The organizers of the Blue Ox Music Festival take justifiable pride in their year-to-year lineups of acclaimed bluegrass and Americana artists. But they are equally enthusiastic about their audience.
“I’ve said this before: I’m really a fan of the bluegrass fan,” said Jim Bischel, Blue Ox Musical Festival president.
Bischel, his sons Mark and Tony, host band Pert Near Sandstone and the rest of their team are rolling out the welcome mat for the fifth annual festival Thursday through Saturday at Whispering Pines Campground in the town of Union outside of Eau Claire. Jim and Tony chatted recently in the festival office, which is on the scenic grounds well-populated by, naturally, pines and with a pond located near the main stage.
The approximately 4,000 fans who attend will see high-level talent such as the Infamous Stringdusters, Trampled By Turtles, Railroad Earth, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, and Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. They’ll also notice a crowd that Jim Bischel credits for making the event “something magical.”
“They’re here for the camaraderie, they’re here for the fellowship and they are true fans of the music,” he said of the attendees, 94% of whom, he estimates, stay the whole weekend and camp on the grounds. Part of their devotion, he added, is that they appreciate the music from more than a listener’s standpoint.
“I would also venture a guess that a larger share of them are musicians in their own right,” he said. “Not everyone. But a lot of them are.”
He knows that because many bring their instruments to the festival and, at appropriate times, engage in jam sessions.
Tony Bischel pointed out how that ethic produces spontaneous performances.
“If they see a guy with a banjo and they see a guy with a fiddle, then run into a guy with bass, they’ll all get together and just start playing,” Tony said. “That kind of builds on the camaraderie aspect.”
To enhance such jamming on the spot, the Bischels have added a new performance area: the Potluck Pickin’ Place. Led by a group called the Potluck String Band, the area will include a fire pit and benches, and musicians and listeners can get comfortable as the playing goes on into the early morning hours.
“I’m sure it’ll be a 24/7 event,” Jim Bischel said with a laugh. “It’s important to say it’s not amplified music.”
Pickin’ and picking up
The Bischels also notice how special the fans are when they see, at the festival’s end, what they leave behind: not much.
“Honestly, when they leave on Sunday we don’t have to clean up,” Jim Bischel said. “Not at all. Maybe around the dumpster. They don’t even leave a can. It is amazing, and they have a motto: Leave it better than you found it.”
Jim Bischel attributes that philosophy to the fact that bluegrass tends to draw an environmentally conscious crowd.
“They’re very green,” he said. “They’re into recycling reusable this and that.”
The environmental consciousness fits Blue Ox’s orientation as a family-friendly event, which includes free admission for children 13 and younger and child-friendly activities such as crafts and entertainment during the day at the Family Stage.
“I think parents are just setting an example for their children to respect nature and things like that,” he said.
Jim Bischel, who previously was president of the Country Jam USA festivals in the Chippewa Valley and in Colorado, said part of the inspiration for starting Blue Ox came from the fact that his son Mark has been a bluegrass fan since he was in middle school. They decided to start it up because they had just sold the Colorado event and were considering different options for another festival.
The Bischels remember the first festival clearly for two reasons: rains of biblical proportions for one (about 6 inches, Jim Bischel recalled), and the way that the fans’ attitude remained bright and sunny throughout.
“It went so well and easy to a large degree because of the fans,” Jim Bischel said. “They were so tolerant. They had a smile on their face regardless. It’s if you get lemons you make lemonade. They had mud and they made fun.”
Beyond simply accepting the inhospitable conditions, the fans worked actively to help deal with the situation.
“When we were shoveling and laying straw and hay, we had to almost beat ’em away because we had too many people trying to help,” Jim Bischel said. “They were so accommodating. They didn’t complain. It went so well it was unbelievable.”
Sense of gratitude
That attitude has continued to shine in the event’s succeeding years.
“The level of appreciation was something that we didn’t expect,” Jim Bischel said. “That’s what makes it fun running it because they appreciate what we do so much.”
One reason for the gratitude may be that the Midwest has a relatively short supply of festivals specializing in bluegrass Americana music.
“You can see individual acts different places, but to see them all in one place,” Jim Bischel said.
The camaraderie among the musicians also stands out.
For instance, Jim Bischel recalled, the first year that the festival offered a late-night stage on the grounds, banjo player Bela Fleck, who is among the most celebrated musicians in the genre’s history, went back and jammed amid the campers.
“In other genres of music that ain’t gonna happen,” he said.
That interaction is repeated throughout the festival’s regular hours.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Jerry Douglas plays with three different bands (Saturday) because they’ll invite these musicians onstage,” Jim Bischel said, referring to the revered dobro player.
The musicians’ rapport with each other can be seen in this year’s lineup, as one group is stepping in for another artist who was scheduled but had to cancel.
Sam Bush, a legendary mandolin player, has appeared at all four previous Blue Ox festivals and was booked for this year as well. But recovery from surgery has forced him to cancel his Friday slot. In his stead, the Travelin’ McCourys, another lauded group, are not only playing their own set Friday but also are returning to the stage for what is being billed as “The Travelin’ McCourys Tip Their Hat to Sam Bush.”
The stars enjoy mingling with the fans too.
“Artists go and eat at the food court,” Tony Bischel said.
While the Bischels expect some growth this year, and they draw fans from all 50 states, they think the current size fits well with the kind of event they want to present.
“The festival is intended to be small,” Jim Bischel said. “I think it loses its vibe if it gets too big.”
Of course they always will welcome new fans, including residents close to home.
“We always like to get the word out in Eau Claire that you don’t have to be a bluegrass fan,” Jim Bischel said. “If I had a dollar every time somebody came here that didn’t know anything about bluegrass that left a bluegrass fan.”
And that’s a testament not just to the vibe but to the quality of the music. Jim Bischel figures that they have more Grammy Award-winning artists than significantly larger festivals featuring different types of music.
“They are, from a musician standpoint, some of the best at their instrument in the world,” he said.”
While the festival’s base has a deep appreciation of bluegrass, the Bischels in past years have broadened the musical offerings with Americana acts such as Margo Price, Tyler Childers and Son Volt. This year, they expect the Dead South, whose sound stretches into Americana, will win some new fans when they perform Saturday.
In filling out the lineup, the Bischels work with Periscope Management and with the members of Pert Near Sandstone, the Twin Cities-based ensemble who are the festival’s host band and co-curators. They also rely on Mark Bischel, who lives in Madison and goes to “a ton” of shows, Jim Bischel said. For instance, Tony added, Mark was the first one to talk about Billy Strings, the high-energy instrumental wizard who’s playing at the festival on Saturday.
They also survey their fans and take the time to talk with them themselves when they call, even if the conversation stretches to the 90-minute mark. They strongly believe in that personal attention.
As Tony Bischel said. “That’s another reason we want to keep it small is because if we double the amount of people that call in we might not be able to take care of it with the team we have. Then it wouldn’t really be the same.”
Those who aren’t able to attend the festival, or not every minute of it, will have other options to enjoy the goings-on. A livestream of the event is offered through a partnership between the Bluegrass Situation, an entity described on its website as an international standard-bearer for bluegrass and other roots music, and JamGrass TV, which offers video content for bluegrass, folk rock and a genre known as jamgrass.
The Bischels say the livestream will be available live on YouTube and Facebook.
Local station Converge Radio (99.9 FM) is broadcasting live too.
Of course, it goes without saying organizers of any festival look for favorable conditions, and those who run Blue Ox are no exception.
“We’re hoping for good weather,” Jim Bischel said, but if not, he added with a smile, “They’ll deal with it.”