Here’s a great story about the power of bluegrass music. How many of us have thought that if only more people heard and experienced our music live, they would become instant fans. Well it appears that this works on business-minded music lovers as well.
We spoke this afternoon with Jim Bischel, who runs Country Jam USA, a large 3-day festival featuring live, outdoor stage performances from major country artists in Wisconsin. The event has been held successfully since 1990 with attendance in recent years running around 20,000 people each day.
Jim told me the story of how a chance encounter with a young bluegrass audience planted the seed that has led to the launch of a new bluegrass/roots music weekend, the Blue Ox Music Festival, on his property in Eau Claire.
According to Bischel, his son Mark, who is 29 years old and lives in Denver, is a huge bluegrass fan.
“Mark is passionate about the genre, and not only him, but all of his friends. They all travel to bluegrass events and share this deep passion for the music and the people.
In March of last year, my family and I went out to visit him, and Mark had our weekend planned. One thing he had for us was to see was The Travelin’ McCourys, with Pert Near Sandstone as the supporting act. It was a really neat experience, in an old, gothic theater. It was really interesting to see the crowd, how young and enthusiastic they were – but still with a wide range and mix in the audience.”
The idea of doing some sort of bluegrass event began to percolate in Jim’s mind, starting with the idea of hosting a separately-ticketed bluegrass stage during the Country Jam weekend. He reached out to Pert Near Sandstone who, as it happened, were based in the nearby twin cities of St Paul and Minneapolis, MN. Their manager, Mark Gehring, was immediately receptive to the idea and he and the band became de facto talent consultants for Jim, along with his son Mark.
After the 2014 Country Jam, Jim says that he walking through the campground thinking how they had this beautiful 75-acre property with roads, wooded areas, trails and a pond, and it was only utilized 4 days each year. That when he got to thinking, “why don’t we do a standalone festival for bluegrass?”
“I went out to visit our campground, and saw what a perfect concert spot we had in a bowl by the lake, so I walked it off to see how many people we could accommodate.”
As plans came together it was decided that Pert Near Sandstone would serve as the host band, and that a hydraulic stage with pro lighting would be brought in to accommodate the music. Vendors are being lined up now with the hope of serving between six and eight thousand people this first year. Food will be available from primarily local sources, with a special focus on regional craft beer brewers.
Jim said that the name came easily once they started thinking about it.
“Eu Claire area has a rich history of logging from back in the 1800s, and Paul Bunyan plays a big part in the folklore of the region – with his big blue ox, Babe. We wanted a name that tied it to the valley here, and something that would stand out among festival names.”
Entertainers booked for Blue Ox range from the Del McCoury Band and Sam Bush to Yonder Mountain String Band and The Infamous Stringdusters. Bischel said that he wanted to include some bluegrass, some roots-oriented acts, and some Americana in this first event.
And all because he watched the passion for the music being expressed by an eager audience in Denver.
Everything will take place June 11-13, 2015. The complete lineup is posted online.