In just 20 days, Minnesotans will be embarking to Eau Claire Wisconsin for the return of Blue Ox Music Festival. Now in it’s six year, and first one fully back from the scaled down 2020 rendition, Blue Ox is primed to once again deliver an intimate Bluegrass and Americana music experience all geared with a fan-centric approach. The 3 day festival is a blend of camping, art installations, multiple stages, a wellness tent, instrument workshops, and a pickin’ area for everyone to jam together with musicians.
For the first time ever, Music in Minnesota will be covering this festival from a completely different angle. Our team will be behind the stage talking to artists about the importance of festivals, networking, and what it means for them to have the opportunity to perform in front of large audiences.
We’ll be capturing exclusive photos and witnessing the complexity of a festival with over 40 artists rolling in and out. This opportunity gives our readers an inside look at what happens behind the stage and get to know some of your favorite artists in a different way.
In preparation for the return of Blue Ox, we caught up with Nate Sipe from Pert Near Sandstone and Mark Bischel to discuss the history of Blue Ox, the direction of their lineup, and what makes this Midwest festival so unique for the fans and artists.
The Start of Blue Ox
The Bischel family has been putting on events and festivals for over 20 years. The legend goes that the beginning of Blue Ox was when Mark’s father was visiting him in Colorado and saw Pert Near Sandstone performing. A quick trip to the merch table and the rest was history.
MIM: I’ve heard about the infamous creation of Blue Ox at a merch table. Tell me about that and share with a bit of your families history of putting on events and festivals.
Mark Bischel: My father, Jim Bischel had been putting on Country Jam in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Grand Junction, Colorado for over 20 years – when he and my mother came out to visit me as I was living in Colorado. I was a big fan of bluegrass and Americana music, so I decided to have them come out to see The Travelin’ McCourys at the Gothic Theater. It just so happened that another band I was quite familiar with, Pert Near Sandstone, was opening for them. We arrived early for the Pert Near Sandstone set and I think my father was struck by how much fun everyone was having as this band from Minnesota was playing on stage. In the break between bands my dad snuck away to talk to J. Lenz who was working their merch booth about putting on a bluegrass festival. It was the first planting of the seed, which later came to fruition as the Blue Ox Music Festival.
MIM: What appealed to Pert Near Sandstone the most in starting up a bluegrass festival in the Midwest?
Nate Sipe: Pert Near had been producing smaller events in Minneapolis for several years, including the annual Winter String Band Gathering that still takes place. We had even unofficially helped the Boats and Bluegrass Festival with their lineup as it was beginning to book more nationally touring artists. All the while we were trying to envision a way to create a multi-day outdoor event that would feature a broad range of acoustic and roots music including our network of artists locally and that we’ve come to know around the country.
A big driver was feeling the gap in the local festival scene when the 10,000 Lakes Festival discontinued their operation. There are other great festivals in the region but we wanted to produce something uniquely for that audience with a bit more eclectic lineup. It was also important to us that it have a wide inclusiveness for the audience, where everyone can feel comfortable attending for three days, ranging from the quiet family camp to the late night bonfire picking circles.
MIM: Having a band be so involved in the planning and organizing of the event is unique for festivals. What different perspective or influence does Pert bring to that process in the collaboration with the Bischel family and Blue Ox team?
Nate Sipe: Informing initial concepts for the festival, Pert Near tapped into over a decade of traveling around the country performing at festivals. We saw what works well but also what works badly at many types of events and wanted to produce an experience pleasurable for both the audience and the artist. The Bischel family met us with their decades of experience producing a country music festival with an infrastructure preexisting on a beautiful piece of land.
“The analogy is that curating a lineup is like making a mix tape of your favorite bands, creating a flow from stage to stage throughout the day so no one wants to leave the concert bowl.”
As music lovers and festival goers ourselves it’s a fun process in which we also involve the festival attendees for recommendations and closely regard their feedback. We are continuing to make the festival more immersive aside from the three stages, including instrument workshops, band competition for a stage performance, yoga, disc golf, designated campfire jamming areas, children’s activities, as well as light and art installations throughout the grounds.
