Blazing Bluegrassers Pert Near Sandstone Talk New Album, ‘Rising Tide,’ This Weekend’s Virtual Blue Ox Music Festival, & More

While every event under the sun has been cancelled, both musically and otherwise, a ray of hope has blazed through to those seeking asylum through live music. Of course, a waterfall of various livestream music has been our new reality, but something extra special is coming this weekend- a two birds with one stone type of special.

Minnesota bluegrass dynamos Pert Near Sandstone will be co-hosting Blue Ox Music Festival: Live From The Pines in a virtual format this weekend, June 12th and June 13th, along with the Bischel family, and it will feature some of bluegrass’s heaviest hitters along with other top tier performers. The viewing will include sets from Sam Bush, Warren Haynes, Del McCoury, Molly Tuttle, Lillie Mae, Charlie Parr, and several others, and of course what promises to be two powerful sets by yours truly, Pert Near Sandstone. This real-time broadcast will kickoff from Whispering Pines Campground in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, from 1:00 PM to 10:30 PM CDT, so be sure to tune in.

And as for that second bird, Pert Near Sandstone will be releasing their newest album, Rising Tide, to coincide with Blue Ox this weekend. Talk about a one-two punch.

In being lucky enough to get a preemptive listen, I was smitten. The raw energy and power behind their bluegrass shredding is not unlike that of perhaps an Old Crow Medicine Show. And the vocals in select tracks, specifically “Kings and Clowns,” remind me of Jeb Puryear of Western New York Americana stalwarts and fellow music festival hosts, Donna The Buffalo. The songwriting is equally as striking as their masterful picking and plucking.

And in listening to the album, sure you get plenty of your traditional and familiar bluegrass songs, but several tracks implement very unique layers to their bluegrass foundation. Songs like “Border Wall Waltz,” which feature horns, a tickling of piano ivories, and naturally, a waltzing rhythm, are sure to intrigue. And then you get a song like, “Peaches,” which is a much more stripped down, simple to the ear and simple to the soul track that implements peaceful xylophone and banjo melodies.

Their singles, “Castles in the Air,” and “Kings and Clowns” are definitely, in my humble opinion, the heavyweights of the album. But make no mistake, Rising Tide as a whole delivers in spades, and just when you think you know what you’re getting into, they switch it up on you and give you something fresh yet familiar.

We got the chance to talk to Nate Sipe (mandolin, fiddle) and Justin Bruhn (upright bass) about this weekend’s virtual Blue Ox Festival, their new album, and of course as a Minneapolis-based band, we had to gauge their feelings about what’s happening in their home town and the recent events that overshadowed a global pandemic.

So I was hoping you could talk about the origins of Pert Near Sandstone and how y’all got together?

Nate Sipe: So there’s a few of us in a group that actually went to high school together. Myself [Nate], Jay who plays guitar, and Kevin who plays banjo. And our sometimes fiddler and original band member Ryan Young, who also plays with Trample [With Turtles]. He joins us occasionally, and he’s also our recording engineer and audio wizard that we’ve collaborated with for years. He’s also an old friend from high school. We were involved in the same circle of friends, and went our separate ways during college, and randomly stumbled into each in the years following. We realized we were all playing acoustic music at the time and dabbling in a little bit of bluegrass, folk, acoustic rock cover stuff, and decided to get together and play music again. Before long we were playing shows together, and came up with a band name, one of the silliest band names in all of music. (laughs)

I typically don’t like asking about band names, but I had to inquire about y’alls…

Nate: So the very first gig, I wasn’t involved in that one, but they kind of came up with the name before the gig. We were like, “Well what do we call ourselves? How about Pert Near?” Which Pert Near is kind of a Mid-Western colloquial saying meaning “pretty close to” or “almost there.” I think it was maybe Brian or Jay who said, “We gotta be Pert Near something, not just Pert Near.” So Sandstone was kind of a vague reference to the Mississippi River bluffs where we grew up. Of course the river is a very pronounced part of life in Minneapolis. So it’s really Mid-Western jibberish, and it’s been my joke that Mid-Western Jibberish is a better band name. (laughs)

Who were some of your music idols growing up, and who or what might you credit for your career in bluegrass music?

