Babe's Bluegrass

Eau Claire is the perfect spot for first Blue Ox fest

Eric Christenson, photos by Andrea Paulseth

TAKE THE BULL TO EAU CLAIRE. Nate Snipe from Pert’ Near Sandstone and Jim Bischel, the president of Country Jam, hang out with Babe the Blue Ox in Carson Park.
THINK OUTSIDE THE OX. Nate Snipe from Pert’ Near Sandstone and Jim Bischel, the president of Country Jam, hang out with Babe the Blue Ox in Carson Park.

In a summer that will see tens and tens of thousands of people flocking to the Chippewa Valley for huge music festivals like Country Jam, Country Fest, Rock Fest, and newcomer Eaux Claires, the Blue Ox Music Festival faces a unique challenge.

The bluegrass festival, which shares the same grounds as Country Jam and Eaux Claires, is purposefully keeping it tight: Where bigger festivals hope to bring in 20,000+ people, Blue Ox is shooting for 6,000-8,000.

But it’s anything but small.

“It’s gonna fit in great because it’s gonna fill its own niche,” said Jim Bischel, the President of Country Jam. “It’s gonna cover an area that has not been covered in the Eau Claire area.”

“This is just one more event on a major scale that exposes Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley to a lot of people.”– Jim Bischel

The bluegrass festival will only take place in the campground area at the Jam grounds, but that doesn’t mean there will be a lack of prominent acts and huge figures in the bluegrass scene. With legends like Del McCoury and Sam Bush all the way to big names like Justin Townes Earle and the Yonder Mountain String Band, Bischel said Blue Ox will be a landmark bluegrass festival on the scale of Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, long held as one of the genre’s very best. See the updated lineup below.

“We expect that Blue Ox will draw from all 50 states,” Bischel said. “This is just one more event on a major scale that exposes Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley to a lot of people.”

So how did Blue Ox nab such sacred stars? Well, it helps that the bulk of the booking was shouldered and curated by Minneapolis’ Pert’ Near Sandstone, a bluegrass juggernaut headed up by Nate Snipe. Snipe and the band have been touring around the country for the better part of the last ten years, rubbing elbows, sharing stories, and making friends with a lot of the biggest names in bluegrass. Snipe said in plotting out a lineup, many of the acts confirmed after not much more than a phone call.

“(The lineup is) mostly bands that we’ve toured with, or met and had a really good rapport with. It’s also bands that we cherish, ones we’ve been listening to for years. It’s a dream lineup for us,” Snipe said. “This music – more so than rock and roll, more so than country music – has a real support network that you don’t find in a lot of other music. It’s colleagues supporting each other and pushing the music instead of cut-throating each other and one-upping each other. That’s the spirit of the music.”

Snipe isn’t a stranger to the area, having played with Pert’ Near at places like the Mousetrap and the Stones Throw back in the day. And that’s just what Eau Claire is to a lot of people: A strange, nebulous area in between bigger cities. But Snipe said it’s easy to invest in place like Eau Claire because of that.

“Eau Claire is a flyover for a lot of people, but because of that it’s in a unique position for an event like this,” Snipe said. “It’s gonna draw from places like Minneapolis and Chicago.”

But outside the regional scope, Bischel and Snipe are both uber-confident that with a stacked lineup of bluegrass greats, a beautiful location, and the right spirit, Blue Ox will be an MVP in the bluegrass community, with a strong and lasting reputation among the best of the best. And the quaint style of the festival – on the campground only – will breathe a collaborative vigor into the three-day festival.

“We hope (collaboration) is a part of the culture,” Snipe said. “Try to stop those big bands from grabbing an instrument and wandering around the campground. I mean, they’ll do it.”

BLUE OX 2015 LINEUP
(Updated)

Burbillies • Charlie Parr • Dead Horses • Dead Man Winter (featuring members of Trampled by Turtles) • Del McCoury Band • Elephant Revival • EverGreen Grass Band • Greg Brown • Ginstrings • Greensky Bluegrass • The Hackensaw Boys • Henhouse Prowlers • Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank • Horse Feathers • Horseshoes and Hand Grenades • The Infamous Stringdusters • Jeff Austin Band • Justin Townes Earle • Kind Country • The Lowest Pair • Pert Near Sandstone (2 nights) • Pistol Whippin Party Penguins • Pokey LaFarge • Sam Bush • San Souci Quartet • Tin Can Gin • Yonder Mountain String Band

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The Blue Ox Music Festival is June 11-13 at the
Country Jam grounds campground just southwest of Eau Claire. Tickets are still on sale at blueoxmusicfestival.com.

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