If you think you’re too old for kids’ music, you probably haven’t ever listened to the Okee Dokee Brothers’ foot-tapping, old-timey anthems. Shattering many of the traditional stereotypes that once characterized the family music genre, the Minneapolis-based “kindie” bluegrass duo is getting kids and adults alike excited about their brand of music. What’s more, they’re using the stumps from which they sing to inspire folks big and small to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
From the very beginning, it was only natural for the Okee Dokee Brothers—Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing—to focus their music on outdoor-related themes. Indeed, the pair draws heavily on their own boyhood adventures in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The first album in their “Adventure Series,” dubbed “Can You Canoe?” chronicled a month-long paddle down the Mississippi River. In addition to gaining them hoards of pint-sized fans, it also earned them a Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album.
Their most recent album, “Through the Woods,” which snagged them another Grammy nomination, was inspired by their 2013 trek along the Appalachian Trail through areas steeped in the mountain-folk music tradition. Emphasizing the importance of outdoor adventure and exploration, their catchy riffs and humorous lyrics are clearly resonating with a wide swath of music lovers.
Fresh off their most recent nomination, we tracked down Mailander to ask him a little about what makes the Okee Dokee Brothers tick.
Where did your love for the outdoors originate?
Well, you see, Justin and I grew up together in Denver, Colorado. Our families always let us explore the outdoors together and trusted us enough to take little excursions on our own. Joe's family had a farm that we'd tromp around and Justin's family had a cabin in the mountains where we'd hike, camp, and sled. These shared childhood memories inspire our songs even today.
How did you decide to jump into the family music genre?
We toured the Midwest with a six-piece bluegrass/folk band for a while during and after college and quickly realized that playing late-night shows with a big band wasn't really for us. We stumbled across a few random gigs at parks and family nights and we found them to be very rewarding and positive. So we stuck with that and downsized to a duo and started writing more kid-friendly songs. We ended up loving the challenge of writing a good, simple song that all ages could enjoy.
Why has promoting outdoor adventure been such an important message for you guys to convey?
Exploring the outdoors has always been part of who we are, part of the folk tradition, and a great way to inspire creative thinking, problem solving, confidence, awe, and humility. The universal setting of the great outdoors allows us to touch on these timeless messages through our songs. We hope kids and families realize that nature can be the best teacher if we look closely and listen.
Who writes the lyrics and where do you get your inspiration?
We both write lyrics, half Joe/half Justin. We get inspiration from archetypal patterns that we notice occurring in our relationships, stories, and our natural surroundings. We also just keep an eye out for fun phrases, interesting words, historical facts, and entertaining characters.
What were your favorite parts of your canoe trip down the Mississippi River that inspired the first album in the Adventure Album Series and earned you a Grammy?
We loved talking with "The Last River Rat," Kenny Salway, who lives on the Mississippi River. He's an old wise soul that we spent two days with, listening to his stories and his thoughts about river life. Many of our lyrics on that album were inspired by conversations we had with Kenny.
What drew you to the Appalachian Trail for your second adventure album?
The regional music and the beautiful mountains. It was a perfect fit—hiking and old-time music!
What is most fulfilling about this career you guys have built?
We never know what to expect—and we love that! Kids' reactions are always different at concerts, the venues are always surprises, the adventures are unpredictable, and we're exploring all kinds of new ways to create art—books, videos, shows, sing alongs... It keeps us interested!
You’ve been described as the “Led Zeppelin of kid’s music.” What are your thoughts on that?
[Laughs] Well, we were actually both huge Led Zeppelin fans in high school, so we love that! It's not very accurate, seeing that we play acoustic music and have left our rockin’ days behind, but sure—we'll take what we can get!
What do you have slated for your next adventure?
We're heading out west! We'll be mule-packing around the grand canyon area and horse-packing along the continental divide. The music will reflect that classic western vibe and the lyrics might touch on the tall-taled nature of the west.