Due to some old music connections from my days in a full-time touring bluegrass band, I got the chance to attend the Blue Ox Music Festival just outside of Eau Claire, WI the summer of 2019. It was so revitalizing to see my old friends in Pert Near Sandstone, the Lowest Pair, the Lil Smokies, the Jeff Austin Band and Billy Strings, and to get to meet some new friends playing in bands that are still climbing the festival circuit ladder. But the thing that impressed me the most about the festival was the hospitality. The Bischel family that owns the land puts on a big country music festival every year called the Ramble Jam and has done so for years. Their experience in hosting big events was noticeable right from the start, with orderly entry to the festival and well-trained volunteer and staff members to make sure everything went smoothly throughout the Blue Ox Music Fest from an operational standpoint.
The Blue Ox festival stands apart from many of the other bluegrass festivals open to the public around the country, both in the caliber and quantity of bluegrass talent they convince to visit the Big Woods of the north and in the welcoming, inclusive atmosphere they promote to bluegrass fans willing to brave the elements and the drive to one of the best bluegrass festivals of 2019! These were the biggest for me at Blue Ox.
1. Early Arrival – I grew up going to a bluegrass festival in Winfied, KS where festival attendees showed up early. Sometimes, inappropriately early, setting out tarps to claim their camping space weeks or even months in advance of the festival. I also know that pro attendees of some of the major festivals in Colorado like the Telluride Bluegrass Fest and Rockygrass also show up a week or more in advance to set up camp. But the Blue Ox attendees took it to another level. Maybe it’s because attendees were allowed to pull their RVs into the reserved camping area, or maybe it is just that Minnesota and Wisconsin folks love to camp so much but the early arrival scene at Blue Ox was a pleasant surprise. I showed up on Thursday afternoon, well before the first act of the festival took the stage at 5pm Thursday, and the festival already felt full what with all of the early arrivals. Two thumbs up!
2. Hospitality for Artists – I was at the Blue Ox to teach a mandolin workshop and was presented with a backstage “artist” bracelet when I got there. The hospitality for artists absolutely blew my mind: there was a wide assortment of teas, water, coffee, soda, unlimited free beer (well, until about Saturday at 7pm by which time we had finished it all off), massage therapists who were paid by the festival with free entry and then working for tips for the musicians and there was even a kitchen serving two hot meals a day! The festival hosts Pert Near Sandstone have surely been aghast, as many of us road musicians have, at the “backstage” areas of many festivals that have little more than a shade tent and water for musicians. At Blue Ox, the hosts built elaborate tent setups with nice couches, charging stations for cell phones and other electronics and tables and chair for the musicians all backstage and out of the public eye. Again, two thumbs up on artist hospitality at Blue Ox!
3. Boats and Bluegrass Family Stage – Just up the river from Eau Claire is a little town in Minnesota called Winona, and they host an annual bluegrass festival called Boats and Bluegrass. This quiet little festival is chock full of Northern talent and features bands from the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, Wisconsin and of course Minnesota. I got to play there years ago with the Blackberry Bushes string band, part of the way I met all of these northern bluegrass folks. Anyways, Blue Ox collaborated with Boats and Bluegrass for the 2019 fest to host a family-friendly stage featuring a morning stretch and yoga for all ages, craft hour, face painting and more for the kids at the festival. And man were there kids! Blue Ox is 100% family friendly and lots of families took advantage of a chance to unleash their kids into the feral unknowns of daytime bluegrass music festivals. The family stage was a big hit with the kids, and happy kids mean happy parents which means happy campers all around!
4. Music Workshops – Lots of bluegrass festivals have workshops or academies that run prior to the festival with some of the talent scheduled to perform later. At Blue Ox, the hosts invited musicians who teach to present workshops for festival attendees in guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. The workshops were made available to festival goers free of charge, and took place in the morning before lunchtime and before music fired up on the main stages. I taught the mandolin workshop which was quite well attended by more than 15 mandolin enthusiasts of varying levels of experience and confidence. I was able to attend the guitar workshop before my workshop, and there were close to 15 attendees learning guitar basics as well. Providing these instrument workshops free of charge is just another example of how Pert Near Sandstone and the Blue Ox crew are pushing to promote acoustic music in the Twin Lakes region and get their friends involved in the festival as workshop instructors and workshop attendees.
The Blue Ox 2019 Music Festival really blew me away. It was professionally organized and executed and I had a chance to meet so many talented musicians, artists, photographers and dancers (yes, there were live aerial displays at the festival!). I’ve attended dozens of festivals in my life (hundreds?) as both an artist and a festival-goer and I have to say that the Blue Ox 2019 exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I hope you can make it next year and we can get surprised together with whatever the hosts have in store for us at my new favorite bluegrass festival of the summer!