Two summers ago, Twin Cities musicians Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing were gearing up for a 30-day paddling trip down the Mississippi River. More recently the duo better known as the Okee Dokee Brothers outfitted themselves for an entirely different trek: to Sunday's Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
"Can You Canoe?," the self-released CD and DVD that resulted from their river trip, scored a Grammy nomination for best children's music album, putting them in the mix with the likes of Taylor Swift, Adele and the Black Keys -- even though their 2012 tour schedule consisted mainly of public libraries and nature centers around Minnesota.
"It's a long way from home for us," Mailander quipped after being fitted with a certifiably Okee Dokee-ish plaid bow tie and vintage-style suit at Heimie's Haberdashery in St. Paul.
The nomination demonstrates how kids music has become more independent in the Internet era -- and cooler, too, as today's parents react against the Barneys and the Wiggles of a generation ago.
Both in their late 20s, Mailander and Lansing did not need the nomination to validate their career choice. Childhood friends from the Denver area, they moved to Minneapolis in 2007 to pursue music and were already enjoying a full-time career that outpaced most of their friends in "real bands."
The nomination did confirm their Minne-centric belief that, to sing about the outdoors, they had to get outdoors. That idea nearly cost them their lives when a tornado leveled their camp on the 28th day of the river journey.
"When we told people we were taking the trip, a lot of them either doubted the idea or were worried for us," Lansing remembered.
The end results certainly flow with more inspiration than most children's albums. There's "Thousand Star Hotel," a sweet and melodic ode to stargazing that wouldn't sound out of place on a Wilco record. And who could resist "Rosita," a wry love song to a mosquito (or "mosquita," rather, which rhymes)?
Said Mailander, "There's a Minnesota flavor to the record that folks latched onto locally."
Against the stream
"Can You Canoe?" attracted fans beyond the state even before its release.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Garth Hudson, formerly of the Band, agreed to add accordion parts after hearing the songs and their message (encouraging families to enjoy the outdoors). Glowing reviews showed up everywhere from National Public Radio's "All Songs Considered" to Parents Choice magazine to alt-country music blog No Depression.
"It was a fun, interesting concept for a record, and the songs were just really good," raved Stefan Shepherd, who runs the Phoenix-based kids-music blog Zoogobble.com. "Can You Canoe?" was voted the No. 1 album of 2012 in a poll affiliated with the site. That did not surprise Shepherd, but he was a bit shocked by the Grammy nod.
"Nominations usually go to the people who have been doing it for years," he said. "Those guys haven't been around that long. I think that speaks all the more highly of the album."
It also demonstrates the kids-music industry's growing reliance on independent acts that craft smart, "non-Teletubbies" music, Shepherd said. Only one of the other four nominees, Elizabeth Mitchell, issued her album on a record label. The rest were DIY.
The genre even has a hipster name: "kindie" music.
You can see the kindie revolution at big rock fests such as Lollapalooza in Chicago and the Austin City Limits in Texas, which now have family-music stages. Both have featured the Okee Dokee Brothers.
An OK living
The Brothers' popularity became evident locally when they sold out two December gigs at the Cedar Cultural Center.
"It went into hyper mode pretty quickly," said the Cedar's executive director, Rob Simonds, who believes their success is well-earned.
"They definitely put in the work that any young band or musician has to do, except instead of playing clubs they probably played 100 different libraries their first couple years," he said. But Simonds also pointed out: "Families are on tighter budgets, and family shows have to be kept affordable. It's not an easy genre for a musician to make a living in."
Fresh from buying a modest house in south Minneapolis, Mailander said he makes "an average wage" for someone his age with a full-time job.
The Grammy nomination did provide a monetary bump, he said: "For the next two or three weeks, I was going to the post office every day with a pile of CDs" to fill orders placed through their website, OkeeDokee.org.
Internet promotion has been a boon to kids acts. "Can You Canoe?" has sold around 10,000 copies since its release last May, on par with local bands that sell out First Avenue.
The Okee Dokees are treating the Grammy buzz as something of a cresting wave, though. When they get back from Los Angeles, they'll return to familiar territory: Toddler Tuesday at the Mall of America, a noontime concert Thursday at Edina's Edinborough Park indoor playground, a fundraiser Saturday at Wild Rumpus bookstore in Linden Hills.
That's fine by them.
"There's a coolness factor to being nominated for a Grammy obviously," Mailander said, "but I think anyone who works with kids knows how cool it can be seeing them experience and learn from you."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658