Nate: As we were a younger band coming up and figuring it out, you know we started in cafes and moved to bars, did the college circuit, and we discovered, aside from A Prairie Home Companion and some of the local radio stations, music similar to what we were doing. We discovered what a rich culture of music Minneapolis has, aside from the indie rock music, which is pretty well known around the world in terms of Minneapolis music. There’s a pretty great tradition of acoustic, folk, bluegrass, rag time, and that stuff that was featured quite a bit on A Prairie Home Companion. But a lot of these people from the 60s folk revival were still playing in clubs and theaters around town. Justin will have his own list I’m sure, but I listened to a lot of Leo Kottke through my father and my uncle. So I attribute Leo Kottke as the reason I started playing guitar when I was a teenager.

Justin Bruhn: While Nate came from that background, Jay and I really listened to a lot of classic rock and metal when we were younger, and it wasn’t until much later that we came to this music. For me, I was in my 20s before I really started discovering this genre. I was just really steeped in classic rock. My parents weren’t huge music fans, like my mom played classical on piano, but that was about it. For me, I’ve come to this genre later in life, but once I got into it, it was like The Louvin Brothers, any kind of old folksy Dylan, and that stuff. And you can’t really grow up around here without having some kind of affinity for Dylan. He’s love/hate, but around here he’s more love than hate.

Nate: The guitar shop that Jay and I worked at was actually in Dinkytown, Minneapolis, in the campus area of U of M, and Dylan would go in to buy his guitar strings when he went to school there. And he played in the cafe down the street and lived above what’s now The Loring Pasta Bar, so there’s this feeling of like a direct connection almost. As we were coming up and learning about this music and playing these places, it kind of felt like we were holding the torch and introducing these younger people to this older music that had been there the whole time.

What is the Minneapolis music scene like? Is it pretty diverse, does it maybe steer towards any particular genre?

Justin: Yeah, I’m kind of always amazed at the diversity in town. It’s such a broad range. Our scene is plenty strong still, and there’s always younger bands that have a take on bluegrass and jamgrass and such. There’s this one artist Nur-D, and he’s like got these great tunes and just groovy, funky stuff. Then you got Lizzo, who established herself here before she really popped. So I mean the breadth of genres represented in town- okay another thing is, so historically Minneapolis/St. Paul has an inferiority complex, and we feel like we have to tell people how great it is here. We try to set ourselves apart, and in trying to be objective and not biased, the fans here are truly devoted. I’ll go out to shows, and there will be touring bands that come through, and the bands love coming here because everybody shows up. Despite the weather or whatever, or the fact that someone may not be well known, they still show up. They’re really supportive.

Nate: The audience in this area is definitely a key factor in terms of the quality of music coming out of here. People really get behind the music. They really want to tout it and see it be successful. I always think of this area as a DIY indie rock area. And it is a huge part of the Minneapolis music scene, but the kind of DIY quality the arts have here as a whole is not just in indie music or music period. You’ve got theater, art, etc. There’s a long winter where you have to find things to do.

So how long have you guys been hosting the Blue Ox Music Festival? Can you talk about its origins and how it’s grown over the years?

Nate: So this is the sixth year of the Blue Ox Music Festival. And it really happened kind of randomly and organically. Justin was an old friend of ours, but newly playing bass with us at the time. And this was one of the first tours we ever did with him in the band. And we had our clogger Matt Cartier and it was his first tour with us, and this was the beginning of the lineup that we have today. And we went out to Colorado with The Travelin’ McCourys, and it was a great time hanging out with those guys. We were playing in Denver, and we had played our set, and The McCourys were in the middle of theirs, and we were hanging by the merch booth when a man and his son approached and said, “Hey we’re from Eau Claire, Wisconsin and we throw a festival, would you guys be interested in playing it or getting some music there?” So we were like, “Uhh yeah, sure, sounds great, email our manager,” unbeknownst to us knowing how it would turn out. Sure enough they contacted our manager, and in a couple months we were standing in the middle of beautiful rolling meadows and pine trees on 100 acres. It had already been established as a music venue, too. It turned out to be the Bischel family, Jim and Mark, who came up to us. And the son [Mark] wanted to introduce his dad [Jim] to the bluegrass community. And it was a bit of an epiphany for Jim to realize that we were operating out of their backyard in Minneapolis.

