One of the Okee Dokee Brothers' goals is to encourage kids to put down their video games and head outdoors to experience nature firsthand. In June, the Minneapolis musical duo took its own advice.
Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing, childhood buddies who grew up to form a bluegrass band that specializes in music for children, spent a month canoeing down the northern half of the Mississippi River. As they paddled and camped their way from the headwaters in Itasca State Park to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, they absorbed the river's musical heritage -- the mixture of folk, American Indian, polka and rock that distinguishes the Upper Mississippi from the river's bluesier, jazzier southern half -- and wrote songs about the adventure.
"When writing music, firsthand experience works for us," Mailander said. "That's not to say that the imaginative nature of songwriting isn't part of it; it still very much is. But it's good to have a context for an album. In this case, it's the actual river. It's a metaphor for life and for art."
Inspiration was everywhere along the way. Mailander spotted a hummingbird and wrote a little tune about it. Camping on a sandbar one clear night, Lansing paid tribute to their open-air lodgings in a song called "1,000 Star Hotel."
"One with more of a complicated message is called 'Brother' -- that's one I wrote about Justin and our friendship ... and letting things roll," Mailander said. "This trip had smooth sailing days and storms with waves. It's about navigating that and comparing our friendship to the river, and with the river as a metaphor for something that runs really deep below the surface."
They plan to record their songs this fall and release the results in the spring as the first of a series of "adventure albums." So what's coming up next?
"We wouldn't want to spoil the surprise," Mailander said, "but I will give you a hint: It has to do with hiking."
Three and out with Joe Mailander
- What was one of the highlights of your river trip?
We really loved our stay in Hannibal, Mo., which is Mark Twain's boyhood home. It really got us into the Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer mood.
- What wildlife did you see?
White pelicans, blue herons, probably 100 bald eagles. Egrets, muskrats. We saw beaver dams, though we never actually saw a beaver. We heard timberwolves at night, howling. We saw a painted turtle laying her eggs. And one of the craziest was the flying carp down in Iowa. You paddle over a school of those things and, man, they fly over the boat. They can really get some air.
- Did you ever feel at risk on the river?
There definitely is an element of risk involved, and that's intentional. A little calculated risk with some intelligence is never a bad thing. I think we capture that in our songs and the way we write for kids. It pushes the envelope a little bit, and I think that's important. ... We want to make sure that kids get out there and live life.