This reflection on the sense of community we all enjoy at bluegrass festivals is a contribution from Nate Sipe, mandolinist with Pert Near Sandstone. He also looks at how hosting and co-curating the lineup at the Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, WI has opened his eyes wider to the importance of maintaining it.
Bluegrass festivals are unique in that they attract an equal amount of attendees who are musicians themselves; festival-goers that enjoy making their own music in the campgrounds. The traditional cannon of stringband and folk music allows for a common repertoire—the campground music is very communal—with room for participation at all skill levels. Not to say there aren’t some heady jams in secret trailers, but in a general sense, there is an openness and a connectedness that is different from other types of festivals where people may be “performing” in the campground rather than having a community building experience.
And there’s a strong respect for the grounds and an appreciation for the production side of festivals, too. Whenever I talk about this gathering of all our friends in the north woods, I am tempted to over-use the word community, but that social engagement is the heart of folk music and the spirit of the bluegrass festivals. This is the same sort of setting where Pert Near Sandstone became a band, and we are eternally grateful that it continues in such a vibrant way around the country and that we’re able to travel this country making music that we love.
Blue Ox has given us the opportunity to showcase the great local bands from this region alongside new artists we have encountered in other pockets of the country. To us the festival is a continuation of this tradition of community building by connecting great people to great music. We are thrilled to bring music of this caliber of music to the upper Midwest at a festival that is family friendly and blessed to be set in such a beautiful campground. I think everyone involved was able to achieve a great balance between the music and the revelry, the campgrounds with the concert bowl, the family areas with the late night jams…we learned a ton from year one and still feel it is a dream come true as we head toward year two!
Most excited to see at Blue Ox 2016: The Del McCoury band is a favorite of mine, and I am glad they are back again. The pure sound of Del’s vocals along with the perfectly orchestrated machine of that traditional bluegrass band is phenomenal. They are true stewards of the Bill Monroe legacy that incredibly endures. They achieve the sound that first turned me onto the music and will forever associate in my mind the feeling of driving down a country dirt road during autumn. As sad and lonesome as the songs can be, and then celebratory with a turn of the hat, they connect on a basic level and make the world seem like a simpler place. Not many have ever been able to do it as well as Del and The McCoury’s.
I am also thrilled that Bela Fleck and The Flecktones are joining us. They take the music to its outer limits with a virtuosity that allows the audience to be swept along with them. What a great thing it will be to hear those guys jamming in the north woods!
If I could Play with Anyone: I am tempted to cite players of late who I regard as indispensible to roots music, such as Mike Seeger or John Hartford. But of those who are still active and have had the most influence on me as a musician, I would love to sit down and play with Peter Ostroushko or Norman Blake. I could endlessly pester them into showing me how they played such and such tune or solo. They actually have a history of playing with each other as well, starting from the folk boom in the Minneapolis coffee shops of the 1960’s. I can give them particular credit for the sound of harmonizing mandolins, double fiddle, or combinations of those and piano that have long been a benchmark sound for me, and that I strive to achieve either with Pert Near Sandstone or other musical projects. To me it is the Prairie Home Companion sound that I grew up hearing on the radio with my father and grew to love. Elements of old-time, early jazz, bluegrass, and world folk traditions all mixed up in one show, definitely gave me permission for eclecticism in recording and performance.
Nate also shared some photos of last year’s inaugural Blue Ox fest.