The Bischel family had been producing Country Jam USA for 30+ years, which is a huge county fair-sized country pop event. They had envisioned that we would host or curate a smaller bluegrass stage within their country music festival. So talks got underway, we saw the property, and discussed it having the potential to be a Midwest Telluride basically, and so it all unfolded, and from Year 1 it’s been a success and growing. Thanks to their infrastructure that they had already built and their experience putting festivals on, our experience playing festivals, and it all just panned out. It’s a dream come true.

I was wondering what the set up is going to look like for the first virtual Blue Ox: Live From the Pines. What can fans expect when they tune in Friday?

Justin: I mean we got a schedule laid out. It was kind of a slow roll because there were a few spots that we didn’t know about until literally yesterday. We’re going to introduce the festival on Friday afternoon with a workshop, and then we’ll start with three live bands at the site each day. And in between those we’ll do the home-recorded sets from these different artists who live out of state like Sam, Lillie Mae, Del. So we’re going to do every other basically.

Nate: We’re also broadening that a bit. We’re trying to create the whole virtual festival experience. We’re trying to give the people a sense of Blue Ox and the vibe. And we’ll be incorporating workshops with The Henhouse Prowlers out of Chicago, and they have a project called The Bluegrass Ambassadors, and they’re doing such amazing work traveling around the world with their outreach towards folk music and cultural sharing. We’ll be doing some yoga as well, so we’re really trying to create the sense of a virtual festival in a fuller sense. And of course this was when the actual festival was supposed to occur. Fingers crossed we will be able to put on the real festival at the end of August as planned.

This was also when we had planned to release our new album, Rising Tide. So we just decided we didn’t want to delay any longer. We’d been sitting on this album and we just wanted to get it out into the world. People need something to look forward to and something they can be distracted by, at least.

I see it’s a free livestream, but are you guys doing anything in hopes to monetize the event, or just going full-fledged for the people, out of pocket type event?

Nate: We’re going fully for free with the broadcasting of it. We’re definitely hoping to sell our new album and get that out. There’s definitely an expense, even producing a virtual festival. The way we’re proposing to do it anyway. We’ll have a virtual tip jar and that kind of thing. We’re hoping people will feel generous to support the musicians they’ll be enjoying throughout the stream.

Justin: We’ll be donating a portion of the proceeds to various causes, like COVID relief funds and racial justice reform causes and such. Our community of course has been the center of it all, and especially our neighborhood. Kevin and I live in Longfellow, just south of where everything happened.

Nate: Right now I’m like four blocks from where it all went down.

Justin: Our neighborhood needs a lot of rebuilding and we want to help those efforts. And there are so many families whose food lines have been cut off, because we had three grocery stores that got burned or looted. And along with Metro Transit being shut down for numerous days after, there are still so many people who need food and essentials.

Do you feel the city has responded appropriately and/or effectively in the aftermath?

Justin: So Greater Longfellow has like 20,000 people in it. It’s a big neighborhood. My neighborhood and specifically my block. I’ll tell you from first hand experience that I witnessed my neighborhood come together and really look out for each other. Just being at the heart of it all and watching people volunteer at food drives, and clean up Lake Street and the surrounding area- it’s been pretty uplifting to see the community A) look out for each other and B) help each other clean up, organize, and commit to being more connected as neighbors, and being more involved in justice. The memorial where George Floyd was murdered has become this kind of like viewing, gathering space for everybody where people can go down and often times tell their stories about what it means to be a person of color in this town and such. It’s been such a positive response as far as how the community has reacted. So much work needs to be done, but we’ve definitely come together.

