by NATHANIEL NELSON
Boats and Bluegrass returns to the river next week for its 14th installment, when hundreds of people will descend on Prairie Island Campground for the annual music and camping festival. This year, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades and Pert Near Sandstone return to headline the homegrown gathering, with newcomers Fruition and Billy Strings stopping in Winona on their national tours for a little good old-fashioned finger-picking.
The festival is close to sold out, but according to Rebecca and Isaac Sammis, lead festival organizers for Boats and Bluegrass, there are still a few passes available for those who want to experience the one-of-a-kind river festival.
“It’s a great time of year for a festival,” Rebecca said. “There are so many families and kids, and everyone feels connected. It’s just a positive and uplifting weekend.”
Boats and Bluegrass runs from September 27 through September 30 — a three day festival of music, camping and boating on the shores of the Mississippi. This year’s festival will feature more than 40 bands and several dozen food and craft vendors from around the area, and weekend passes include camping and boat rental.
Compared to many other festivals in the area, Boats and Bluegrass isn’t a large event — attendance caps out at 1,500 — but what it lacks in scale it makes up for in intimacy. According to Isaac, the festival often has plenty of return visitors.
“Really, Boats feels like a family reunion. There are so many return attendees, you build a lot of lasting relationships,” Isaac explained, adding that he met both his bandmate and his wife at prior festivals.
Isaac has performed in several bluegrass bands, most recently Jaybone Bell & Restless Light and Barbaro, the latter of which is performing at this year’s event, before becoming involved in the festival six years ago. Through his touring, he explained, he has been able to understand more how shows work and what’s going on in the bluegrass scene, which he hopes to continue bringing to Boats.
Boats and Bluegrass is a local hit, selling out six years in a row, and the Sammises said the reason goes beyond just music and camping. “It’s not just a couple people putting together a festival, but really a full community putting it on,” Rebecca said. In addition to the two stages, this year will feature adventure camps where attendees can spend two or three hours on Prairie Island hiking and learning survival skills. There will also be kids activities, Rebecca explained, with plenty of other activities for the family.
One of the other key aspects of the festival is right in the name — the boats. The festival partners with staff from the Winona State University Outdoor Education and Recreation Center to provide boating trips along the river throughout the weekend, where groups are welcome to take out canoes and kayaks and travel around the island surrounded by the sounds of nature and bluegrass. “Prairie Island is a beautiful place, and with nature being such a crucial part of bluegrass music, being on the shores of the Mississippi is cool for the attendees,” Isaac said.
The Latch Sessions, a video series of performances from festival artists, will be continuing this year as well, Isaac said.
Bent Paddle Brewing Company will also partner with the festival to debut a brand new beer called the “Bluegrass Kanu,” a modified version of its staple Kanu pale ale brewed with blueberries and lemongrass. According to Rebecca, there will also be some ciders from a local cidery as well as other vendors. “We’ve got local and regional vendors coming in, both old folks and new folks,” she said.
Along with the big returning staples, the lineup has a few surprises this year for both new and returning festival-goers. Several talented female artists, including Lindsay Lou and Dead Horses, will be playing the fest this year, along with a bunch of local favorites like Kind Country and Them Coulee Boys. “We wanted to feature women and focus on diversity, which is super important to us. Diversity not just in the lineup, but in approaches to bluegrass as well,” Rebecca said.
Boats and Bluegrass runs from September 27-30 on Prairie Island in Winona. For tickets and information, visit www.boatsandbluegrass.com.