Wisconsin: Beer and Cheese, and Snow… and Music?

Someone once asked me, “why is it that people from Wisconsin are always so proud to be from Wisconsin?”

Wisconsinites are known to be hard-working and generally nice. We are content with our situation and roll at a slower pace. We typically choose to work together instead of against each other.

Often times when I am on tour in warmer parts of the country and I tell people where I’m from I hear the same response, “I could never live there, it’s too cold in the winter.” The cold brings us together. It also makes us ornery, depressed, and leads us to drinking too much beer. Winter is a time for introspection. We spend more time inside writing, practicing, doing shots, finding creative ways to keep ourselves busy on long nights, and spending time with each other. Many great songs have come out of surviving a long, cold, dark, grey winter together

A friend of mine at Bonfire Festival last weekend made an observation that Wisconsin music seemed to be making a splash in the national music scene lately. Bands like Phox, Dead Horses, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Bon Iver, and Cory Chisel have gotten some attention in the national market.

There is also a history of big names from Wisconsin like the Violent Femmes, Timbuk 3 (future so bright I gotta wear shades), Steve Miller, Les Paul, Butch Vig (Nirvana/Sonic Youth), and Weird Al Yankovic. Yankovic’s dad was known as the polka king of Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is home to the world’s largest Music Festival (not to mention the largest talking cow and block of cheese). The state is also home to dozens of micro-festivals. Most of which happen in the summer months when it’s warm enough to be outside.

There are different regions of the state that seem to be mutually exclusive when it comes to the music scene. There is the Milwaukee scene, the Madison scene, the Fox Valley Scene, the Eau Claire scene (which until recently was absorbed by the Minneapolis scene), and the LaCrosse/Winona scene. Each of them seem to have their own quirks and general opinions about what determines good music. One thing is certain, there is a lot of music coming out of Wisconsin as a whole. These hills are alive with the sound of music.

So the question remains: Is Wisconsin becoming the Roots music capitol of the world? Similar to what Seattle did for Grunge, Colorado did for new-grass music, Nashville did for Country, and Austin did for the Singer/Songwriter. What is the universal appeal around the world for music that comes from this region?

First off, there is a slew of young musicians from Wisconsin who have “made it big” in the national scene and returned home and used their success to help the Wisconsin scene thrive. Recently Justin Vernon of Bon Iver returned to open a top-notch recording studio, a music festival, and now a hipster music motel in downtown Eau Claire. Cory Chisel has done something similar with Mile-0-Music Festival in Appleton and a converted monastery space after spending time in Nashville and LA. Pat MacDonald also started his own music festival and music motel in Door County fueled by the money and fame of one big radio hit.

Summerfest in Milwaukee does a great job of bringing in huge national acts balanced with the up and coming local favorites. Milwuakee is also home to the infamous Pabst Theater. Alpine Valley Ampitheater has hosted some of the biggest acts you can think of. Most recently in Wisconsin music history there is a new bluegrass festival (held at the same facilities as Rock Fest, Country Jam, and Eau Claires) that is comparable in size and quality to Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. This is a major accomplishment for the large contingent of bluegrass fans and players of Wisco. Sconnie?

Let’s consider the region and culture. Music is a reflection of a person and the place they come from. You can’t simply pass through Wisconsin. There are giant lakes to the North and East that stop through traffic. It is a place you go only when you choose to make it your destination. We are filled with farmers, beer brewers, cheese makers, deer hunters, Packer fans, and industry. It’s a mostly conservative state except pockets of Milwaukee, Madison, Stevens Point, Viroqua, and Eau Claire. Many small towns above a population of 25 thousand has a University or Tech College. This helps with bringing in art and culture to the people who live there.

We are living in a time when people long for the way life used to be. Wisconsin (and it’s more naive neighbor Iowa) is equidistant from the coasts where all hip things begin. We are insulated from the rest of the world by two thousand miles of fields and mountains on every side. We have real life struggles and are deeply rooted. That comes out in the music. We are authentic while the rest of the world is striving to be the next new thing. We are who we are. People find that refreshing.

Wisconsin is not a place for everyone. I have said more than once that every winter I spend in Wisconsin takes 5 years off of my life. Living through a struggle makes us stronger. The cold helps us appreciate the warmth. Isolation brings us closer together. I would much rather be cold and in the company of good folk than warm in a crowded city-scape of fake people in a hurry trying to make it to the top. That seems to be the general sentiment of most people who live here and it is reflected in the music that is created.


State Motto: Forward Hey!

State Bird: Robin

State Beverage: Milk (Beer was a close 2nd)

State Muffin: Cranberry Nut

State Fish: Musky

State Dance: Polka

State Waltz: Wisconsin Waltz

State Soil: Antigo Silt Loam (there is a song about it!)

State Symbol of Peace: The Mourning Dove

Check out some of my favorite venues in Wisconsin:

Driftless Books & Music- Viroqua, WI

Trempealeau Hotel- Trempealeau, WI

Driftless Music Gardens- Yuba, WI

Acoustic Cafe- Menomonie & Eau Claire, WI

The Source Public House- Menasha, WI

Shawano Folk Festival- Shawano, WI

Larryfest- LaFarge, WI

Ragged Roots Festival- WI Dells, WI

Sh*tty Barn- Spring Green, WI

Pabst Theater- Milwaukee, WI

Summerfest- Milwaukee, WI

Stoughton Opera House- Stoughton, WI

Cafe Carpe- Ft. Atkinson, WI


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