[Friday at Blue Ox would see sets from Molly Tuttle, Charlie Parr, Pert Near Sandstone, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit and a host of other incredible acts- and boy was it a scorcher.]
While music continues to evolve and morph into a galaxy full of keyboards, knobs, and auto-tuned nonsense, nothing speaks to the soul more than a human voice and a guitar. Or a human voice and a few guitars – or string instruments. Or a few voices and a few instruments. You get the idea.
Like America, Americana is a melting pot of music. It’s broad and incorporates a number of genres dumped into a blender and put on puree. Americana is soul. Americana is folk. Americana is rock n’ roll. Americana is all-encompassing.
And festivals like Blue Ox bring in some of the best artists who fit this mold to share their version and their purest expressions of it with the masses.
The sun had no plans of relenting on this Friday afternoon in the woods of Eau Claire, and it was fixing to be another pizza oven of a day. The glistening flesh of friendly faces passed me by as it did the day before, while I made my way to the Hydration Station to fill up for the next couple of hours. (if that) The Henhouse Prowlers and Tony Trischka were already in the thick of some barn burnin’ old timey bluegrass numbers on the Main Stage, and I knew it was going to be one hell of a day.
After gazing in wide wonder at Trischka’s and the Prowlers’ masterful picking amidst the hollering early afternoon crowd, I set out to talk to the booth curators.
My first visit was to a tent full of painted vinyl. Philip Strods was the proprietor behind them, an artist outside of Chicago, and this was his first time vending at Blue Ox. Strods attends festivals like these and paints old vinyl he collects, namely catering to artists playing the events he’s at. When asked how it feels to be back at a festival like this again, he said, “Fantastic. Just fantastic. Quite a crowd, and just great music. Last time I was here the field was a straw muddy mess, but I love it here. I love the music and the people- it’s well worth the seven-hour drive.”
Next to Strods was Monarch Hill Hemp, a nearby family owned and operated hemp farm that produces an array of oil tinctures, pain salves, lip balms, smokeable flower, pet treats, gummies and more. All of their CBD is produced on site with their CO2 CBD extraction machines, which owner Allegra Schafer was particularly proud of. I too had the same question for her: how does it feel to be here today? “It’s indescribable, isn’t it? It’s just so nice to look at people even, look at them in their eyes. The music, the vibes- it’s awesome.”
On down the line I went, next being one that didn’t necessarily spark joy. With an arch of balloons and decorated photos of two beloved musicians I knew had passed, I made my way into the Max Graham and Jeff Austin memorial tent.
Heather Kerfeld, one of the organizers, gave me the lowdown on their mission: “We’re hosting a memorial tent for our good friend Max Graham who passed away by suicide earlier this year, as well as Jeff Austin from Yonder Mountain String Band. Max was in The Kind Country Band. We’re hosting this memorial tent because we haven’t had a chance to mourn together as a group since their passing. Adam Vandenberg had the idea, so he sponsored this and put his time and money into it.”
When asked about the various things on the tables, she told me, “We have one table here with mental health and suicide prevention resources, and another with two photo books that we’re having people sign, and we’ll gift them to the family afterwards. We want to give people an opportunity to grieve and mourn, and feel like they’re part of the community here.”
Finally, I asked her what makes Blue Ox so special. “Through Blue Ox and the people I’ve met, I’ve expanded my network quite a bit, and met some of my best friends. I met Max through that circle of people along with the rest of Kind Country. I became really close friends with them. We have a near and dear place in our hearts for Max and Kind Country and the rest of the musicians here. It’s just a very special community.”
Then it was time to take a lap through the backwoods.
With various signs posted to trees indicating which camp site is which, just beyond the Eagle site was the Potluck Pickers camp where music workshops were held in the mornings and afternoons, and pickin’ parties after that. The setup was fairly spacious, with benches creating a semi-circle around a fire pit, and adjacent to that was a canopy sheltering various standup basses, guitars, and a full bar among other odds and ends. It was a cozy scene, and I had to find out who was facilitating such a happening.
It was then I was introduced to Jimbo Miller. The man, the myth, the legend.
Jimbo is part of an 8-person string band out of Minneapolis, the Potluck String Band, and had quite a story of their inception and growth in just a short time. In regards to the Potluck Pickin’ he and his bandmates facilitate with anybody and everybody, he said, “We carved our niche in creating a place of community for all levels of skill. After the Main Stage shuts down, we fire up and run until dawn. It’s a big pickin’ party. We’re friends with a lot of these folks playing here too, so they know to come hang. The best part about it is, the best musicians here are so encouraging and supportive of people of all skill levels.”
