Being a fan of bluegrass and Americana music, Blue Ox Music Festival has been on my radar for a few years, but it wasn’t until this year that I was able to actually experience it. The lineup for the festival consistently boasts some of the biggest names making their way around the festival circuit these days in this particular genre of music. Festival organizers include acts that have been around for decades, as well as up-and-coming and even local artists that are able to also hold their own amongst the musical heavyweights like Del McCoury and Jerry Douglass.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Set in the western part of Wisconsin on a beautiful (and quite large) piece of property, nature is also a headliner at the 3-day festival. In the short time that was spent there, I was able to witness an amazing sunset, survive a surprising and intense rainstorm, and be put to sleep at night to the sounds of frogs and crickets while staring at the countless stars shining bright. Wandering around the festival site, there were signs of the season all around, and enjoyable temperatures for late Spring that were equally as accommodating to jeans and a t shirt as they were to a summer sundress.
One of the best parts about not only the close proximity of stages, but also the schedule, is that there is minimal down time between band sets and that, unless you need to return to your campsite for something, you have almost no reason to miss any of the music. Something else that many festivals now plan for is the crowd that doesn’t want the music to end when the main stage shuts down. Blue Ox has implemented a great solution to this by setting up their late-night stage in the camp site, allowing attendees who won’t stop dancing, to enjoy sounds for a few extra hours.
While the lineup boasts some heavy hitters and attendance is up there in numbers, the layout and set up of the festival grounds allows for easy access to food, merchandise, bathrooms, and both stages where music is played without much walking needed in between. Plenty of trees provide endless available shade, and allow for a hammock setup both in the campgrounds and near the main stage. Tents can be pitched in areas where you won’t be ejected from your temporary home in the first hours of morning, due to the sun sweating you out the door, desperate for a breeze.
Being able to see bands like Fruition and The Lil Smokies on the same bill as The Dead South and Old Salt Union made for a great time in Wisconsin. Just when you thought you’d seen Horseshoes and Hand Grenades give it everything they got during their set, you were able to see them really come alive on the late-night stage day two. Joining them on the list of bands who absolutely shined day and night, were also members of Pert Near Sandstone, the band that plays host to the festival. After being such gracious hosts and agreeing to give up one of their set times so that another band was able to play after a bit of a delay due to weather, you could also see them sharing the late night stage with several of the other acts as well.
Always an absolute DELight to see live is The Del McCoury band. Del himself has a contagious smile that never seems to leave his face, and a demeanor that is great to have onstage at any festival, as he seems to spread the love and enthusiasm to everyone there. After the surprising weather hit and then cleared just as quickly – thanks to the amazing and swift action of staff, organizers and volunteers – The Travelin McCoury’s took the side stage (a last minute change) to put on a tribute to Sam Bush who, unfortunately, was still not up to attending after a medical issue a few weeks back.
THE BLUE OX EXPERIENCE
For me, there were also introductions to bands that I had never gotten to see live, and each and every one of them is going to remain on my radar for a show in my area. The side stage was filled with talent, showcasing what half the fun is in coming to something like this. We may buy tickets because we love Railroad Earth, but when we get to see a band like The People Brothers Band, who showed us a great time Saturday on the side stage, we return home spreading the word of new music and that makes it even more worthwhile.
While there are some attributes that I mention in this article that I definitely don’t miss about the festival scene, here at Blue Ox, there are others that I welcome with open arms, and frankly, wouldn’t want to do without. One of those is the light show. Blue Ox isn’t one of the huge festivals that have some elaborate set up as far as lights and special effects, but the fact didn’t escape them how much lighting adds to any festival. The main stage offers plenty of color and movement, but the late-night stage is really where they shine on this matter. Having colored ground lights painting the trees green, red, blue, and yellow, the late-night crowd is guided straight to the place they want to be. And the colors continue to fuel their dancing feet into the wee hours of the late-night sets.
Each time I attend a festival, I enjoy the fact that I communicate less with the outside world. I don’t check my phone nearly as often to see who has or hasn’t commented on my last post, or replied to an email I sent about something work-related. I reveled in that fact at Blue Ox. There weren’t lights from cell phones constantly illuminating the faces in the crowd. People didn’t seemed nearly as concerned about capturing Billy Strings’ set on Instagram so all their friends could see.
Additionally, something I find that makes the crowd even more involved in the actual music, is the fact that there were no screens at the sides of the stage projecting the musicians into 25-foot digital monsters. For festivals that have twenty or thirty thousand coming to see their lineups, yes, that is a common courtesy for the folks in the back. However, I find it less distracting to be able to actually watch (and see) the artists onstage and not onscreen. To be able to look at your neighbor and not have them involved in their ‘technology,’ and instead actually look back at you and smiling, knowing that you were both enjoying living in the moment, there’s just something about it that makes memories more worth holding on to.
At Blue Ox, the attendees aren’t just fans of music, but musicians themselves. I know that many do, but there is only one other festival that I’ve attended where fireside picking is so prominent, and it is so very welcome here and there. Not only do contained fires at campsites allow for some great smells at all hours of the day as folks fry bacon and boil their morning coffee, but it also welcomes neighbors for a bite or a song. This is truly one of my favorite things about what I got to experience this past weekend. The friendliness and love for music that extends from the stage into the campgrounds and truly never sleeps.
Blue Ox Music Festival turned out to be an experience that I will never forget, and I appreciate the hard work of everyone involved. I will forever hold a special place in my heart for, and be reminded of nothing but good times, whenever I hear someone speaking with a Wisconsin accent.
Photos courtesy of Ty Helbach and Kyle Lehman.