January 10, 2013
By Mike Killeen
When Joe Mailander was paddling down the Mississippi River in the summer of 2011 to prepare songs for a children's album, he wasn't thinking about earning a Grammy Award nomination for his efforts.
"That wasn't on our mind when we were making this record," said Mailander, a 2008 graduate of Saint John's University and one-half of the Okee Dokee Brothers. The bluegrass duo, which includes Justin Lansing, has had its album, "Can You Canoe?" nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Children's Album.
"We had other things on our mind," Mailander said. "Primarily, the focus of the album was the adventure down the Mississippi River. That was the focus. This (the Grammy Award nomination) is a byproduct of making a record about something real, with real instruments."
Mailander said both he and Lansing have been drawn to the river for some time.
"We just said, 'Let's set out some time and we'll do this trip and write songs about it, and that will be a theme for our next album.' And, it turned into this whole idea of adventure albums in general, so this is the first of a series that we're working on," said Mailander, noting that the Okee Dokee Brothers' next adventure will come hiking the Appalachian Trail in May.
The 30-day trip to St. Louis produced 15 songs, both originals and updates of traditional river songs, and eventually led them to New York to record them. While there, they connected with one of The Band's founding members, multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, to play accordion on two songs.
"He (Hudson) kind of popped into our heads that we should try and get a hold of him and see if he could play on our album," Mailander said. "We called and talked to his sister, who is his manager, and within a couple of days, he was over at the studio with his accordion. We got to hang around with him, and hear his stories. He played some other songs and the piano for us, and it was great seeing his presence."
The Okee Dokee Brothers are one of five groups or individuals to be nominated for the Best Children's Album award, which will be presented at the 55th annual Grammy Awards Feb. 10 in Los Angeles. Mailander said he was happy to see independent artists like The Okee Dokee Brothers recognized for their work.
"We're an independently-run band, and we call it 'kindie' music. You've probably heard of 'indie' music, but for kids we call it 'kindie,' " Mailander said. "Kindie bands are self-managed bands that have control over their own creativity, and produce real lyrics and real production through in-house management.
"I think families are starting to gravitate towards it because it resonates with their family realities, with their kids in the van on vacation, going outdoors, doing their thing. I think families would choose this hands-down if they knew it existed. But the problem is, because we're independent, we're not linked to huge distribution deals or marketing deals, and we're not on TV."
Both Mailander and Lansing grew up in southeast Denver, and went to the same schools through high school.
"Our families were friends, so we were taking vacations together, going to the mountains together, on the weekends," Mailander said. "That's kind of where we developed this whole theme we have about family adventure - getting outdoors and being active with your family."
Mailander's sister, Ann, attended the College of Saint Benedict, graduating in 2005. "When I went up to visit her, I just fell in love with the campus and kind of the outdoors scene there, with the lakes and trails," Joe Mailander said. "That really pulled me in. We were out hiking on almost a daily basis."
Although Mailander graduated with a degree in Spanish, he took part in the SJU Men's Chorus and the CSB/SJU Chamber Choir, as well as a choir that toured Asia. He also played in a campus group called the Wagon Wheels, a folk-rock-bluegrass combo that regularly played at SJU's Brother Willie's Pub.
"I can honestly say I wouldn't be in Minneapolis making music today if it wasn't for Saint John's. That's where all of my connections in the Twin Cities music scene came from - or started from, I should say," Mailander said. "I kind of tapped into a lot of upperclass musicians when I was a freshman, and they were major influences on me musically when I came in as a freshman.
"More institutionally, I'd say Saint John's provided me with a strong work ethic and the idea that building community through positive messages like the outdoors and family is a valuable thing to society. It gave me the skills and the confidence to pursue those things."
Although their Grammy category will not be televised live, "we've got our tickets to the show and we'll be there. We'll see what happens," Mailander said. "It (the nomination) has been a good thing for us, so far. We just hope to get the word out a little bit."