He went on to say, “One of our mottos within the band is to ‘play for our own amazement’. And to make other people smile and be happy. Just give them a moment where they don’t have to dwell on any bullshit in their lives.”
“People just want to feel good. They want a positive upbeat vibe, and they want to be around musicians that are having a good time playing together. And also just perpetuating love out to people. So three years ago, at about 7 AM on a Sunday, we were sitting by the fire after an all-night Pick at Boats and Bluegrass Festival, and Nate from Pert Near Sandstone turns to me and asked, ‘can you bring this to Blue Ox? Can you bring that pickin’ vibe and community scene to our campground?’ So we worked with the Bischel family and Pert Near, and picked this spot out in the middle of the woods. Every night and every day we have a continuous flow of pickers, and we have maybe two, three, four-hundred people come through.”
As far as how the band got together, Jimbo told me, “Half of us never plucked an instrument until seven years ago. We called our Friday night pickin’ sessions the Friday Potluck. I had this basement we called the Americana Underground, or The AU. We had two free shows in 2015, then played 37 paid shows in 2016 and officially became a band.”
It’s guys like Jimbo the world could use more of. His kind and welcoming attitude was inspiring, and his contributions to his community left me feeling better about humanity.
After a good winding walkabout observing the various campsites, I found myself at the Backwoods Stage. The band playing was Buffalo Galaxy, (as they adamantly said, “we are not Never Come Down, we are Buffalo Galaxy”) who serenaded the wooded crowd with paper jellyfish strung above, which I thought were mushrooms. Ahh yes, this must be the Enchanted Jellyfish Forest I’d read about. “This one’s for Jeff,” the lead singer says. They proceed to play The Rolling Stones song, “No Expectations”. It was then I realized my pockets were moist with sweat, and the ink on my notepad began to vaguely smear. Oh well.
The band went on into “Cumberland Blues” by The Grateful Dead, and it was a real crowd-pleaser. I could tell from the basic yet precise bass line and tempo what was in store. Children threw dirt in each other’s faces while their parents and I blissfully indulged in the classic Workingman’s Dead tune. It was clear the surrounding Backwoods Stage area was where the real partying took place.
Shortly after, I looped back around to the Main Stage and utilized my backstage pass. After a few laps around indulging in the VIP area full of tour buses and several cozy lounge areas, I stood at the back corner of the stage for a bit watching Molly Tuttle’s band, which was a new and intriguing vantage point for me. I thought of The Talking Heads’ song, “Once in a Lifetime, as I stood listening.
Before her next song, Tuttle mentioned, “So this was my anthem in 2020. And I see too many Grateful Dead shirts out there not to play this Jerry song.” She proceeded to unleash a delicate yet powerful “Standing on the Moon.” Her voice boomed out over the pines. “I’d rather be with you, I’d rather be with you,” she concluded, fully winning the crowd over if she hadn’t already.
Before getting into her tune, “Flatland Girl,” the IBMA Guitar Player of the Year award-winner spoke fondly of passing through cornfield country in Illinois on her way up from Nashville, as her grandparents had a corn and soy bean farm there. And if her grandparents ever heard her play, which is plenty possible, I can imagine how proud they’d be. Her picking is other-worldly. It is not of this earth. What I can’t fathom when playing that fast is that there’s not even a trace of a botched note. None. Zero. It’s flawless. And perhaps this sentiment made by her explains why.
“I realized I had absolutely no hobbies outside of music,” she said in regards to the lockdown of 2020. “I was binging Twin Peaks while my friends were baking sourdough bread and planting gardens.” When you have a limitless and elite talent like Tuttle, who needs a hobby?
After roaring applause and 5,000 captivated eyes adorning her talents, she casually walked off stage and in back, by her lonesome. It was a quiet little stroll as if she just picked up her guitar to bring it from one place to another in her backyard. It was just an amazing juxtaposition. I didn’t expect a parade for her, or folks to lift her up on a velvet throne and chant her name, but it was just quite a scene. I approached her and told her I particularly enjoyed her “Olympia, WA” cover by Rancid, as my friends and I would skate to that and other Rancid and Operation Ivy tunes in my mom’s basement. She was very sweet and appreciative, and then a man presented her with one of Philip Strods painted vinyls he made for her.
It was 5-something, and realized I hadn’t yet succumbed to the big orange bully in the sky, but by God was I basted. The name of the game was find shade, and as opposed to the day before, the place was bustling and shoulder to shoulder in most areas. Minnesota fan favorites Barbaro would soon take the Side Stage after some schedule shuffling, and I decided I desperately needed to step back out of the gates, dump water on my head, and sit under some trees for a bit.
On my back in, a lovely woman in a floral crown gave me a purple ice-pop in passing, to which I thanked her sincerely, and it was back to the action.
