The perfect place to start:
In western Wisconsin, deep in the 100- (well, technically 120-) acre wood, thousands of nature-loving festival goers will once again gather together beneath The Pines.
“We get in the gates and it's just like, this magical aura spreads through the woods and the stage. It's always so special.”
Justin Bruhn and Nate Sipe are members of Minneapolis roots-rockers Pert Near Sandstone, and co-hosts of Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s Blue Ox Music Festival. They’re working overtime with the rest of the Blue crew to bring the annual outdoor experience back this weekend for its sixth year at The Pines Music Park.
As palpable excitement builds among festival staff ahead of the event, so do the stages, light displays, art installations and areas that will play host to a variety of additional activities and attractions.
"We're anxiously awaiting," said Bruhn a few days before the fest. "I wish it was Thursday already."
Having established itself as a destination for fans throughout the region and nation alike, its organizers still advertise an intimate affair, complete with a down-home, Midwestern vibe.
“If you've never been to something like a music festival, it may be the perfect place to start,” Bruhn said.
WATCH: Pert Near Sandstone at 2021 Blue Ox Music Festival
Legend of Blue Ox:
As the folk story goes, everything seemed to fall perfectly into place during the initial stages of Blue Ox. Bruhn said the band was on tour with internationally renowned bluegrass group The Travelin’ McCourys when a man by the name of Mark Bischel – a well-known figure within the tight-knit Midwest music community – approached them with a proposition.
As proprietors of The Pines Music Park – formerly Whispering Pines Campground – the Bischel family had already hosted years of successful festivals and concerts on the grounds, and were now inviting the bandmates to come be a part of the fun.
“Initially, they pitched it as a side stage at Country Jam, but then we pitched back, ‘Well you have this great campground, and it's about the perfect size for about a 4,000 to 5,000 person festival…’ So that was sort of where it started, and now it's where it is,” Bruhn said.
Sipe added, “The chips were all lined up and it all fell into place.”
Following two years of cancellations and improvisations during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s fest is coming back strong with three stages and more than 40 artists, including bluegrass renegades Béla Fleck My Bluegrass Heart, and all-time folk favorites, Old Crow Medicine Show.
And while the event does boast sets by some of the country’s most iconic performers and pickers across its main stage, it’s the call of the music entrenched deeply within the region that seduces fans back into the forest.
“There's no comparison, really,” Sipe said. “Just for us to have anything to do with bringing all these characters around the country together, and our community, our region, it has this feeling that it's uplifting our whole community to the next level.”
WATCH: 2022 Blue Ox Music Festival Band Competition
Singer-songwriter Siri Undlin, a Twin Cities native who performs as experimental indie-folk project Humbird, is playing for the first time at Blue Ox this year with her band. The artist, who continues her upward trajectory here and abroad, will also lead a new songwriter’s workshop with Eau Claire’s own Soren Staff of Them Coulee Boys.
Undlin and Staff’s Saturday workshop is just one of many led by fellow industry experts and troubadours.
“It's so awesome to empower other people to realize writing a song isn't that scary, and actually, it's a really awesome mental health tool and can lead you to cool friends,” Undlin said. “I jumped at it when they asked me because sometimes a workshop can be just as fun as a performance.”
In keeping with Blue Ox’s storied tradition of helping launch acts into national and international notoriety, Undlin will leave the festival and pack up for her first tour abroad, kicking off next week in the United Kingdom. While Undlin says she’s excited to continue her tour overseas, she concedes playing gigs at home helps ground her in preparation for getting back out on the road.
“In my opinion, playing at home is always the best. I feel like this is the place where I have the deepest roots,” Undlin said, adding, “This project and Humbird wouldn't be what it is without the people of the Twin Cities who show up and are down to support up-and-coming artists and artists in their region. It's only because of their support that we can do it far away.”
WATCH: Humbird, "May"
Sanctuary for the soul:
By most accounts, it’s evident the overall theme of Blue Ox hinges on kinship and community. As ticket sales cap at around 5,000, its attendees say the event can’t help but feel like an extension of home.
“It's always really fun to bring your music into a festival setting,” Undlin said. “It always feels like a celebration. I think it'll feel like a family reunion of sorts.”
Media director for the festival, Karen Wells-Verlander, says Blue Ox is proud to create such a unique environment, where anyone from any walk of life feels like a part of that family.
“We've created this environment where it's intimate, it's friendly — very family oriented. People come and camp; it's their first vacation after school,” she said. “This is for music-centric, passionate people. It's just a very special environment.”
The festival invites children ages 12 and under to attend for free, and offers plenty of activities beyond the music for both young and old to enjoy. The newly dubbed Soul Sanctuary gives festival goers the choice to opt into wellness practices like morning yoga, sound healing and meditation, while the Potluck Pickin’ Area welcomes fellow musicians for campground jam sessions throughout the day and night.
“It's just a great excuse to get everybody together and catch up and hang out and create new memories and new music. It's nothing but a pleasure to be involved,” Sipe said.
Culminating full circle for Pert Near Sandstone this year is the opportunity to once again host Del McCoury, who Sipe describes as an “American gem and icon of American music.” As you'll recall, it was on tour with Del’s band, The Travelin’ McCourys, that the Pert Near bandmates were first approached to hatch a plan for a festival all those handful of years ago.
“Any chance that you get to see Del McCoury, you should take that opportunity,” Sipe said. “It kind of comes full circle when Del McCurry is on stage and/or The Travelin’ McCourys.”
He added, “Sitting down with Del McCoury in a meadow of 5,000 people or more still makes you feel like you're sitting at a kitchen table with him.”
WATCH: Del McCoury Band at the 2018 Blue Ox Music Festival
Larger than life:
It's special moments like those that give Blue Ox its reputation for a larger-than-life, one-of-a-kind experience, fully utilizing the gifts it's been provided. As the festival continues to promote friendship, sincerity and kindness, it evokes the warmth of connection that we’ve so desperately missed, while still representing the wild unknown that has yet to be discovered.
The fest, at its roots, is fitting tribute to a regional folk hero — Paul Bunyan’s Blue Ox.
“You never know what kind of magical adventure is going to happen when you leave your house,” Undlin said. “There's all these people out there waiting for you to come out and be part of it…so, why not?”
The Blue Ox Music Festival will be held Thursday, June 23 through Saturday, June 25 at The Pines Music Park in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
For ticket, camping and parking information, click here.
For more information about the artist lineup, click here.
For information about the overall festival experience, click here.
2022 Blue Ox Music Festival
Watch more local news:
Watch the latest local news from the Twin Cities in our YouTube playlist: