ve mentioned the camaraderie in previous interviews.
NS: The artists are inseparable from the attendees, which in my mind makes the music. Minneapolis is a small town: You see people around, you know where to go to see music every night of the week. It’s not a hard thing to navigate, and I think that spirits finds its way into Blue Ox pretty well.
CP: Do you think it’s specifically a bluegrass or Americana tradition that creates a specific sense of community?
NS: Part of the folk music element is that it’s people’s music; it’s the working class that made music to entertain themselves and as a way to relax at the end of the day. When we first started going to bluegrass festivals, like the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-TimeMusic Association Festival, we found that every campfire had a jam circle, and everybody was like, “Yeah, come on in!” You realize everybody is friends, and we’re all just here making music. It becomes eating and breathing more so than trying to be the next big thing or undercut other bands in the area.
CP: We’ve seen this rise in artist-cultivated festivals in recent years. Why was it important for PNS to cultivate some kind of showcase?
NS: As we gained popularity in Minneapolis, and specifically the Hexagon Bar and the Cabooze, we really saw the opportunity to bring in friends and throw a cool party with bands we’d been meeting around the country. All of a sudden we were bringing in bands from Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, harnessing this larger community. It’s been important to us because that gives us opportunities in their markets when we’re out on the road, of course, but really it’s hanging with buddies we’re meeting and…
CP: Throwing a party, like you said.
NS: Yeah, and introducing Minneapolis to new music. We called it our Old Time Music Showcase, and we’d do it with Charlie Parr, and the Front Porch Swinging Liquor Pigs, the DitchLilies -- our peers. We continued that into the Cedar Cultural Center. Now we do the Winter String Band Gathering. That’s turned into a whole West Bank party. It’s been a really organic process. When we had this offer from the Country Jam USA folks, it was just a step farther in the direction we were already going natural.
CP: The genres differ, but do you ever feel in competition with Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires? You both popped up the same year.
NS: The first year it was two weeks after ours, and now it’s the weekend after. If anything, it’s inspiring me. Their festival is such a cool thing. Where we maybe have live music jamming around the campground, they really do a great job of creating art installations and making an ambience. We’re definitely piggy backing on ideas they have, and hopefully they’re being influenced by us as well. I don’t think we’re crossing over too much on acts we want to book.
CP: No, not at all, but if Eaux Claires happens to take the spotlight away…
NS: I don’t think so. I think we’re both helping to create awareness of this incredible music scene that’s occurring in the upper Midwest. It’s a do-it-yourself mentality. We wouldn’t get the band we want to see touring through, so we had to start a festival. If anything, I think we’re working together in creating that.
CP: And PNS are about to embark on your first European tour?
NS: Yeah, I was trying to figure out what photo text translator to use on my phone when you called. We’re looking forward to that. We’re hitting some awesome festivals. For eight years we’ve been saying, “Let’s go to Europe,” and this year we finally said there’s nothing that’s going to stop us.
CP: I can’t wait to hear how it’s reflected in the songwriting.
NS: Oh, it already is and we’re not even there. Yeah, it’ll be interesting to be at a bluegrass festival in Rotterdam. I’m not quite sure what that scene’s going to be, but I’m sure it’ll be really cool.
Blue Ox Music Festival
With: Drive-By Truckers, Son Volt, Punch Brothers, Pert' Near Sandstone, and more; full listing here
Where: Eau Claire, Wisconsin
When: Thurs. June 8 - Sat. June 10
Tickets: $100-$185; more info here