Nate: There’s something really special about Minneapolis and how quick people are to mobilize here and get a critical mass, and get shit done like this. It’s terrible that this would happen anywhere, but that it happened in Minneapolis I think is kind of key to this whole thing, and creating a change and the potential this has to have a positive outcome.

Justin: We did lose a venue to a fire that Pert Near kind of came up at.

Nate: Unfortunately that’s kind of where we started as a band. Yep, burned and yeah.

Damn, that’s all very heavy stuff. Switching gears here, I’d like to talk about y’alls new album, Rising Tide. What might be the influences and inspirations behind it?

Justin: So inside the album we put a JFK quote, “A rising tide lifts all boats,”- and really we left some songs off because they didn’t fit the theme, but like my tune, “Border Wall Waltz,” is strictly anti-Trump and displays my complete and utter frustration with him. Jay’s tune “Kings and Clowns” isn’t exactly about Trump, but the lyrical content is about destruction and what happens when leaders do wrong, I guess you could say.

Nate: I feel Pert Near has really developed our songwriting. We have four songwriters in the band and all come from different backgrounds. This album is probably the most genuine or most true to how we can reflect the life that we live in the modern age. It’s the most palpable album we’ve ever made. There’s no way to predict COVID, or the death of George Floyd, but all these things kind of feels like, in a way, this album foresaw all this happening in an odd way. We are sensitive as songwriters to the point where organically we just tap into culturally what’s happening, and the shift of popular consciousness now. This album was a way to voice that.

Justin: I mean really it’s a reflection of our current culture. The political state, and at times the desperation of people who are just trying to make sense of it all.

Where was it recorded, and who was involved in its production?

Nate: So Ryan Young, our old fiddle player and longtime collaborator produced it as his place. He also recorded our first two Pert Near albums. They were recorded in the basement of the house that him and Jay were living in at the time. We since then have gone on to other studios. But a large part of ending up with the album that we ended up with, was that we were so comfortable hanging out with Ryan at his place and exploring our new songs.

Justin: The thing about Ryan too is that he has an incredible ear. We would lay down a whole bass track and explore sounds, and he would just take it, and we’d give him cart blanche to act at will, and he’d forward the song with his changes and more often than not we’d be like damn, that sounds great, thank you for that. He deserves a lot of production credit on the new album, especially with the heavily layered songs you hear on the album.

While it may be like picking a favorite child, which song or couple songs are you either most proud of, or most excited for the public to hear?

Justin: I really like Jay’s “Kings and Clowns” tune. Kevin’s got a gut-wrencher on there called “Not Your Fault.” Those are my two answers. And I like how “Border Wall Waltz” came out too with the horns and kind of like the Mariachi type sound.

Nate: I’m having a hard time deciding, because I really feel like from front to back it has a good flow. I’m just proud of the album, and think it turned out really well.

I know you said there are four of you that are songwriters, but how does the songwriting process work within the band?

Nate: It starts kind of with a show and tell process. We all typically write individually. We’ll come in before rehearsal and quite often a few of the songs will get worked out, and we’ll perform them before recording them, but more often than not we’re teaching each other songs before we jump in the studio. On this album, probably half of them we were performing before this new release. Generally we’re individually writing them and bringing them to the band to see what sticks.

Once it’s deemed safe and acceptable to get back out in the world and go about a usual routine, what local Minneapolis establishments do you most look forward to frequenting again?

Justin: It’s a long list. (laughs) Turf Club for one. The Hook and Ladder is also another venue that’s been around for a few years now, but it’s right next to the Third Precinct. They’ve been really great throughout this whole thing trying to help the community.

Nate: 331 Club is another venue that we’ve been involved with since it opened. It’s kind of been my dive bar. The Dubliner Pub is another one.

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