Before we dive into our experience at this year’s Blue Ox Music Festival, we want to send out our condolences to the friends and family of the late Jeff Austin. The news of his untimely passing hit during the editing of this piece and hit hard. Weeks ago, we were mere feet from Jeff as he put on one of his final shows. He was a pillar in the bluegrass community and the reason many artists we enjoyed that weekend even picked up a stringed instrument.
As a founding member of Yonder Mountain String Band, his work changed the genre forever. To this day “Half Moon Rising” still takes me back to my youth when life was much simpler. As life becomes more complicated, his music still brings me peace of mind. For those who are able, we encourage you to donate to the Jeff Austin Family Fund – in hopes of bringing that same peace to those who mourn his untimely death. – Andy
On June 13th Adam and Andy hit the road from Detroit to Eau Claire, WI to take in all the Blue Ox Music Festival had to offer. Upon arrival, we checked in with bags and cameras in tow, slapped on those backstage passes and were ready for the weekend of a lifetime. The next 72 hours of our lives were a whirlwind of incredible music, great food, cold beer and above all… wonderful people. From the bands to the vendors, the fans to the stage crews we landed in the middle of a bluegrass family reunion.
We arrived around midday on the first day of the festival, 4 hours prior to the first act hitting the stage. We chose to park in the lot rather than navigate the grounds but even with our campsite on the other side – it was a short walk. We greeted out hosts who escorted us to our pre-set camp, an option available to any festival goer. The “Grand Tour” set up from Festival Outfitters had our Eureka tent all set up with two cots, camping chairs and coffee ready for us as we dumped our gear. Throughout the weekend, they provided snacks, ice and a warm fire each night. A big shout out goes to Nick Stelmack and his team for providing such a comfortable stay for us. This is a great option for anyone looking to pack light and enjoy a few extra amenities throughout the weekend and available to all festivalgoers.
As we meandered through the gate to the back of the stage, we were greeted by Nate Sipe of Pert Near Sandstone who ensured we felt right at home. As we introduced ourselves to the staff and artists (and the Bell’s keg truck) we were making friends before we even sat down. Everyone was open, smiling and ready as we were to enjoy three days of music, camping, and friends.
Around that time, we could hear the slaps of a dobro off in the distance – which was our cue to head to the festival bowl. As Kansas City-based Grassfed hit the first notes of the festival, people began pouring out of their campsites and into the festival bowl. Blue Ox 2019 had officially begun.
Now for us, the weekend was a blur (and no, not because of said Bell’s keg trailer). There were so many moments that caused us to put the cameras down, to stop rushing around and take the moments in as fans, not as journalists. It would take a novel to write about each act as the sets each day run from 11:30 am to 2:00 am! There is something for everyone, so we will hit you off with some of our favorite moments and takeaways from this year’s festival. We also encourage you to make your own memories by joining the team in Eau Claire, WI for Blue Ox 2020!
They Still Got It
Even with all-access passes, we still found ourselves gravitating towards the corn hole boards and rye whiskey samples set up by Minneapolis based Tattersall Distilling. As Andy was giving Adam a free corn hole lesson, the crowd erupted – and even from 200 yards away we saw that undeniable glow of white hair crossing the stage.
The Del McCoury band had arrived for their set. We slammed the rye, ditched the bags and rushed for the main stage. It was there we got to experience Del McCoury in all his charm and glory. Something about seeing a legend in front of you never seems real, but there he was. Each song counted off into bluegrass classics and was maybe the tightest set we saw all weekend. His smile and banter charmed the crowd before lightning in the distance cut the set a few minutes short. Like many, we retreated to our tent and turned on a little “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” to ride out the storm.
On Saturday, we were resting our feet when we noticed a guy smiling and waving to everyone, with a pressed black suit draped over his arm. We realized quickly; it was none other than Jerry Douglas. Like a superhero he walked into the trailer and emerged in that crisp black suit, ready for action. He has an undeniable sound and as we were wiping down lenses and sipping down a two-hearted ale his dobro could be heard in the distance. As trucks poured mulch over the muddy ground, Mr. Douglas was providing narration through his dobro only a few feet in front of us. Like Del McCoury, these gents were seasoned professionals – a tight set and light banter showed us just what makes him king.
