The Okee Dokee Brothers are among the kid-friendly musical acts at next week's Rhythm & Words festival.
When Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing of the Okee Dokee Brothers spent a month canoeing down the Mississippi River last June, it provided some good metaphors for their latest CD, "Can You Canoe?" In the jazzy "The Bullfrog Opera," the great outdoors becomes akin to a night in New York City, and in the title track, canoeing serves as an analogy for friendship -- both require some teamwork and a little give and take.
On the river trip, "there were some ups and downs and that itself is a good metaphor for life," Lansing said.
The Okee Dokee Brothers (Lansing on banjo and Mailander on guitar) got their start four years ago and put out their first album, "Kids With Beards," with songs about duct tape, being embarrassed and eating too much candy.
As childhood friends, they spent summers in Colorado fishing for crawdads and camping, so for their fourth album, they felt inspired to jump in a canoe and head downriver. In "Can You Canoe?" the first of their "adventure series," they sing about how "prime-time entertainment will be lightning bugs and fires."
"We are kind of fans of just leading by example and not necessarily being too preachy," Mailander said. "Nature's fun, and being outdoors building campfires and jumping off rope swings into the river, those kinds of things are fun."
The accompanying DVD features "a lot of camping shenanigans," Mailander said, and chats with Kenny Salwey of Wisconsin. "[He's] a wise old man, the last river rat ... who made his living on the river, trapping muskrats and gathering berries," Lansing said. "He speaks some wise words."
Mailander said they started writing songs for kids partly because "we still feel like we're kids at heart." They cite influences from classic folk singers such as Woody Guthrie to more contemporary influences like Dawes and Justin Townes Earle. Lansing considers them part of the "kindie" (kid-friendly indie music) movement, writing songs in an era when popular musicians such as Dan Zanes and They Might Be Giants have made it cool to make kids' music.
Mailander emphasized the challenge of writing universal, simple themes for kids in a nonclichéd way. "I think a lot of people think about kids' music and think it's pretty easy," he said. "You kind of have to go through a complicated process to arrive at a simple message that kids can understand. As artists, it's really satisfying to write a good children's song."
The third annual Rhythm and Words event features other "kindie" acts such as Clementown, a Twin Cities duo that performs songs inspired by the poems of Calef Brown, and the folky pop of Laura Doherty of Chicago. The day also features meet-and-greets with authors Eric Litwin ("Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes") and author-illustrator Stephen Shaskan ("A Dog is a Dog").
"Music and books are naturally inseparable for young kids," said Jennifer Verbrugge, youth programming coordinator for the Dakota County Library. She said the goal of the event is to highlight local and regional authors and musicians.
Other activities include interactive music classes with Kindermusik of the Valley, beatboxing with SteppingStone Theatre and harmonica lessons with the Minnesota Blues Society. Kids can also try out instruments at the "meet the instruments petting zoo," make tambourines and horns with ArtStart, and watch performances by Bill the Juggler and the Amazing Gnip Gnop Circus, a glow-in-the-dark miniature circus with pingpong balls.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.