The Okee Dokee Brothers Find Living Art(and fun) on the Mississippi River
To say the Okee Dokee Brothers, Joe Mailander on guitar and Justin Lansing on banjo, are like a breath of fresh air is very close to the literal truth. Their music finds its birth in the wild outdoors and in the spirit, wit and imagination of Mark Twain. Like modern pied pipers their music feels like deep breath of wilderness. It probably even plays best outside. Bluegrass musicians with a strong New Grass/John Hartford feel in their music, they stand as symbols of living art. This is the creative exploration of the world around them. They encourage kids and adult alike to break away from our media driven culture into the universe right under our noses, which too often goes unnoticed.
(Photo Credit: Alex Johnson)
It’s in this spirit they have begun their new Adventure series with a month-long canoe journey in June down the Mississippi River. Their goal was to create songs for an album. The album will be recorded in the September for a spring 2012 release. A documentary film will also follow. But, more than this, it seemed, as I talked with Joe Mailander before and after the trip, that they are yearning to find something more, a deeper connection to their art, their audience and to the world around. If so, this Mississippi journey was just a first step. And they’ve invited adults and children to discover the same for themselves.
Even though they are not actual brothers, they are musically-related through years of playing bluegrass around the Midwest. Their career took off when they decided to move to Minneapolis and start a ‘Kindie’ bluegrass band. Their current release, “Take it Outside” was produced by Tor Hyams, the founder of Kidzapalooza and Austin Kiddie Limits , and jazz guitarist, Adam Levy. The album won The Parent’s Choice Award for 2010. One of the keys for any musician recording for family oriented music is to have cross-generational appeal to both the kids and their parents. Too often parents are driven away or submitted to cruel torture listening to music only directed at small children often with no sense of what kids actually enjoy. Like Justin Roberts and Sarah Lee Guthrie, The Okee Dokee Brothers create music that parents will enjoy even without the kids around. With sometimes offbeat themes like “The Naked Truth,” about a naked man, a song worthy of Randy Newman, or the nostalgic longing for extraterrestrials.”Bluegrass for Breakfast,” could be a pretty good substitute for coffee in the morning.
But, more than that, with this new project, Joe and Justin have happened on the beauty and the meaning of the river. In the interview that follows Joe talks reflectively about the age-old metaphor of the river. These are young men seeking age-old wisdom in the movement of the river as they seek to share it with the world. The example they’ve created is the kind that changes the world and can be remembered by children for years to come. The fact that they took a dream and made it reality and even created art through it, is a demonstration to children and adults alike. With the Mississippi River project they bring hope and healing rooted in nature and music.
Pre-Trip Interview 5/19/2011
Terry: What’s the purpose behind the trip down the river?
Joe: We hope for something reality based. Justin and I have always for that with our music from the beginning. More of the reality in the feelings of the music and videos. Less production. It’s important for kids to do that. As a band we’re coming into a place where we’re feeling more comfortable with who we are as people. There’s a temptation with children’s music to create a different persona a cartoon character, a different reality. But kids don’t need that. The whole river is an archetype throughout history for stories and songs. It’s based on a much older story. The river is an older metaphor used as a symbol for the beginnings and end of life.
Joe: That’s cool. It’s about taking your experiences and putting them in your songs. Songwriters often sit in basement room and write songs, which is good. I think about the authors who write about the Middle East from Boston. We’re going to travel to get into character, to explore the normal. It’s not as popular to do real life research. We felt we needed to feel this experience if we were going to tell these stories. We needed to get outside and inspire kids to be adventuresome.
Terry: Are you doing any traditiona l river songs?
Joe: We’ll have the traditional songs with new originals. We’ve never put traditional songs on our albums. We’ll put our own twist on them with new chord patterns. We wanted to write stories about something beyond us. We’ve spent time looking up public domain traditional river songs at the Smithsonian. It begins to feel like we’re jumping into an epic by standing on the shoulders of others.
Terry: How about your audience?