We leaned up against the stage as the banjo pulls for “Flint Hill Special” rang out across the speakers. Behind the scenes, you would think Jerry Douglas was running for office. Everyone knew him and he knew everyone, he was shaking hands and catching up with other artists, smiling ear to ear the whole time. What you see is what you get, off stage and on.
The Boys from Minnesota Still Represent
Minnesota is still on top as our favorite music community, across all genres. On Friday morning, we were in our tent eating a breakfast of beef jerky and Leinenkugel Originals when we heard the familiar sounds of Trampled By Turtles whose sound check turned into a mini-set of complete songs. It was a welcomed alarm-clock to many and again got the campgrounds into party mode.
Remember that lightning in the distance we talked about? Well, it carried with it a monsoon of wind and rain that drenched the grounds, blew over tents and had everyone running for cover. With nearly a two-hour delay, the weather had taken some wind out of the sail as people were staking down tents that had blown away, drying off belongings and taking shwasseau in the comfort of their tents. The crowd had dwindled a bit going into the evening, that is until Trampled took the stage. Their blend of atmospheric melodies and face shredding bluegrass were like jumper cables for everyone. The party was saved.
Being the Minnesota boys that they are, Pert Near Sandstone played Minnesota-nice and gave up their Friday night set to ensure TBT got the proper time (before they boarded the bus for Bonnaroo). With some pent-up energy, their Saturday night set was an absolute barn burner. Thousands filled the bowl as the hosts were able to finally let loose. It was well deserved, as most people did not see the active role they had in the coordination, decision making, and management of everything behind the scenes. They were working hard and playing hard and the release of everything on stage was felt by everyone.
Wisconsin On The Rise
While Minnesota got its due on the main stage, it was the bands from Wisconsin that kept us wanting more. It started the first night when Black River Revue (Superior, WI/Duluth, MN) hit the late night stage and kicked the party into high gear. It also helped that lead singer Adam Starhia’s ability to speak in Dumb and Dumber quotes allowed us to bond in a matter of minutes. We encourage all our readers to plug these guys in. This is one band to keep your eyes and ears out for in the coming years.
Them Coulee Boys put us in a meditative state as the vocals and harmonies of “I Won’t Be Defined” rang through the campground. It was a moment that everyone in attendance took home with them. They quickly ramped it up with the electric banjo of Beau Janke feeling at times like you were at a rock show. While we have been jamming to the boys for a couple of years now, their live set was really impressive giving us a newfound favorite and had us blasting their tunes all the way back to Michigan.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades was another Wisconsin based band that seemed to be everywhere that weekend. From their main stage set Thursday evening, late night stage Friday night and countless jam sessions in between, even backstage their blue bus was the place to be. The smiles and excitement people saw on stage was the same even behind the scenes. No matter when or where they were playing, beer was in hand and great music always followed. We also want to publicly thank them for the swigs of cold brew on Saturday – it was a fine blend and welcomed boost.
Old Friends and New
We walked away from the weekend having caught up with old friends and making even more new friends. Seeing our old pal Charlie Parr again was a big treat and felt it was time to go back on the record with him. We also sat down with Grassfed for a few slices of watermelon and an interview which we will be bringing to you soon.
Beyond just the artists, the backstage area was filled with journalists, festival crew, and guests that were all accommodating, friendly and enjoying their time in the Northwoods like anyone else. While all-access has its perks, being out with the crowd of festivalgoers is where we were most comfortable and will forever be the best seat in the house.
Overall, the Blue Ox Music Festival delivered on its promises. The ability to see some of the biggest names in bluegrass in a comfortable, well-managed space. It has a little something for everybody, whether it’s partaking in early morning yoga (which we did) or partying until the sun comes up (which we did too) Blue Ox is set up to be a memorable weekend surrounded by great people and even better music.
Do yourself a favor and keep your eyes and ears out for the 2020 announcement. This is an experience you won’t want to miss.
We will see you there.
MWG – Blue Ox Gallery