Local Current Blog

Winona’s Boats and Bluegrass Festival packs a tenth year with music and community

Photos by Molly O'Connor for MPR

When I arrived last Thursday at the Boats and Bluegrass Festival grounds on Prairie Island—located right on the Mississippi River, in Winona—it was obvious that campfire would be my scent for the weekend. The campgrounds were already full of mini-communities bordered by canoes, and would only get more crowded over the weekend.

Any apprehension I had that I would be listening to mostly jug and string bands for four days straight was erased quickly, however, hearing Twin Cities band the Fattenin’ Frogs break out some blues as I arrived. They were followed by a more eclectic Jeff Mitchell, able to jump from a moody garage sound to a yodel (and joined by that evening’s headliner, Charlie Parr). I was then treated to a more classic string band by the Last Revel, whose intense picking led their guitarist to break a string within 30 seconds of their first song. The band continued to serve up a high-energy set, and one of my favorites of the day.

To close the first night, Charlie Parr, looking like a true frontiersman (minus the Chuck Taylors, an excusable anachronism), didn’t disappoint with his rootsy picking; he was joined during his set by Jeff Mitchell playing washboard with spoons, and 4onthefloor frontman Gabriel Douglas. Both sang along sans instruments to Parr’s encore “Ain’t No Grave,” displaying what would be a recurring trend of musicians jumping in on each other’s sets throughout the weekend. Such unobtrusive guest-starring resulted in an even stronger feeling of community throughout the weekend, and served to keep things interesting even during mid-afternoon sets.

Friday allowed for much more time to explore the festival grounds and the riverbanks. Between afternoon sets, I was able to walk down by the small dam just behind the mainstage, where I met Vinnie Donatelle, upright bass and fiddle player for the Last Revue (who had played the day before) lounging on the dam with friends, playing tunes of their own and teaching each other techniques as canoes and kayaks drifted lazily downstream.

The connection to the water is obviously right in the festival’s moniker, but Boats and Bluegrass wasn’t always called “Boats and Bluegrass,” I learned this weekend. A decade ago, in its first year as a music festival, it was called “Bluegrass and Boats,” and besides having a slightly better ring to it, the name change is striking in that the music now doesn’t come first. Though much of the genre has its roots in mountain music, the “Minnesconsin” region has the ever-magnetic Mississippi, and the theme of water and rivers is pervasive in much of the local bluegrass scene.

To be sure, much of the festival’s activities, such as guided nature hikes, survival workshops, and guided canoe and kayak trips draw attention to this sort of “communion with the land,” but the musicians get in on the fun, too, as shown by Donatelle as well as Fattenin’ Frogs vocalist Amanda White, whom I spied expertly shoring a canoe on my way back to the mainstage.

There, I saw Shook Twins, who had decorated the stage with carnivalesque artifacts including a bellhop monkey holding a drum pad and a giant egg that doubled as a drum itself. Far from being all spectacle, the group showed great versatility with a balance between ghostly Feist-ish songs and upbeat tunes.

At the side-stage immediately after, White Water Ramble played one of the dancier sets of the weekend, aided by steady, driving drum beats that quickly evolved into near-disco rhythms.

Late in the night, Pert Near Sandstone brought the evening to a close with high-energy folk-rock, laced with characteristic clogging and the surprise accompaniment of Nicholas David, who, apart from providing a quirky addition to the group (at one point he donned a bumblebee hat), ripped some mean keyboard solos and gave the sound a twinge of R&B.

It was an early morning on Saturday—in order to get on one of the canoe trips before most of the music began—but well worth it to experience the crucial first half of the festival’s name. As we came back upstream and around the bend of one of the many islets in the river at the end of our trip, the sound of a fiddle wafted across the water, as if to clarify the reason for the two-part festival title.

After eight hours of a solid mix of traditional folk tunes, singer-songwriter duets, and river-rock, I went to a private recording session with Jillian Rae a half-mile down the road from the festival. Done in a small brick shack by a deer park, the recording session was one of many (including ones with Parr, Shook Twins, Pert’ Near, and others) scheduled with the intention of making a tenth anniversary compilation album for the festival, the proceeds of which will benefit a fund to preserve land donated to the community many years ago by a particularly charitable businessman, John Latsch. Jillian Rae and her band, having played their main show earlier in the day, played stripped-down versions of their songs for the small crowd, and joked of calling it “stone cabin style,” giving the event a very quaint feeling.

Saturday evening was an odd mix of various adaptations of the bluegrass and folk genres—Head for the Hills provided some increasingly frantic but spot-on solo picking, while Birds of Chicago brought in some country-soul. Perhaps the most on-the-cusp group of the weekend was Whiskey Blanket, a Colorado rap group with bluegrass string influence.

Variations aside, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades closed the evening as a more classic stomp-inducing string band. One of the more talked about groups of the festival, its clear in the context of bluegrass-fusion bands why the close-knit group of guys is such a big name in the area—they bring it all back to the roots of humble music about local pride. A festival set on the bank of one of the world’s most iconic rivers, carrying so much regional value, Boats and Bluegrass certainly rings true to those origins.


The Fattenin’ Frogs


Charlie Parr


Vinnie Donatelle and friends


Shook Twins


Pert Near Sandstone


Jillian Rae


Horseshoes and Hand Grenades


Elephant Revival


Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank


Life on the river

Writer Paul Schmitt is a literature major at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. He’s inspired by bass lines, metafiction, and lengthy mealtime conversation. Photographer Molly O’Connor is a student at Winona State University.