Joe: The kids response has been really good. There’s a good spirit to it. Live we’re interactive playing bluegrass that is danceable and approachable. The age range of the kids is from about three to ten. They don’t usually go above the 5th grade. But, a big part of this is to make sure the songs are appealing to people in their late 20 and early 30’s. We play at night at parties, park concerts and we also play adult bluegrass in clubs and bars.
Terry: One things that is noteworthy about your music upfront is that it has appeal for adults as well.
Joe: Sometimes adults have to grow down. With this new album about the river trip we’re starting the idea of a series of adventures albums. We have a couple of other ideas like this for the future. We have a following for this with interactive experiences following us down the river through our blog. That way school kids can follow our trip. It’s working with Montessori schools and elementary schools. It’s an environmental focus. They’ll be able to follow our blog and videos. We hope it strikes a chord for environmental stewardship.
Post-Trip Interview 7/12/2011
Joe: We had to change plans before we left. The Mississippi River in Twin Cities water level was so high it was closed. So we went up north of there and did a week at the beginning of the river at Lake Itasca. There was tons of wild life there. One night we heard a pack of wolves. We saw 20 bald eagles and beaver dams. Then, after a week we jumped back to Alma, Wisconsin and took the river to St. Louis. We made it. We survived! Along the way we wrote songs. We had planned on meeting certain people, storytellers and musicians. We really met some incredible people. We did get to meet a guy who is the self-proclaimed ‘last river rat,’ Kenny Salwey. We spent two days with him. He told stories of the swamps. He’s lived there for 28 years. He’s lived a life of self-sufficiency by fishing, trapping, gathering roots and herbs. He’s lived ‘with the Mississippi not on it,’ as he said. He lives in a shack. He has all kinds of things, old turtle shells, old canoes, you name it. He took us out on the big lake and showed us a beaver dam and snapping turtles.
Terry: Did you write a song about him?
Joe: Yes. We wrote a tune called “The Last River Rat,” we played it for him. Not sure if it’ll be on the new album though.
Terry: How many songs did you write during the trip?
Terry: Can you tell me any life lessons you learned. Something you didn’t know starting out?
Joe: Yeah. There’s something interesting about how to spend your time. The choices you make in your everyday life to make the best out of what you’re given with the amount of time we all have. When we started it was all about getting into nature, getting away, a time to focus on art. In reality the challenges we were posed with are in fact the same everyday choices: the fact that you have to set up and break down camp, prepare three meals a day, make miles, survive. And all of those things take time while making a documentary and of course, writing songs and having fun. It really showed how important that space for art is and you ask yourself, ‘where do I put my priorities?’ Is it about your destination? Is it about having nice meals? We found creating art ended up taking priority. We were inclined to write songs more than to paddle. We made it to St. Louis and we did what we set out to do, which was to create art. It wasn’t easy. But, along the way we developed skills that will useful in everyday life.
Terry: So along the way you discovered the age-old truth that it’s not so much about the destination but about the journey?
Joe: Yeah. What was interesting was that when we finished we wanted to keep going to see what else is down the river. Of course, at the same time, we wanted to get back to our community. But, it was hard to leave the river. And that became the central theme in the songs, the river. I guess we’re somewhere in the middle now.
Terry: How was the response from the kids?
Joe: Kids are into canoeing! They like the idea of paddling a boat. They think it’s the coolest thing! There is a nature deficiency for kids today. We see kids around the country craving, wanting to know more about the natural world. We even had a couple of parents who got really involved with their kids. They used the trip for bedtime stories and even had them falling asleep using their imaginations to visualize they were floating out of their beds, into the river and jumping on board the canoe with us.
Terry: What about influences? I hear John Hartford in much of your music.
Joe: We listened to him quite a bit before we went on the trip. A lot of his songs are appropriate for family music. We went to Mark Twain’s boyhood home. He’s a great influence. We’re trying to avoid the Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer connection because we don’t want to be pigeon holed. But, of course that story had an influence. But we love his creativity, playfulness and humor. Also, as far as influence, there’s a Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger connection in that Woody played guitar and Pete the banjo. And, there’s the river, of course.