Being introduced as Grammy winners did not really earn the Okee Dokee Brothers much reaction from the elementary school students assembled last month at St. Croix Lutheran High School in West St. Paul. But when it came time to sing “Can You Canoe?” excitement flowed through the room like “Sweet Emotion” at an Aerosmith concert.
“Let me see those paddle hands,” the sandy-blonde Okee Dokee Brother, Joe Mailander, instructed the audience. Seconds later, a gym full of kids who had been cooped up all winter turned into a river full of students gleefully pretending to splash their oars through the water.
Mailander and his banjo-picking partner, Justin Lansing, rode “Can You Canoe?” and their other outdoor adventure songs all the way to the Grammy Awards last year. They won for best children’s music album following a steady stream of national acclaim.
Now comes the part where they try to repeat that success. In their case, the rollout of their new album doesn’t start with a release party at First Avenue or an on-air session at 89.3 the Current. It starts at a school event like this one, with kids bused in from as far away as Menomonie, Wis.
“These guys are like the Led Zeppelin of kids’ music now,” marveled Jon Voss, a staffer at Pilgrim Lutheran School in Minneapolis.
Voss knew the Brothers when they first dabbled in children’s music as volunteers at St. Joseph’s Home for Children in Minneapolis around 2008. “They were good even then, and always had such a positive energy,” he remembered.
Mailander recalled it differently: “We really didn’t know what we were doing. We’ve learned a lot along the way.”
There were many more lessons when it came to making the latest Okee Dokee Brothers album, “Through the Woods.” Things like: Black bears like to eat trail mix; ponies are not baby horses; cameras and banjos don’t perform well in rain, and you can never have enough dry socks.
Just as they based “Can You Canoe?” on a 30-day paddling trip down the Mississippi River, the inspiration behind “Through the Woods” was a monthlong hike along the Appalachian Trail last May — a very soggy hike, it turned out, which can be seen in the DVD that accompanies the new album.
“It rained for the majority of the first two weeks,” Mailander recalled.
Somehow, he managed to turn that weather report into a positive. “It gave us more time to sit in the tents and come up with song ideas. And it became one of the messages in the music: You can still go outside in rain gear and enjoy the misty beauty. It’s just a little colder.”
A musical map
While “Through the Woods” continues the outdoors theme of “Can You Canoe?,” it has an added mission — to carry on the mountain-music traditions the Okee Dokees lovingly channel in their songs.
The Brothers strategically mapped out their hike through sections of Virginia and West Virginia that are ground zero for much of the bluegrass and mountain-folk music that influenced them. Along the way, they visited with musicians to film on-screen instructions and jam sessions for the DVD. Among them: Elizabeth LaPrelle, a noted Appalachian musicologist, and the Wright Family, a quartet of young bluegrass-picking siblings, ages 8 to 16.
“What better way to teach kids they can play this music than from other kids?” Mailander noted.
Later, the duo recruited other renowned players for the album recording sessions, including folk-Grammy winner Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Asheville, N.C., banjo master David Holt. Lansig actually learned to play banjo from an instructional DVD by Holt.
As with “Can You Canoe?,” their experiences on the trail were almost as vital to “Through the Woods” as the work they put into songwriting and recording. It paid getting soaked for two weeks, in other words.
“When you’re out there, you can kind of feel the ‘oldness’ in the music,” Lansing said. “Those mountains are some of the oldest mountains in the world, and you get a sense of that from the musicians and the people who pass down the traditions there.”
The song “Jamboree” was sparked by a side trip to the Floyd (Va.) Country Store for the Friday night clog dances there. (“Just so much fun, even though we’re not good dancers,” Lansig said.)
Another song, “Lighten Your Load,” inadvertently grew into an anthem during the hike. As Lansig pointed out, the biggest difference from the canoe trip was that “you have to carry all of your gear right on your back.”
Said Mailander, “We kept saying that as we were hiking: ‘Oh, we’ve got to lighten the load here.’ It just had a nice ring to it, so we started talking about simplicity and the metaphor there, about letting things go and leading a simpler life.”
Proud to be an Okee
Life got a lot more complicated for the Okee Dokees — mostly in a good way — when “the Grammy thing” happened.
As if finding the right plaid tuxedos wasn’t enough work, the awards show came during the thick of preparations for the Appalachian trip. In the weeks that followed, they saw their CD sales spike (many personally mailed by Mailander) and their concert schedule fill up.
“More interestingly, there was this expectation put on this album: ‘Can they do it again?’ ” Mailander said.
One other wrinkle: Lansing had relocated to New York City to be with his girlfriend, while Mailander and his fiancée (due to be wed in November) bought a home in south Minneapolis. The distance may actually have played to their advantage, though.
“It has kept Joe and I from being around each other too much,” Lansing said with a smirk, adding that life in New York “has made me more appreciative of Minnesota, and anywhere you can get out and enjoy a little nature.”
Still in their late 20s, the childhood buddies — originally from the Denver area — are enjoying a bustling career that musicians twice their age would envy. They just happen to be doing it for an audience that’s less than half their age.
“Doing this feels so comfortable for us,” insisted Lansing, who, like Mailander, maintains aspirations of playing in the “adult music” realm. The duo has even hired a new marketing company to target “Through the Woods” to folk/Americana radio stations and other media outlets that don’t pay attention to kids’ music.
However, the Brothers don’t need any more convincing that they’re on the right trail.
“The kids’ music community is a vibrant one,” Lansing said. “It’s inspiring, really.”
Said Mailander, “We’re making music in front of big audiences that listen — music we’re proud of. And I think we’re making a positive impact on kids, too. Who wouldn’t be happy about that?”