I was looking to talk to Kyle Tuttle who’d played with The Lil Smokies earlier, but couldn’t seem to track him down. I saw an older man who resembled something of a hippie wizard by the Main Stage entrance for artists and media, and asked him if that’s the main gateway for artists coming in and out.
“Well, I think there’s a few ways,” he said, contemplatively stroking his beard.
“You think they’re just jumping in the pond and swimming across to get out?” I said to him.
“Maybe! In this heat I would think that’d be an option.” He said. After a bit more back and forth, I meandered back into the mix of the crowd.
I soon came to the realization I just talked to Charlie Parr.
He would go on to take the Main Stage shortly after, and utterly brought the house down with his silver resonator guitar and vocals that could move mountains. The crowd was massive for Parr, and he had each and every person hanging on his every word and note. He too was an excellent between-song banter king.
“I’m like a giant toddler,” he said. “Toddlers can not be shut off. They are organic anarchists.” He said this in reference to his bandmates and how they never know what he’s going to do next.
Between Lissie and the Jon Stickley Trio, who played in the early evening, (JST had a second set essentially opening for Jason Isbell later, but just on another stage) the two equally slayed and played like it might just be their last time- because hey, we all know what happened last year and frankly is still happening. I found the Jon Stickley Trio particularly impressive, as this instrumental band is one of few that does not need a vocalist, as their instruments do all the talking- and in a universal language.
During Lissie, I talked to my last vendor of the night, Michael from The Potter’s Shed. I passed by earlier in the day, but he was busy teaching young kids the art of ceramics. There was definitely a mystical and intriguing presence to the “booth,” which was actually two sturdy walls covered in homemade wood and ceramic art, with an alley separating said walls with the transaction counter tucked back just a bit. It was a unique set up that beckoned passersby.
Before Michael and I got talking, he had to fish out a craft beer from his cooler. Then we took a seat in his Adirondack chairs behind the art wall. He had a very light and calm way of conversing, and I felt like he had a good sense of humor.
In regards to the humble beginnings of his art career and The Potter’s Shed, Michael told me, “The Potter’s Shed’s been there for 20 years as a place. I did different kinds of clay art along the way, and sold them at Renaissance festivals all around the country. Colorado, Arizona… It’s kind of how we survived for awhile. Then we started doing wholesale and didn’t have to travel as much. Got to sleep in my own bed every night.”
He went on to explain the growth and evolution of The Potter’s Shed. “We had our little shop on a highway, so we did some retail, and then it kind of mushroomed. Started as an outlet store, then we added an art gallery, then a cafe, and then a creative space, and because my wife’s a musician, we started doing music in a little gazebo. We started hiring bands at a low level to begin with, then we expanded and expanded, and now we’re getting groups that are playing here. Pert Near Sandstone, Charlie Parr, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades…”
We had a friendly twilight chat, and before long I was off to get my own beer in my aluminum Blue Ox cup.
The hosts of the whole shebang, Pert Near Sandstone, would soon grace the Main Stage, and the reception was warm to say the least. The love and appreciation the fans had for their local heroes was palpable, and having chatted with them in the past and listened to them play, I understood why. The work they put into the festival and their music was most evident, and it was a pleasure to indulge. Just as most of the vendors and curators had said, it’s all about cultivating community, and that’s exactly what they did and continue to do.
The guys rifled through an electric set that never let up, and it was business as usual for the quintet. The crowd was left in a frenzy, just in time for the top dog of the night: Jason Isbell.
I passed him a few times in back, once while he was eating with his daughter, and thought of how painfully awkward and horrible it would be had I gone up to him. I never would and didn’t, but imagined he may pull a Billy Bob Thornton from Bad Santa on me.
Again, as the headliner of headliners of the weekend took the stage, the crowd was electric. After a friendly greeting and acknowledgement of how great it is for him to be playing there considering the day and age we live in, he would rifle off songs like “Super 8,” “Be Afraid,” “24 Frames” and a number of other fan favorites.
Before an acoustic song of his, he mentioned that he had his daughter with him. “I had to ask my daughter’s permission to play this next song. She said, ‘but daddy you wrote that song for me and I’ll be asleep.'” He went on to say how much fun she’d been having with all the colors and bubbles happening everywhere.
After about 45 minutes into his set, he and the band had to abruptly stop.
Lightning struck in the near distance with rumbling thunder, and some inclement weather had rolled in. “At least it happened now“, I thought. After 25 long minutes of uncertainty if it’d let up, Isbell and company walked back out to roaring applause, and the rock n’ roll returned, and he would finish strong for the hungry fans.
Not this time, Mother Nature. Not this time.