“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.