The first Boats and Bluegrass Festival was actually called Bluegrass and Boats. It was 13-lucky years ago, on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, at a boggy river-side resort. There were two bands. I opened up for Trampled by Turtles, back when they still sat down when they performed, back when they were still together.
The second Boats & Bluegrass was at SUNCREST GARDENS, a picturesque organic farm in the driftless hills. Also on the Wisco-side of the Miss. Further up into the hills. I remember pulling in and seeing Sherpa Joe’s tipi pointing skyward. Planted on the tipee-top of a hill. I opened for Pert Near Sandstone. That was the first time I met those guys. Back when Jeff was playing bass. The green room was up in the loft of the barn and there were a bunch of gnome statues all over the place. That might just be the brownies talking.
The third Boats & Bluegrass Festival moved over the big river to where it is now. The MainStage had a log cabin theme. Teague & Ian from Hobo Nephews sat in with me. Tommy the Beard recorded it and you can LISTEN hear. I had just met Tommy at a festival I was playing in Kansas. If you don’t know Tommy, you can imagine him. He is all beard… and dreadlocks… and smiles. I think he has recorded over 2,000 shows! The first year at Prairie Island Campground (voted best festival showers of all summer by hard-core festival goers everywhere) I remember throwing an LED frisbee at night in a big open campground under the power lines listening to the headliners. Now tents are packed in stake to stake from the front gate all the way back to the playground on the other side of the campground. If you want to play frisbee now your going to have to paddle out to a sand bar.
Now years start to get a little blurry. The festival grew. The stage grew. The bands got more famous. The beer got more dank. There was rain and floods. All the while something close to the genre of bluegrass was providing the soundtrack.
Dr. Bob and his puppet magickry has been at all the fests I remember at Prairie Island Campground. He and I have usually done the Seafaring Puppeto in some capacity or he hops on stage with dark marionette’s during my set. I’ve played with a lot of different players over the years on that stage. An ever changing line-up of people supporting my latest creative project.
The number of hammocks hanging from trees has increased over the years. The themes for the festival have changed every years. The artwork that accompanies it always leaves you wanting another t-shirt you don’t really need. Paddle Trips, disc golf courses, The living-room style live-audience recording sessions were a nice addition, The houseboat concerts on the water were peaceful and charming, Jamie Harper and his artwork has been a nice presence over the years. At some point I started to be the master of ceremonies introducing each band. Then there was the year Tom set up the back of a UHAUL to be a lounged out green room.
Tom and Julie, who run the fest, have always been a constant. There son, Parker, was born at the festival! No not really, but he was born that weekend. One month after my daughter. Both of them raised as festival kids. Tom and Julie started Redtail Outfitters offering trips and outdoor gear in a retail store. The festival was a way to promote the store. The store has long since past and the festival has become a household name to thirty-something outdoorsy types looking for family fun.
I met Tom in Winona on Earth Day. I was performing at Winona State before the Procession of the Species Parade began and Redtail Outfitters was vending. They were selling Crocs, like when Crocs first came out! Tom said, “hey I like your music. I’m putting a festival together called Bluegrass & Boats. Do you want to play?” After that I went to play two more gigs that day at the bandshell on the lake in Winona and another gig at Dr. Bobs cafe called the Green Lantern.
The biggest change I’ve seen over the years, besides it going from a backyard bar to LOS LOBOS with a laser light show, is that it has become so family focused. For me, it’s become a family reunion with the family of people I choose to call family. Everyone is BLISSED out and extra kind and curtious. Everyone's a little tired, a little sunburned, a little sad that festival season is coming to a close.
This is Boats and Bluegrass’ 13th birthday. Lucky 13. I feel lucky to be part of such an amazing communal gathering of good vibes and music and nature. Remember: have fun, be safe, and look out for each other. See you on the river.