The cool kids from the Twin Cities and Milwaukee certainly have grown fond of Justin Vernon’s adventurous and eclectic Eaux Claires festival. The fun-loving locals from around Eau Claire, Wis., definitely still favor the rowdy Country Jam USA.
A smaller but more dedicated crowd, however, swears by the Blue Ox Music Festival, a three-day bluegrass and alt-twang campout that is held on the same woodsy grounds as those other events but gets far less recognition — especially in the town that plays host to it.
“If you ask people around Eau Claire what kind of music they’re into, probably one in five would say country,” said Jim Bischel, owner of the Whispering Pines campground that hosts campers for all three festivals.
“And maybe one in 5,000 would say bluegrass,” Bischel added with a laugh.
Also a co-founder of Country Jam and Blue Ox, Bischel laughed because he personally favors the latter event, which returns for its fourth straight year next week, Thursday through Saturday, with a lineup including Margo Price, the Del McCoury Band, Sam Bush, the Devil Makes Three and Greensky Bluegrass.
Co-curated with the similarly cult-loved Twin Cities string band Pert Near Sandstone — whose members also serve as hosts — Blue Ox isn’t the biggest moneymaker among the Eau Claire music fests. However, Bischel said, “It has as nice a fan base as any I’ve experienced among the many festivals I’ve put on.”
Similar comments were offered by Bill DeVille, Americana music guru at 89.3 the Current.
“The biggest selling point for me might just be the really good vibes there,” said DeVille, who made it out to all three prior Blue Ox installments. (He would be there again this week if not for the conflict with the Current’s own one-day fest, Rock the Garden, next Saturday at Walker Art Center.)
“You see a lot of younger music fans there in their 20s who are part of the new wave of bluegrass fans,” DeVille added of the Blue Ox audience, which usually numbers around 4,000 fans. “And you see the people in their 60s who go to all kinds of bluegrass festivals.
“It’s more than just a string-band fest, though, so you also have people there who like seeing some of the hot Americana acts they always book.”
‘A setting made for bluegrass’
Blue Ox came about after a chance encounter in 2014 between Bischel, his bluegrass-loving son Mark and the Pert Near Sandstone fellas at an offshoot Country Jam festival held in Grand Junction, Colo.
At first the Bischels floated the idea of incorporating Pert Near and other bluegrass bands into a new side-stage at the Country Jam fest in Eau Claire, but then came the idea of starting a whole new event. Blue Ox is uniquely held within the Whispering Pines camping area, next to the larger festival grounds where performances are staged during the Country Jam and Eaux Claires fests.
“We really fell in love with the idea of a separate festival when we saw the land where it’s held, with its rolling, wooded hills,” recalled Pert Near mandolinist/singer Nate Sipe. “It’s a setting that was made for a bluegrass festival.”
Calling on speakerphone two weeks ago at the end of a nearly monthlong European tour, Pert Near Sandstone’s members proudly recounted how the Bischels and other Country Jam organizers asked after the inaugural Blue Ox in 2015, “Where’s all the trash?!”
In other words, those Railroad Earth and Greensky Bluegrass fans are a lot more eco-friendly than the Dierks Bentley and Blake Shelton crowds. They’re also apparently as faithful as any fan base.
“You see a lot of the same people every year,” said Pert Near banjoist/singer Kevin Kniebel, who explained how the group has helped plan the fest and pick the lineups based on its prior decade of playing similar events around the country.
“We’ve been lucky enough to play many of the premier acoustic festivals over the years, and we’ve been introduced to so many great musical acts we admire and look up to. So we were able to pick and choose the things we want for this festival based on all that experience.”
Part of Pert Near’s formula for Blue Ox includes many daytime discussions and lessons in bluegrass music. They also wanted it to be a family-centric festival, so they added kids’ programming to the mix, too.
Some dads themselves, Pert Near’s five members have maintained the group’s momentum for a decade despite Sipe’s relocation to California about five years ago. The group is working on a new album and has tour plans for the fall, but Blue Ox is now always its focus come summertime.
“Most of spring touring really is one big setup for Blue Ox,” Sipe said. “We lose the opportunity to play some of the other regional summer festivals because we do this, but it’s worth it.”
Guitarist J. Lenz said they relish memories like seeing the legendary McCoury “jumping on the back of a golf cart in a white suit” during the muddy first year. “He really seemed to dig the crowd and the setting, though,” Lenz added, proudly pointing to the bluegrass vet’s return this year.
Meanwhile, the group has played a few festivals with buzzing, torchy-voiced Price over the past year “and seen her wow the crowd every time,” Sipe said. “So we just had to get her this year.”
Other acts on the 2018 lineup include: more bluegrass fest regulars such as the Infamous Stringdusters and the Steep Canyon Rangers; buzzing twangers Tyler Childers and Mandolin Orange; ex-Bad Livers cult hero Danny Barnes; Minnesota mainstays Charlie Parr, Pistol Whippin’ Party Penguins and Jack Klatt, and newish, regional acoustic acts Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, the Last Revel and Barbaro.
This year’s Blue Ox follows the news that Bischel and his family have sold their stakes in both the Colorado and Eau Claire Country Jam festivals. Still the campground owners, though, the family plans to maintain Blue Ox as a long-term event.
“We’re more focused and committed than we’ve ever been toward making it the best festival it can be,” Bischel proudly proclaimed.
And why not, when the trash cleanup is so minimal?