EAU CLAIRE — For Nate Sipe, member of Minnesota bluegrass band Pert Near Sandstone, playing at the right music festival means performing on stage is only a small part of the fun of being there.
Jamming by a campfire, reuniting with old friends and making new connections are the best parts.
“That’s the thing keeping us playing music to a large degree,” Sipe said. “It’s finding places where playing music is not just a grind.”
The Blue Ox music festival, still relatively young in its fifth year, has become that kind of experience.
When Pert Near members teamed with Jim Bischel, owner of the Whispering Pines campground in Eau Claire, Wis. where Blue Ox is held, they were hoping to create the kind of festival they would enjoy playing or attending.
“We really envisioned this festival based off our favorite festivals,” Sipe said.
When Sipe first saw the tree-shaded festival grounds and stage overlooking a pond, he knew the site would provide.
“I was astounded — it was just perfect,” he said. “We just immediately were dreaming big.”
Sipe and his bandmates modeled the festival off other established events like the String Summit in Oregon that he and his bandmates look forward to every year.
“To have the spirit of those kinds of events — living and breathing and growing to what it’s become — is very rewarding,” Sipe said. “Finding festivals like this — they’re gems.”
With most of the festival infrastructure in place and campground owners who had experience running a music festival, Sipe and his bandmates focused their attention on cultivating a good lineup and making sure musicians and performers felt comfortable and welcome at the event.
“To me, it’s like a dream job,” Sipe said. “It’s a pretty well-oiled machine for being such a young festival.”
With about 4,000 attendees each year, Blue Ox has cultivated a strong base of fans and adds newcomers each year.
“I think the community was really hungry for something like this,” Sipe said.
There have been plenty of memorable moments on and off the stage over four years of festivals, including the Bela Fleck and the Flecktones reunion, and bluegrass royalty Del McCoury, wearing a white suit, being escorted to the stage through a muddy field on the back of a golf cart during a weekend of record rains. For Sipe, the best memories are spending time with guest musicians, playing or chatting and jamming in the early morning at the campground stage.
Other important ingredients for a successful festival are daytime events and music instruction sessions. Family programming is also part of the festival.
“I think of it as we’re providing an opportunity for this music to live and grow and expand and move on to the next generation,” Sipe said. “It’s a powerful thing.”