The Okee Dokee Brothers, Up a Creek

This bluegrass duo knows that to write a meaningful song, you’ve got to have a genuine experience. So they regularly get out in the elements.

By Avital Andrews

August 7, 2015

The Okee Dokee Brothers write children's songs while on adventures in nature.

The Okee Dokee Brothers write children's songs while on adventures in nature. | Photo by Alex Johnson

The Okee Dokee Brothers' symbolic paddles from a tumultuous canoe trip.

The Okee Dokee Brothers' re-create a tumultuous canoe trip. | Photo by Alex Johnson

Joe Mailander, 29, and Justin Lansing, 30, best friends since they were toddlers, are the Grammy-winning Okee Dokee Brothers. They write children’s folk songs while on adventures like paddling the Mississippi, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and riding the Continental Divide on horseback. During a recent canoe trip, they hit rough waters, and their paddles came to symbolize their friendship. 

In Mailander's words: “Justin and I had an idea to do a series of albums based on adventures we had in nature, to get kids outdoors. We wanted to walk the talk.

“Unplugging for 30 days and writing on the Mississippi River was our first idea. We live in Minneapolis, so we decided to paddle from the Twin Cities down to St. Louis, bringing a video crew with us to make Can You Canoe?, the album that won the Grammy. It resonated with kids and inspired them to go canoeing. That was the point: to show that you can take a risk, get outdoors, and get creative while you’re out there. 

“For the river trip, we bought paddles and named them Splinter and Sunshadow. They were our companions, symbols of that constant struggle between direction and momentum. 

“On the 28th night, a storm hit. We were two days from St. Louis. It was 2 a.m. and a microburst swept our camp with 85-mile-per-hour winds, lightning, and hard rain. We were on a small sandbar only a few feet from the river and didn’t have much shelter. Our tent poles snapped. I pulled our videographer out of the river in his tent. The camera gear and hard drives were submerged. 

“The paddles had been in the canoe, which flipped—everything floated downstream. We pulled Justin’s paddle back on shore but didn’t have much time. One phone still worked, so we got a rescue boat to pick us up at 3 a.m. and take us to the nearest town. We left all the stuff. 

“The next morning, we borrowed a boat to get back to the campsite and gather what we could. The sun was out. Before leaving, we circled the island and found my paddle on the other end of the sandbar. We took that as a sign to finish the trip just the two of us. No cameras, no audio. 

“We paddled 70 miles the next day and made it to St. Louis. The river was moving faster, and there was time to think. You get into this Zen-like state of watching little spirals come off your paddle, and you reflect on your relationships. 

“We hung the paddles on our studio wall to remind us that two opinions are better than one. If you’ve shared a canoe, you know it tests your friendship. You blame the other person, but having another point of view is so important. 

“As a children’s band, we’re expected to be all sunshine and rainbows. Occasionally we hint at the other side. Sometimes it’s a struggle. That storm is how we like to talk about the ups and downs."