Additionally, thanks to the eco-awareness of our audience, we are making strides to reduce the carbon footprint of the event and reduce the amount of landfill garbage that comes from producing a festival such like this, which is very important to us. There is even a group that bicycles to Blue Ox from the Twin Cities Metro and hopefully that catches on with more people.
MIM: The mention of a “fan-centric” approach is a really powerful angle and ability to open up Blue Ox Festival for changes. What has the feedback from the fans done to change the experience at Blue Ox over the years?
Mark Bischel: The idea of being a “fan-centric” festival has been something that we try to think about with the decisions that we make. How does this decision effect the experience of those coming to enjoy these shows? Having attended many festivals across the country over the years you not only see the good but also the bad. Some things make sense from an operational point of view but can introduce stress into the equation for those who attend. Often it is the small things that make a difference. Such as making sure our porta-potties are cleaned often and are plentiful, providing convenient family camping areas since it is often necessary to bounce back and forth when you have kids in-tow, or providing areas for attendees to come together and play music together after the show. We send all attendees a post festival survey to share their thoughts on how the weekend went. We then go over it and come up with ideas to address attendees concerns and ideas for improvements.
MIM: The lineup for 2021 is filled with unique, diverse, and exciting artists from all over the Midwest. What do you think is alluring for artists when making the decision to play Blue Ox Festival?
Mark Bischel: I believe Blue Ox is exciting for local and regional Midwest artists for a few reasons. First of all, it is a chance for them to get together and camp with their counterparts all in one place, but also an opportunity to share the stage with larger national acts from across the country. In some ways music festivals such as Blue Ox can be seen as a conference of sorts with networking opportunities for the artists involved. It is also an opportunity to get in front of new potential fans since Blue Ox draws attendance from across the country.
MIM: To someone that hasn’t attended Blue Ox before, what should they expect that’s maybe different from attending other festivals?
Nate Sipe: As I often describe to those I chat with, it’s like a midwestern version of Telluride, with an audience containing everyone that might be at both a traditional bluegrass fest but also a hippie jam fest. We welcome and accept everybody who is considerate of others. The major thing that struck us when we first saw the land is the beautiful rolling hills filled with trees, a gorgeous meadow sloping toward a pond; everything was really ideal for a multi-day music festival of this caliber, and so near the great little town of Eau Claire which has been increasingly supportive to Blue Ox.
MIM: What’s a favorite memory from past Blue Ox Festivals?
Nate Sipe: I don’t know where to begin to answer this. There are so many episodes that flash through my mind after five years, and really six years by including the virtual Blue Ox festival of 2020. This was also our ‘Rising Tide’ album release amid the Covid pandemic that we broadcasted live from the Pines Music Park on the weekend Blue Ox would have occurred. Ironically, the weather was absolutely perfect that whole weekend and it would have been the best Blue Ox to date, which added to the surrealism of playing the festival without a physical audience. It was immediately apparent how important the audience is to any kind of function like this, and how incredibly lucky we are to have the loyal audience we do. Having experienced that virtual festival devoid of an audience made it tangibly clear how important the exchange of energy is between musician and listener.
“I now see an audience less as a crowd and instead as diverse individuals with the intent to relate to a broader and more diverse collection of individuals.”
MB: Some of my favorite memories from Blue Ox include getting to host the original Flecktones lineup when Bela Fleck and the Flecktones came to play in our second year (2016). That same year Del McCoury and his band played together with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, another shining point in that great year. Another great moment was seeing a young Billy Strings take the stage with his freshly formed band for an 11am set, seeing people running in as the sound drifted through the campgrounds was pretty awesome. It was likely the first time many had heard of or seen him, and those that missed the set had to hear all about it from their friends. Really all of the years were filled with great memories of the reunion with friends and our festival family. We can not wait to be back!
Music in Minnesota is excited to share the stories behind the stages and document what makes this festival so special for it’s musicians. We’ll be following around a handful of artists to document their Blue Ox experience leading up to their performance.
Tickets are still available here. Catch the incredible lineup that includes headliners Jason Isbell, Sam Bush Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, along with local favorites Pert Near Sandstone, Charlie Parr, Kind Country, Barbaro, Mae Simpson, and many more.
Full details online on the website.