Imagine having a career in which you spend hours making music and having outdoor adventures with your best friend. If that sounds like paradise, quite simply, it is, according to Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing, known to fans all over the country as the Okee Dokee Brothers. And they are eager to share that version of paradise with families through their original bluegrass-style songs, videos, and stories. The Grammy-winning Okee Dokee Brothers will be doing just that at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, at Schaeffer Auditorium, as part of the KU Presents! Family Series.
Those who are new to the Okee Dokee phenomenon can get a sense of what these two are about through some of their videos, available on their website, www.okeedokee.org. These are excerpts from their three albums/DVDs, which chronicle their 30-day journeys together: “Saddle Up: A Western Adventure” (the Continental Divide trail); “Can You Canoe?” (the Mississippi River); and “Through the Woods” (the Appalachian Mountains). They canoe and cavort, slide down dunes, ski, ride horses, and play catchy tunes with gorgeous scenery all around them. Their joy is contagious; you want to pack up immediately and join them.
While Mailander and Lansing are brothers of the heart rather than by blood, they grew up together in Denver, Colo. “We’ve known each other since we were three years old,” Mailander said in a recent interview. “Our families were really close. We were playmates, friends, and musicians together, and now that we’re making music as the Okee Dokee Brothers, we draw on those childhood memories that we share of going into the Rocky Mountains, sitting around the campfire, taking hikes with our friends and families.”
While Mailander plays the guitar, harmonica, and mandolin, and Lansing plays banjo and bass (both play piano), they consider themselves mainly songwriters. “We’re not about virtuoso playing,” Mailander said. “It’s the idea of communal music-making. It’s folk music, which is music of the people; it’s accessible.”
They encourage active participation in their live shows, with plenty of clapping, swinging partners, call-and-response, and filling in the blanks of songs to make rhymes. “We want to encourage families to get out in nature and find that creative spirit and make getting outside creative and fun. When you’re out there, unplugged, and your mind quiets down, you really want to sing back to all the beauty you see.”
The Okee Dokee Brothers’ own songs, all inspired by their adventures, have become their career and have led to their winning a Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album in 2013 for “Can You Canoe?” (the other two were nominated in 2019 and 2022). They are also five-time Parents Choice Award winners and have published two books with CDs: “Thousand Star Hotel” and “Can You Canoe?”
Their 2020 album, “Songs for Singing,” was released during the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of its songs, “Hope Machine,” became a beacon of hope for many families who were struggling during the lockdowns. “A lot of fans tell us how much that song meant to them during that time,” Mailander said.
Now that Mailander has a wife and six-year-old son in Minneapolis, and Lansing has a wife and one-year-old baby and still lives in Denver, it’s a bit harder for them to go off on 30-day adventures. But they are back to touring, performing at various venues all over the country every other weekend. And they are still writing songs.
“We find it an honor to bring kids together in this way,” Mailander said, “and to create memories for families. They get to experience real people just making music, and they sing along and dance together. We love being in that energy with them. . . Our friendship has survived and gets deeper and deeper with each project. We couldn’t do it without each other.”
The Okee Dokees provide study guides for parents or teachers to share with kids prior to their concerts; these can be downloaded on their website.
All tickets for Okee Dokee Brothers are $15 and can be purchased at www.KutztownPresents.org or by calling the KU Presents! Box Office 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, at 610-683-4092. Established to be the center of cultural life at Kutztown University, KU Presents! serves the campus and community by bringing world-class live arts that entertain, educate, and enrich.