The Story of Blue Ox Music Festival

The story of the Blue Ox Music Festival begins with a perfect storm. On one side you have the Bischel family who for the past 30 years have been planning, operating and executing music festivals, nationwide. On the other side, Pert Near Sandstone, whose nearly 15 years playing bluegrass music across the country has accumulated in loyal fans, a love of the bluegrass community and well, some pretty famous friends. These two worlds collided on a fateful day outside of Denver, Colorado, almost 1,000 miles away and 5,000 feet above Eau Claire, WI, home of the Blue Ox Music Festival.

Pert Near’s Kevin Kniebel recalled the night as if it were yesterday. “We were on tour with The Travelin’ McCoury’s out in Colorado at the Gothic Theater outside of Denver, it so happened that [the Bischels] were there the same night visiting their son. When we got home from that tour, I got a call from our manager a little confused asking… did you guys meet some guy out there? Something about a bluegrass festival? Is this a real thing?”

Pert Near Sandstone backstage at the Cedar Cultural Event Center in Minneapolis during their Annual Winter String Band Gathering in February 2019: Justin Bruhn (Bass), Matt Cartier (Clogs), J. Lenz (Guitar), Kevin Kniebel (Banjo), Nate Sipe (Mandolin/Fiddle)

It was then, bandmate J. Lenz jumped in with a deep chuckle, “Yea, that was kind of my fault” he recalls of the encounter. “I was working the merch table that night and this guy came to the table talking about doing a bluegrass festival or something and I was like, ok buddy, just put your name on the email list and we will get back to ya. I mean, these things come up, I guess you never really know.”

As the boys from Pert Near Sandstone were piecing the encounter together, what they didn’t realize just yet was that man was Jim Bischel, the Bischel family patriarch whose experience at the show had sparked a genuine interest in an opportunity. “Being at that bluegrass show for the first time was really eye-opening for me.” Jim says of the experience, “I was sitting at the bar talking to a guy who was my age, and out on the dance floor were 20 somethings and 30 somethings dancing, everyone getting along and having a great time. It was just different and not what I was used to.”

The Bischel Family at Blue Ox Music Festival headquarters: (from left to right) Tony Bischel, Jim Bischel and Mark Bischel

Jim’s first experience with the bluegrass community was due in large part to the “musical black sheep” of the family, his son Mark Bischel. Mark had been skipping out on the family’s country music festivals in the past to attend Telluride. Mark says with a smirk, “I think the only [Country Jam] in Colorado I actually went to was the year I missed out on tickets to Telluride.” Jim had seen first hand the loyalty and dedication that Mark and his friends had to bands in the bluegrass scene. People from all over the country come together at Telluride and Mark was often running into fellow Midwesterners, who realized that there was nothing of the sorts back home.

Up to this point, the Bischel’s festivals were primarily in the commercial country space with Country Jam USA, which was held in various markets throughout the country. Coming back from Colorado, Jim originally conceived a plan to potentially have Pert Near Sandstone support and coordinate a bluegrass centric stage at Country Jam in Eau Claire. Jim being the business mind behind these festivals felt that a support stage would be turnkey, he recalls what was running through mind, “I thought, we had the stages, we had a festival running, we could have one stage dedicated to bluegrass and all we would need to pay for is the talent and potentially sell maybe a thousand additional tickets. However, I remember Mark mentioning that it might not be a good mix.”

With Pert Near Sandstone now in the conversation, the opportunity to go from a support stage to a full-on bluegrass centric festival was more of a reality. Kevin Kniebel knew it early on once budgets were in the picture, “Commercial country budgets are in a whole ‘nother stratosphere, we knew with that kind of budget we could put on a great bluegrass festival.” The Bischel’s were ready to begin a new chapter in their festival legacy, Pert Near Sandstone had been ready, wanting to hold a proper jamboree with them and their roster of musical counterparts. With that, it was time to organize a proper bluegrass music festival together right here in the Midwest.

So they did.

Whispering Pines Campground in Eau Claire, Wisconsin – Home of the Blue Ox Music Festival. Photo: Scotify, 2018

They had a location with Whispering Pines which the Bischel family owns and operates and have been utilizing as a beautiful, outdoor event space. It wasn’t a hard sell either. “When we gave their manager the tour of the campground, I think he made the call to the band on the spot,” Jim says of the first encounter. The boys of Pert Near were not far behind. Even before getting deep into planning, fiddle player Nate Sipe was sold, “What sealed it for me was just seeing the property. The rolling hills, and the pines, it’s beautiful, it was made for bluegrass.” With the backdrop in place, Nate and the boys began curating acts that would fit the bill. A task bestowed upon them for the past 5 years and a testament to their own talent and the relationships they have built on the road.

The first year of the Blue Ox Music Festival brought together a collection of regional and national acts that really set the stage for years to come. 2015 saw Yonder Mountain String Band, Del McCoury, Greensky Bluegrass, Charlie Parr and many more. The following years saw the same string of talent that included Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Drive-By-Truckers, Shovels and Rope, Tyler Childers, Son Volt – the list goes on.

