Walking through the newly renovated Blue Ox Music Festival’s main log cabin on Tuesday afternoon, festival organizer Jim Bischel talked with his son, Tony Bischel, about sending out a paycheck to one of their employees.
On his way out the door, Jim Bischel said goodbye to his wife, who he added has been integral to bringing together the annual bluegrass and Americana festival, which returns for its fourth year Thursday through Saturday at the Whispering Pines Campground, 5024 Crescent Ave.
“We’ve still got the dust settling,” he said. “This has been kind of a whirlwind eight months as far as remodels go, and for setting up a new corporation.”
The new corporation exists because Bischel, who has been at the helm of Country Jam USA for more than 25 years, cut ties with his partner last year to focus solely on Blue Ox Music Festival. He and Tony Bischel, who has been involved with the festivals since 2014, are running the small office.
“My former partner and I both wanted to go different directions,” Jim Bischel said. “Breaking the festivals up allows us both to concentrate on one, and I think the change will be refreshing for both events.”
This father of three knows a thing or two about business, but more about family. So it’s no wonder he wants to focus on what he believes is the Chippewa Valley’s most family-friendly music festival, with two full days of kids’ programming including face painting, giant bubbles, goat yoga and more on a kids’ stage in the family camping site. Admission is free for kids 13 and under.
“The vibe and environment of the festival are really selling points as they are,” he said. “Other than the full liquor license that we have, which is a nice perk, we haven’t planned on making a whole lot of changes.”
The biggest change is the addition of the Paul Bunyan Pass, a ticket add-on that gives access to the newly renovated Blue Ox Lounge, which boasts a full-service bar and is housed in the former merchandise area of the main cabin. Pass holders will get a 2018 insulated stainless pint glass and access to “elite” bathrooms with running water. Oh, and air conditioning, all for $175 for access throughout the weekend.
Bischel expects about 30 to 50 people to fill the relatively small space over the three days this year, and said it is a response from previous attendees who were looking for additional perks.
“There is a part of our clientele that was looking,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of requests for high-end restrooms and a private bar, so we thought we’d give it a try.”
As far as the lineup goes, Bischel said he was excited to secure headliner The Devil Makes Three, an acoustic trio they’ve been trying to land for the last couple of years. Other headliners Sam Bush and Greensky Bluegrass have been festival staples since the inaugural 2015 festival.
Eau Claire-La Crosse-based band Them Coulee Boys will also be returning for its third year, something Bischel is proud of.
“I think they are the bluegrass band in the Eau Claire region and definitely on the rise,” he said.
That feeling is reciprocated by the band, which vocalist Soren Staff said is honored to return each year.
Staff said playing the Blue Ox festival is a “prestigious thing” for the group, which first played at the small campground stage in 2016. Last year the band played on a side stage, and this will be the first year Them Coulee Boys plays on the main stage.
“We started on the campground stage and now we’re playing main this year,” Staff said. “They’ve really helped us grow so much and given us a lot of opportunities.”
One of those opportunities is networking with bands that Them Coulee Boys members look up to and can learn from. Staff also commented on how lucky it is to have a high-caliber bluegrass festival in the region.
“It’s such a huge advantage to us to have a national festival in our backyard,” Staff said. “In the bluegrass-folk scene, Blue Ox is the one festival for Wisconsin. So it means a lot to be able to be so close to home and play that.”
Staff said the group has played many bluegrass and folk festivals, which all have a similar vibe: family-friendly yet with a party atmosphere and carefree. He sees all of those things in Blue Ox but more amplified.
“Blue Ox is so much more professional than a lot of things you see,” Staff said. “Bluegrass was born on people’s back porches, so a lot of times festivals are that ‘thrown together, just going to be there’ vibe. Blue Ox is so well run and you know what to expect. That’s something we really value as an artist.”
Bischel expects attendance this year to be around 4,000, up just slightly from last year. He recognizes the event will never draw crowds the likes of Country Jam USA, but he said it definitely has room to grow.
“We’re not unhappy with the number we’re at right now,” he said. “It could afford to grow, and we’d like to see it grow by a small percent from what it is today.”
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