Down near the South Eastern tip of Minnesota lies a beautiful river town called Winona. I found myself situated in the heart of bluff country, surrounded by the mighty Mississippi and deciduous forests as far as the eye can see. Boats & Bluegrass was the occasion, a weekend getaway was the reason and autumn the season. I had been invited to the festival before, but finally carved out the time to dance in the dirt.
I headed south early Wednesday to enjoy a long drive following the windy Historic Highway 61. With a cooler full of fresh food, guitar lying atop my camping mattress and great company in the passenger seat, I began to lose interest in the ticking clock. As my responsibilities shed their weight, expectations naturally ceased. We spent the day wandering throughout town, followed by a short hike overlooking a birds-eye-view of the backwaters we'd soon be playing in. Before dusk settled we made our way to the grounds of Prairie Island and set camp beneath a small grove of trees with the river quietly running yards away. The sun was hot with the forecast in the 90's.
This year the festival celebrated it's 13th birthday and the energy was high. Originally started in 2005, Boats began as a way to promote Red Tail Outfitters, a local canoe and kayak rental company. Over a decade later the music lives on and ticket sales continue to be capped at 1500 in order to keep the festival small and full of character.
On the surface, people come for the music. Strings, banjos, and electric washboards hum from Thursday to Saturday. Songs about time, death & dying, whisky, falling in love, living life and letting go. The music doesn't lend itself well to categories or boundaries, but for imaginative imagery we'll paint a picture blended with bluegrass and modern folk. Some of my favorites included Shook Twins, Mandolin Orange, Them Coulee Boys, Rachel Hanson Band, The Lowest Pair, Charlie Parr, Dead Horses, and The Last Revel - [full lineup online]. The lyrics are relatable; stories about transitions and troubles, connections to the past, hopes for the future and gratitude for the opportunity to let your hair down and dance in the gravel. It's Mid-September and as the leaves gracefully fall, the songs don't only sing to you, but through you. Autumn being the beginning of some undefinable end.
Beyond the music lies a community of free-wheeling, happy campers. Mostly mid-western folks with hearts of gold and eyes that sparkle that all familiar welcoming twinkle. I came in good company, my friend Mike had lived in Winona for some time and was a seasoned veteran. He told me I'd fit right in, though I couldn't have imagined how right he was. I spent much of my weekend slinking in and out of the festival grounds, poking into different friend groups and experiencing the diversity of minds and personalities that flocked to the festival. The openness and blind hospitatlity always amazes me, strangers who quickly let down their guard, conversations that outline personal struggles and dreams and hopes and aspirations. Freedom, you can feel it, always and everywhere, if you just bust down the walls.
The environment sets the tone. Boats and Bluegrass is a fun, family-friendly festival with a laid-back, hang-out, kick up your feet kind of attitude. Winona State University organizes backwater trips in which you can either follow a group through the marshy Mississippi or freely borrow canoes, kayaks and standup paddle boards to independently explore. There is live river concerts throughout the weekend with a houseboat as the stage and the water as the dance floor. The harmonica bouncing off the banks as bald eagles fish for lunch only feet away from where you float. There is no agenda, no hassle and absolutely no worries pulling you around.
College kids, townies, travelers, the outdoorsy type, business folk, gypsies, deadheads, musicians and artists all jumbled together. Campfire songs and hammocks swinging from tree to tree. An early sunrise haze to welcome each day. Lawn chairs on the beach and kids swimming like fish. The best apple pie you can find and local beer on tap. You get what you need when you need it most.
It was the last night of music and as the stars multiplied with the dark skies, I lay flat upon a childhood memory. The merry-go-round spins with my head in the center. Innocent, once again. I reflect on the weekend and recollect the endless conversations and connections that were made. The amount of free hugs and genuine smiles - all these people who told me what a treat the weekend was. I believed them, but now I understood. The festival was spent barefoot and braless. I had no image to uphold, and with an empty slate I was clear to be whoever I wanted. And for the first time, in a long time, I felt like myself. Sitting in a calm space with the stars still swirling above. Another reminder to not take life so damn seriously, to slowdown and enjoy the spins, to open up and let love in, to shake my hips, get dirt under my nails and to love the life you get.
It's easy to get caught up. It's easy to follow the distractions and to fill the schedule. It's easy to lose yourself in this modern-day bustle. And though at times it seems hard to find yourself, to reconnect, to appreciate who and what and where you're from, it is the meaning we give that makes this life worth living.
How often do we question our step? Always looking over our shoulder to see who is watching, silencing our song, reserved and afraid to dance to our own beat.
A personal reminder:
LET LOOSE. Stomp and twirl, make some noise - you aren't dead yet. Don't doubt your rhythm, especially in such a pretty dress.
Boats & Bluegrass is one of those unexplainable experiences in which you have to be there to take it all in. The quality of music is untouchable, the kindness of the people is undefinable, the beauty of the setting is magical. Truly, and without doubt, this festival is a homecoming of strangers, friends and family for years to come.