Boats and Bluegrass

Boats and Bluegrass music festival at Island Park in Winona 2018.

At last year’s Boats and Bluegrass music festival, firewood sales were roaring as temperatures dipped to freezing overnight. The year before, ice was the coolest accessory as temperatures topped 90 degrees for part of the festival. Three years ago, mostly sunny skies and weather in the low to mid-70s greeted festival-goers.

So if you average it out, the weather at Boats and Bluegrass has been ideal the past three years.

Although the weather isn’t the main draw at the annual camping and bluegrass festival, the outdoors curates the festival experience. Mississippi River bluffs of Wisconsin serve as the stage backdrop. The festival grounds on Island Park are bordered by the river’s waters. The setting is an essential part of the event, said festival operator Isaac Sammis.

On cold days, people gather around campfires and enjoy spontaneous jam sessions and the company of their campsite neighbors. On hot days, they wade into the Mississippi or take boats on it.

“Whatever the river does, you’re a part of it,” Sammis said.

The Mississippi is a cultural icon, he added. Each day of the festival begins with the sun rising over the river.

“To be able to just enjoy this music, this river, the setting while camping outside, everybody just comes together,” he said. “It feels like everything just clicks together and everyone walks away feeling like they just made 2,000 new friends.”

Isaac Sammis

Isaac Sammis plays banjo with Barbaro at Boats and Bluegrass last year.

While most people won’t come away with 2,000 new phone numbers and social media followers, it’s not an exaggeration the festival brings people together

One duo on this year’s lineup, The Lowest Pair, met at Boats and Bluegrass. Sammis, who also plays banjo with Barbaro, met bandmate Kyle Shelstad at the festival.

However, it was volunteering as an intern at Boats and Bluegrass when Sammis formed a more significant partnership. He met his wife, Rebecca, who was a fellow Winona State University student and event intern at the time.

The two took to each other and to the festival, and returned as staff. The couple now coordinate the festival.

Although the main focus is on bluegrass and Americana music, there’s much more going on at the fest. Other performers such as genre-defying Minnesota trio Sprig of That and eclectic New York band Upstate (who interchange saxophone and mandolin in their songs) are light years away from anything Bill Monroe would have imagined.

Although the ancestral home of traditional bluegrass is in the hills of Kentucky, hot spots for the most recent Bluegrass revival and the “newgrass” trend are centered in Pacific Northwest and Colorado. The bluffs in the driftless region is a hidden gem that has feeling that far flung from the stereotypical Upper Midwest.

“There’s something special about the driftless region,” said Rebecca Sammis. “We both appreciate it.”

This year's festival features some new, handmade festival merchandise. Handmade or reclaimed items will be available for sale.

“They'll be custom-made and unique, which is cool,” Rebecca said.

Duluth-based Bent Paddle Brewing will be on site serving their limited release blueberry-and-lemongrass “bluegrass” beer along with their Trampled By Turtles golden ale.

The festival grounds also features a kids’ area and Nechville Banjos will be on hand in case anyone gets inspired to take up a new hobby like Isaac did about seven years ago.

A few tickets are available for the three-day festival and a few single-night tickets are available. While three nights of dancing, camping and maybe playing in campfire jams might sound exhausting, for those who keep going back, it’s the opposite.

“You’ll feel sore and tired, but you’ll feel energized at the same time,” Isaac said.

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General Assignment Reporter

John joined the Post Bulletin in May 2018. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 2004 with degrees in Journalism and Japanese. Away from the office, John plays banjo, brews beer, bikes and is looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter “b.”