Pert Near Sandstone performing on the Main Stage. Photo: Scotify, 2018

Many acts have come back year over year including Sam Bush, the Jeff Austin Band and of course – The Travelin’ McCoury’s who will forever be ingrained in the origin of the festival. The music is a key part of the success and why Blue Ox may just be Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s best-kept secret. Even Jim Bischel, a man who has booked 10s of millions of dollars of A-List talent in his time with Country Jam recognized how special the artists for Blue Ox are, “We have more Grammy-winning artist that come here for Blue Ox than the other events where we bring in 20 or 25 thousand people a day, millions of dollars per act. We have more world-class, talented, professional artists at Blue Ox.”

It’s not just the talent that has made the Blue Ox Music Festival successful, for both Pert Near and the Bischel’s it comes down to  – “A. Number one. The audience.” as Pert Near’s Justin Bruhn puts it, “I mean it’s the Midwest vibe, they know how to get down, enjoy a festival and they love the music.” Even Jim who has encountered millions of music fans over the years said with a smile, “I think I am more a fan of the bluegrass fan than I am of the actual music.”

Eager fans crowding the festival bowl. Photo: Scotify, 2018

The love and respect for the fans attending Blue Ox is a driving force for the organizers and it goes into every detail of the experience. Mark Bischel describes the festival as “a place where people from all over the country get together and it’s like a family reunion. Comradery, the music, all while being able to camp in the woods, and not a big dusty field -is special. It all comes together as a comfortable, easy to attend festival.”

Beyond the months of planning, the coordinating of vendors, talent and logistics of entertaining 4,000 music fans – one thing that is out of everyone’s control is Mother Nature. That first year the Bischel’s and Pert Near got a taste of what she has to offer. Down pouring rain, puddles, mud piles – to the outside world it was a mess but to the fans, it was an opportunity.  Mark recalls watching the fans take on the weather, “I mean that first year, people were running around with their shirts off, jumping around in the mud, they took it all in stride.” Recalling the fans reaction to the weather, Nate Sipe noted, “Even with the weather, there was no stopping the fans, no one let it get them down.” With the first year in the books, despite the atmospheric adversity – the team knew they had something special in the festival and in the fans.

Aerial shot of the fans in the glow of the Main Stage. Photo: Scotify, 2018

Pert Near Sandstone and The Bischel Family have collaborated to bring the aura of large national festivals to their own backyard, ensuring a fan-centric experience. That fan-centric approach begins with listening to the fans and adjusting accordingly. The organizers of Blue Ox listen and they truly care. It was apparent during our visit to Whispering Pines as the youngest of the Bischel crew, Tony Bischel, was fielding calls from his cell phone during our interview.

Tony says, “We take everything personal. People make an investment to come to Blue Ox, so we truly take considerations from the fans. We try to make it better for them, try to improve it where we can.” If you have ever called up the office line in the past, you may recognize Tony’s voice, “Our office line is me,” he says with a laugh, “you are going to talk to a real person whether you like it or not. Weeks leading up to the festival, we will have 30 or 40 voicemails a day waiting for us when we come in, and we answer every single one.”

Blue Ox Music Festival Owner Jim Bischel (left) and festival Booking Manager Mark Gehring (right) all smiles on festival grounds. Photo: Scotify, 2018

If you are eager to prep your mind, body, and soul for Blue Ox this year, you can tune into the “Road to Blue Ox Podcast” that Nate Sipe and Justin Bruhn have taken lead on recently. “We want to provide a preview for the festival, highlight the artists and what people can expect,” Justin says of the podcast. “We hope it’s a fun, different way to approach promotion for the festival.” The podcast will bring fans in-depth coverage leading up to the festival including interviews with this year’s acts and up to date information on the music, vendors and everything you need to make this year a memorable one.

There has been a recipe with the Blue Ox Music Festival that has made it an enjoyable experience for thousands of music fans each year. This year fans can expect that same experience, comfortable camping quarters, a beautiful setting (rain or shine) and of course incredible music – day and night.

Late Night Backwoods Stage – Blue Ox Music Festival. Photo: Ty Helbach, 2018

This year, your bluegrass experience can go even deeper with Minnesota’s own Pot Luck String Band. Masters of ceremonies coordinating the “Potluck Pickin’ Place.” Bring your guitar, your banjo, mandolin or simply a song to the bonfire and jam into the night with like-minded musicians. This is a great opportunity to make new friends and even new bandmates as pickers from around the campground will now have a central location for jamming, sharing songs or simply to enjoy the music. Fans of all ages and skill levels will also have the opportunity to get involved in music workshops that will also be available during the festival.

The Bischel Family and Pert Near Sandstone are both seasoned veterans in their respective industries and the fact that the universe brought them together is as special as the festival itself. Music fans from all over the country get to enjoy the fruits of their labor for 3 nights this summer as the 5th Annual Blue Ox Musical Festival kicks off on June 13th in Eau Claire, WI at the Whispering Pines Campground.

To experience it for yourself, visit for tickets, camping options, vendor information (big ups to Bell’s Brewery for fueling the party), and a list of this year’s performers. For even more, be sure to tune in to the ‘Road to Blue Ox Podcast’ brought to you by the boys from Pert Near Sandstone and follow the crew on your social media channel of choice! @blueoxmusicfestival / @pertnearsandstone

We will see you there.