The Okee Dokee Brothers: Instruments of outdoor adventure

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2013 - 7:03 AM

The Okee Dokee Brothers write songs that move families to fish, camp, paddle — and dance.

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The Okee Dokee Brothers partnered with the Wilderness Inquiry on this hybrid concert-canoe trip in July.

“Come listen to this,” I shouted to my husband from across the apartment.

I was in the living room with our infant daughter, Lydia. We were listening for the first time to “Can You Canoe?,” the Grammy-winning children’s album by the Minneapolis-based Okee Dokee Brothers, when I noticed a brilliant and subversive song lyric, something only a cynical grown-up like me can appreciate:

I got myself in trouble When I bought myself a home Cuz I thought myself a millionaire But then I couldn’t pay off the loan So I moved down to the river Where fishin’ hooks pay the rent And now I’m livin’ off of rice and beans And sleepin’ in my campin’ tent.

Released in 2012, “Can You Canoe?” is a storytelling album based on the band’s monthlong paddling adventure on the Mississippi River. The record is well known and beloved within parenting circles, partly because adults find the catchy banjo and wry lyrics more palatable

than most children’s music. Rich with river-inspired sounds and imagery, “Can You Canoe?” provides the perfect soundtrack for families, couples, friends, even hermits en route to water-based adventures this holiday weekend, so long as the listeners enjoy bluegrass and folk music.

“Their genre is children’s music, but I don’t think of them as children’s musicians,” says Greg Lais, executive director of Wilderness Inquiry, a Twin Cities based outdoors adventure group, and a big fan of the Okee Dokee Brothers. “If they were only appealing to 6- and 8-year-olds, they wouldn’t be selling so many CDs, would they? They’re kind of like ‘Harry Potter.’ ”

PLAYING TO OUTDOOR THEMES

Friends since they were 3 years old, bandmates Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing grew up in the outdoor playground of Denver, both within “socially conscious families,” says Mailander. They attended an all-boys Jesuit high school, where the values of empathy, kindness and environmental stewardship were further ingrained in their fledgling brains.

As youth, they enjoyed plenty of unscheduled, unregimented freetime ­— think long bike rides and hiking the Rocky Mountains. “I was definitely the risk-taker,” remembers Mailander, who sings, plays acoustic guitar and acts as de facto spokesman. “I was swinging from ropes and jumping out of trees. I could usually do it without getting hurt, but Justin would follow with an injury close behind.”

They took their first unchaperoned camping trip together as teens, pitching a tent near Breckenridge, Colo., and unpacking their instruments. “That’s when we first started writing songs,” says Mailander. “We wrote a song called ‘In The Mountains’,” cracks Lansing, who sings and plays banjo. “And you don’t have to hear that song.”

Mailander is an alumnus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.; Mailander went to Lake Forest College near Chicago. They settled in Minneapolis after graduation — in 2008 and 2007, respectively — and toured homeless shelters and soup kitchens with a nonprofit bluegrass ensemble called the Medicinal Strings. They founded the Okee Dokee Brothers in 2008 as an outlet for their youthful energies. It’s been written that neither musician is married nor has any children, but there’s a newsbreak on the subject — Mailander just got engaged.

A few years back, Mailander and Lansing made an observation about their folksy music: “We’ve always had the outdoors as a central theme,” explains Mailander. “But we started to think our message would better resonate alongside a story.” So they dreamed up a real-life adventure, something to inspire a more narrative approach to songwriting with the added bonus of helping them “avoid being hypocritical,” adds Lansing. “Instead of just saying — ‘go outside.’ ”

Lais, of Wilderness Inquiry, met Mailander and Lansing at a party just as they were hatching their travel plans. In June 2011 the Okee Dokee Brothers embarked on a monthlong songwriting and paddling adventure down the Mississippi, armed with a borrowed canoe from Lais and other essentials from Wilderness Inquiry. The organization has maintained close ties with the band ever since.

The resulting record, “Can You Canoe?,” is highly regarded by music-lovers young and old; see the band’s Grammy for best children’s album, awarded in February 2013. With songs like “Bullfrog Opera” and “Roll On River,” the record has an added bonus of making outdoor adventure sound cool. The album’s title track is practically “the theme song for the children and nature movement,” asserts Lais, who can recite the lyrics from memory. He put “Can You Canoe?” on repeat in Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoe Mobile, a multicity program designed to “bring environmental literacy to urban disadvantaged kids” by helping them paddle local waterways.

The Okee Dokee Brothers also have relationships with Three Rivers Park District, North Mississippi Regional Park and the National Wildlife Federation. Which isn’t to say Mailander and Lansing aspire to careers in outdoors advocacy; they remain committed to lives as full-time, professional musicians. The band simply concurs with these organizations regarding the importance of nature and fresh air. “Being in nature really humbles you as a human being,” says Mailander, who often goes on these philosophical riffs. “You are reminded of your humanity and that the elements are stronger than we are.

“We forget that life is fragile when we’re inside all day,” he continues. “It’s always, I think, a nice reminder, especially for families, that we need to go with the flow sometimes. There are some things we can’t control.”

PROPELLING FAMILY ADVENTURES

“Campin’ Tent” is the name of that craftily written song that first snagged my ear. It reminded me of my directionless 20s, especially that time I blew off work, drove to Colorado and started hiking mountains in a desperate grasp for adventure. But the more we played the record at home, the more “Can You Canoe?” became the family favorite. I liked the lyrics about living in the moment. And the beatific music seemed to cast a spell over my 11-month-old. Every time she hears the song, she comes crawling as fast as she can, trying to get closer to the speakers in our living room. I know I can entice her with this song next year when, finally, we take her paddling around the lakes.

Lucky for them, parents with slightly older children can already use the Okee Dokee Brothers for these purposes. In July, Chris Mortenson from Minneapolis took his 4 year-old daughter, Elena, to a special Okee Dokee Brothers concert-slash-canoeing adventure sponsored by Wilderness Inquiry. “I’d been trying all summer to get her outside and get her paddling,” explains Mortenson. “Now she loves to canoe. My parents have a place in northern Minnesota. When we’re up there now we go canoeing every day.”

Sometimes the Okee Dokee Brothers can convince parents, too. “Frankly, I would never have thought of taking two 5-year-olds out in a canoe on the river,” says Michelle Peterson of Maple Grove, whose twin daughters were inspired by the Okee Dokee Brothers. “It just wasn’t something we wanted them to do.” But then “Can You Canoe?” got the girls interested, says Peterson, so she and her husband indulged them.

The band’s outdoor proclivities include environments other than waterways and riverfronts. Backpackers can look forward to the May 2014 release of the Okee Dokee Brothers’ next album, inspired by their monthlong trek along the Appalachian Trail, which they endeavored earlier this year.

If mountains, deserts and horses are more your thing, just wait a little longer. The Okee Dokee Brothers are planning another songwriting trip “somewhere out West,” says Mailander. The destination “is not a secret so much as we’re exploring different opportunities.”

Christy DeSmith • 612-673-1754



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