When it came time for the Okee Dokee Brothers – musicians Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing – to write a new batch of songs for their fourth album, they wanted to slow the process down and draw from fresh experiences. So, for inspiration, the 20-somethings hopped in a canoe and took a month-long trip from Minnesota to Missouri on the Mississippi River.
“The Mississippi is a big, slow-moving body of water that goes where it goes,” Lansing said. “It’s a lot like life. You have to let it take you there.”
In this particular case, “there” ended up being the 55th annual Grammy Awards, where the two lifelong friends won Best Children’s Album for the resulting CD/DVD, “Can You Canoe?” The 15 folk-bluegrass tracks range from direct references to the river (“Can You Canoe?” and “Mr. and Mrs. Sippi”) to more general outdoor topics (“The Bullfrog Opera” and “Campin’ Tent”). The band also gives a nod to the storied history of river songs by reviving the traditional shanty “Haul Away Joe.”
“There have been a lot of river records done in the past, and we wanted to capture some of that, too,” Lansing said.
The Okee Dokee Brothers use the river as a metaphor to address deeper themes such as the struggles and triumphs in a friendship, as well as life’s ever-changing phases. Part of the idea was to inspire kids to take an active role in their lives, get outside and have adventures.
Lansing recalls one adventurous night on a small island south of Hannibal, Missouri, when a violent “microburst” storm destroyed their tent and blew some of their gear into the river. “It was a scary experience that tells you that nature can always take over. You’re just a human being out there. That was a good lesson,” he said.
Thankfully, most of the day-to-day events were less dramatic. “We met up with a guy who’d been living off the river for thirty years, hunting, trapping and gathering herbs and selling those. We gained a lot of river wisdom from his stories,” Lansing said. “And we had to get around the barges and locks, which was always fun. That’s just the way of the Mississippi.”
“It was interesting being a small, self-propelled craft, because there’s not much of that on the river. Every time people would ask what were were doing, and we’d tell them, they’d say, ‘You’re doing what?’ They probably thought we were crazy.”
Lansing said the last thing he expected from this album was to win a Grammy. “We were just making a record. The plan was to get outside and do something active and bring that to the music.” But he’s happy the award has helped get their message out. As a follow-up project, he and Mailander have embarked on a hike of the Appalachian Trail and plan to make another CD/DVD, inviting local musicians to join them on the album.
“‘Can You Canoe?’ has been by far my favorite album that we’ve created, and our success is a reflection of that,” said Lansing. “It was the inspiration of the river that helped us get to where we are now”
Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine.