Jim Bischel Interview




Jim Bischel is a local festival organizer, responsible for organizing Country Jam and Blue Ox. In this Oral History, he discusses the history of the festivals he organizes as well as the music in the Chippewa Valley.Jim Bischel is a local festival organizer, responsible for organizing Country Jam and Blue Ox. In this Oral History, he discusses the history of the festivals he organizes as well as the music in the Chippewa Valley.


Interviewers Delia Ihinger and Karyssa Gulish


April 6, 2017


Jim Bischel: JB
Delia Ihinger: DI
Karyssa Gulish: KG

DI: I am conducting an interview with Jim Bischel for the Sounds of Eau Claire oral history project. Today is April 6th, 2017, and we are at the Country Jam offices in Eau Claire WI, my name is Delia Ihinger, and you are?

JB: Jim Bischel

KG: Karyssa Gulish

DI: How did you get into music in general, in the very beginning?

JB: Music in general, I‘ve been a country music fan for, I’ve been a country music fan when country wasn’t cool. If you ever heard of that back in the 70’s and such, I’ve been involved with country Jam for, this will be my 27th year. Festival, this is going to be our 28th year of country jam so I’ve been involved for a long time, but I’ve always been a music fan of sorts, but I’ve always liked country music in addition to being a music fan.

DI: Mhmm. Did you have anybody who inspired your taste in music, any particular country music musician or anybody locally or nationally?

JB: No I don’t think growing up I didn’t really have parents that were much involved, and I’m certainly not talented musically-wise. I have no talent at all. Singing or playing an instrument. But I like music. But like business also so.

DI: What do you see as your personal investment in music? You have formed your career around it, so, how does that relate to music? I guess, why have you focused your career around music?

JB: Well I got involved in this festival in the festivals a long time ago and it started basically as kind of we had some friends who had started the festival and they were looking for other investors so I kind of got involved for one reason, because I like country music, at the time, kind of as a hobby, I guess of sorts. When we started off the festival at least the first year it was small, a smaller event. And it obviously turned into career profession, I haven’t been full time into Country Jam for all 27 years, that I’ve been involved, I’ve been involved in parts of it and originally involved with a family lumber yard in Chippewa Falls. That was my full time career up until 3 years ago. 3 years ago, was when I moved into this office full time.

DI: What changed?

JB: It was time to make a change with the lumber yard. It was just time for a career change. It was about 35 years in the lumber business, so it was time to try something new. And the opportunity to come in and run Country Jam was there so I elected to go that direction.

KG: Just for clarification, what was the name of the lumber yard?

JB: Northern Cross Arm Company. Do you guys know what a cross arm is?

DI: No

JB: You are going to leave here educated. I’ll tell ya.
[brought us to the window and points out an example of a cross arm, explains what it is]

JB: My grandfather started that business in 1922, been the family business forever, since 1922 and still is. I sold my half to my brother Pat who was my partner for about 35 years. There aren’t very many people that make them, in fact, it would be safe to say that almost anywhere that you go, that you see those things, myself or someone in my family had a hand in physically making that piece. Most of the wires or a lot of the wires go underground now. And those wires go on top [indicates window] And now they make them out of plastic and they make them out of laminated stuff, but those there, we physical by hand bored the holes and this and that. So now you’re gonna know. Drive by and you’ll be the smartest kid in the car. You’ll say, you know what that thing’s called? A cross arm.

KG: And another thing for clarification, you mentioned some friends who helped you get into the business. Who were those friends?

JB: We had some original investors of a restaurant called Fanny Hill, and they, this was back in the early 80’s- actually the first festival was, Country Jam was the second festival of its kind. We had a festival called Shake, Rattle, and Roll. It started in 1987 and the owners, the original owners of the restaurant, Fanny Hill, which is still in existence, but it’s not a restaurant anymore, were Gordy Schafer, Denny Heyde, Mart Swenson, and Larry Barr. They were the original owners of, and maybe, Jerry Sundstrom, I think one of the originals. They had originally owned a couple bars in town, Shenanigans, which is still I think Shenanigans but it probably changed. Fanny Hill they started a
small event called Shake, Rattle, and Roll, which was bands that you probably never heard of. Jan and Dean, 50’s and 60’s type groups. They did that in the parking lot of Fanny Hill. And they ran that for a couple years and they got the great idea that maybe they should do a country music event so in 1990, Shake, Rattle, and Roll, is still going, in 1990 they ran a country music event for the first time, which as a very small event and how I explain it is that they, after the first year, they lost their own money that they
wanted to lose, so they went out to find somebody else’s money to lose. They were family friends, a couple of them were from Chippewa and had known ‘em and they had approached myself, my brother, and my dad, if we wanted to get involved. Since I thought that would be cool, because I liked country music at the time and this and that, the three of us came in and we had eight owners at that time. The ownership has changed over the course of the years, we ended up starting a couple events. We started a Country Jam in Grand Junction, Colorado, in I think it was 1992. And that has grown, that it is still in existence and doing very well out in Colorado. We sold that out going on four years now, to Town Square Media, a group radio station, and they own and operate that right now. Right now, I have one other partner in the business who is one of the original partners, Mark Swenson, who is one of the original five, that had started this. He’s my partner, he’s not active in a day to day, part of the business. He is still
involved with it.

DI: What part of Country Jam are you involved in? You are obviously involved in the business side of it, and you’re in charge, in a large way, and you’ve had a long history with it, what has your involvement looked like over the years?

JB: Well originally, I have been, for all the years that I wasn’t active which was about 24 years, I mean not active, I was involved in the booking end. All of the investors at that time played a role of sorts, my brother did stuff with the gates and my wife did merchandising and things like that. I’ve been involved with the booking end, from about 1994, someplace in that time period so that has always been my role. All of the investors have had full time jobs, Gordy Schafer was one, Gordy’s country market, Denny Heyde, he’s got Chippewa Valley Travelling, and whatever. Jerry [Sundstrom] was an accountant, Mart Swenson, he’s an attorney in town. My dad, my brother, and I, we own the lumbering, the wood treating plant in Chippewa Falls. Making cross arms. And we all played a different role of some sort in the business. Now being president and running Country Jam is exactly that. And I’m basically still doing the entertainment part but involved in every aspect. Whether directly involved or over seeing but being
involved in the entire overall operations of the events.

DI: How do you collaborate with others to get festivals ready? How do you work with other people in
this office?

JB: Well we currently have five full time staff members, anywhere from, all of us wear a lot of hats. I mean I have a sponsorship person, I have an accountant, I’ve got a graphic design person, I have someone who’s involved with purchasing and digital stuff, we have two full time grounds people that work the camp grounds during the winter. They build picnic tables and do this and that, otherwise they get the grounds ready and this and that. Come festival time we are all in festival mode. Accountants not necessarily doing accounting, sponsorship person is not- We are picking up and cleaning and running
gates, selling and scanning tickets, and doing whatever. Whatever is necessary, but it is a yearround job. And basically, all hats get thrown out the window come festival time, but we do have a lot of different areas that are covered by someone who I would say specializes in that area, but we all are involved in marketing, we are all involved in with graphics, our input in social media, we meet daily, we go over a lot of the different areas, so we definitely get a lot of input. From all staff members.

DI: Wonderful. Moving a little bit into the Eau Claire side of things, what do you think defines the music scene in Eau Claire?

JB: Well I guess predominately the Eau Claire music scenes was the Shake, Rattle, and Roll and Country Jam. It’s obviously evolved a lot since then. You know, now we’ve added the Blue Ox, in the same year as the Blue Ox, the Eaux Claires event has come on scene. But there’s always been, and I’m not really real familiar with the whole history but there’s always been a good vibe of bands and things like that. There has been a long history of that. But I think Country Jam and Shake, Rattle, and Roll was really
the music scene for many, many years. Right now, it certainly is an important part of it. It’s just part of it right now.

DI: So, you mentioned Blue Ox, can you tell us the story behind Blue Ox? Why did you start it?

JB: Okay, Blue Ox, yeah. This is our third year of the Blue Ox. One of my sons works here, Tony. One of my other sons, he’s 31 right now, ever since he’s been in high school he has been a bluegrass music fan. Lord only knows where that came from. It didn’t come from his mother or his father! I can tell you that. He has been a bluegrass music fan and whatever. He had moved to, I’m giving you the history of the Blue Ox right here, he had lived in, after he went to school in Madison and graduated Madison, moved out
West and had been living and working for us in our lumber distribution plant in Denver. So he went out there and he was working for us out there for five years and still just a huge, huge bluegrass music fan, and he and his friend would travel the country, going to bluegrass festivals. Bizarre! And the loyalty was like, I‘ve never seen... It was like 100 of them, go to Oregon for an event and this and that. It always just struck me how weird that is, how loyal these people were traveling, most of these people they had no business spending money travelling to Oregon, going to music festivals in Telluride and it was funny because we ran the country music festival in Denver and he never went to it. He never went to it, not Denver but in Colorado and he never went to it once because Telluride bluegrass festival was the same weekend. And he’d go to that instead. It was just kind of weird. So, one year, four years ago, we went out there to visit him, my wife and I, and my son went to Denver to visit him and he had our weekend planned for us, and one of the nights was a bluegrass music festival. Yay. [sarcastically] Not a festival but
a concert. And it was the Travelin’ McCoury’s, and a band called Pert Near Sandstone. We went there not very excited about going and this and that, but we went there and it was just a little club of some sort. What I noticed was the same kind of thing, I remember this day like it was yesterday, the guy next to me was 60, 65 years old, he was there. There was your age people [20’s] there, we went down to the lower level bar and there were all college age students down there, there were 40 and 50-year-old people you
know, sitting there and down on the dancefloor there was everywhere from 21 to 70 down there and everybody was talking and getting along. It was really weird. And then I found out the Pert Near Sandstone was actually from Minneapolis. We had thought, I had tossed the idea of a bluegrass festival around, but wasn’t quite sure how to do it. My first thought was that we’d run a mini festival during Country Jam. We’d take one of our side stages and just run bluegrass, in between the Country Jam main stage and my son was like ‘eh, not a great mix with the country, and the bluegrass.’ They’re there for whole different reasons so that didn’t really fly. So, then I called up the manager of Pert Near Sandstone, said “got some ideas here, just was wondering if you would have any interest in being involved.” And he took a drive down there, we met at the camp grounds. Our campgrounds are unbelievable. It’s 75 acres, all wooded, got a pond, just beautiful. It was a sunny day and this and that, and he says, ‘jeez our band would love to, the band would love this’ he made a phone call right there, called the band guys. And they
were all in. And we still use them, they don’t own the event or anything, or be an owner or anything, but they work with us and they book and they’ve got a lot of knowledge and this and that. We decided to work on details, discarded the idea of running it with Country Jam, and decided to start a stand on its own music festival. My son Mark, had moved back since, our first year he moved back. He lives in Madison again now. He’s been very instrumental and he’s working with us he does a lot with the social media and
things like that. But that was the history of the Blue Ox music festival. And it’s a much smaller event. It’s never going to get to be a 20,000 person a day event, nor do we want it to be, nor do our fans want it to be. It would really lose the feel of the event. This was all about experience for the bluegrass fans. It’s about family.
[proceeds to show interviewers pictures of families, bands, and campgrounds]

This is a part of what we would find at Blue Ox. It’s a magical experience. But it’s different from Country Jam. Country Jam is fun, more of a ‘woohoo’ experience. [At Blue Ox] the festival goers and the kids, they just mix, they get along, they let each other go, you don’t have to worry about your kids getting stolen or run over or whatever. It’s a really cool thing and that’s really why we do the Blue Ox. It was very, very intriguing. There wasn’t another event like it, you have to go to Denver to find a festival of this
magnitude, they’re not this big. Bluegrass festivals are smaller festivals, but you have to travel as far as Denver to find one with the quality of entertainment that we bring in to the event. That’s the history of the Blue Ox, we’re going on year four, and it’s going good. It’s growing. We are under what I am calling controlled growth with this. We don’t know how big we want this to get but we are only gonna take it in steps because we do not want to ruin the experience. We have a level that we’re gonna set for this year, and we’ll see how it goes. And then next year it can get bigger. We’ll grow it again. People say, ‘oh, if you get a lot bigger are you gonna move it?’ In case you didn’t know the Blue Ox is run entirely in the campgrounds. Everything you see there. [indicates picture] The camp grounds is just camping for Country Jam, we have a festival grounds which is about a mile down the road.

DI: And that’s where all the show and stages are?

JB: Yes. For Country Jam. They camp up on top of the hill in this 75 acre campgrounds. For the Blue Ox, we’ve carved out a bowl area where the event takes place and then they camp all around it. We do not want to outgrow that. People say, ‘oh, if you get a lot bigger are you gonna move it down to [the Country Jam festival site]?’ No, because they don’t want to go to a field, they want to stay in the trees and the camping and it’s just part of the vibe.

DI: It’s part of the experience?

JB: Yup. So that’s the Blue Ox. Completely different than Country Jam.

DI: Do you think that Country Jam or Blue Ox affect or inspire music programs in the Chippewa Valley

JB: Well, there’s certainly a lot of stuff springing up ever since. There’s certainly a lot of stuff that, yes. I have no doubt. Obviously the Eaux Claires event which started, this will be their third year now, would not have happened without Country Jam and this and that because it was made possible because of what we were doing. The grounds were all set. So obviously, that’s from the events that were here. But all of the stuff that’s going on, I know that even like Wagner’s right across the street, bringing in country acts, four or five times a year. I don’t think that would have happened, the new stuff that Altoona River Project or whatever they’re doing down there, with a three or four-thousand-foot venue, I know that if it wasn’t for the festivals and all the music coming in, I doubt if those things would have been part of the game plan, so I think they all feed off and originated from the festivals that have been here for 30 plus years at that point.

DI: How do you think country Jam fits into national or even bigger scenes?

JB: Obviously the Eau Claire area is unique for what is offered in the Eau Claire area. I think you would be hard pressed to find a city or an area, the population of Eau Claire and have the national entertainment that passes through this area. Including what the Eaux Claires event is doing, which is obviously a different genre. But what passes through Eau Claire and stops and plays here, there is not another location in the country, or none per population, that brings through the entertainment that this area brings.

DI: The same quality and feeling?

JB: Yeah, I mean, you’ve got the biggest names in country music, and actually with what
the Eaux Claires event is bringing in you’ve got some of the biggest names in the indie genre. As far as bluegrass goes, there is not an event in the bluegrass genre that brings through the level of talent that the Blue Ox does. There isn’t an event that bring a bigger level of talent in the country either. There’s a lot of them that bring equal, but there isn’t anything that brings in bigger. So, a very unique situation, but truly all started with the festivals here.

DI: What part do you think you play in the area’s music scene?

JB: Well I mean I, I think what’s here is because of what we have done, obviously the three festival in the area are all, Country Jam related of some sort or another. And again, Eau Claire’s got a lot of stuff going on. It’s really a happening [place], it’s an exciting time to be a part of Eau Claire, with the Confluence project, the hotels, the Altoona project that’s going on. What’s happening in Eau Claire isn’t normal across the country, this is a very unique situation. Without the music festivals, Eau Claire would not be doing what it is doing, if it wasn’t for the music festivals. I don’t believe. It’s not that’s it’s the only thing and it’s not that it’s the greatest thing, there’s a lot of cool stuff. And obviously, the
university is huge, you know not every small city has the benefit of having a fantastic university. And the tech school. Not just the university. There’s a lot of cities that don’t have that. And the life that a university brings to a city is incredible. It really is, it is not the same place without the university. A lot of things play a role but a lot of the stuff is because of the music festivals, at least, I believe that.

KG: So, would you say that you would call this place the “Music Capital of the North”?

JB: You know what we called it, before they called it the Music Capital of the North? And we owned the web thing. We called it Music City Midwest. In fact, we are designing a logo for that website right now. I know that Volume one came out with whatever, but before that had happened, we had Music City Midwest or Music City of the Midwest. And truly it is, you have Branson Missouri, a mini-Nashville type thing, but again, per population, there is nothing that compares to Eau Claire to population for what it
bought in to this city. Music City Midwest, remember that.

KG: What year was that term coined?

JB: I think it was the year we started the Blue Ox. When we were looking for domain names and stuff, we had put together a whole bunch of them. And that was one of them.

KG: And that was three or four years ago?

JB: Yeah.
[proceeds to check if domain is active, it is not]
Anyway, Music City Midwest. We’ll clarify that before you leave. It truly is. Nashville could make a point, but Eau Claire’s a little city, especially compared to Minneapolis.

DI: Are there any other stories or pieces of history that we haven’t asked about, that you would like to share?

JB: You know all about cross arms, so we covered that.

KG: Something you think that people should know about the music scene?

JB: I think most people understand the importance of it, I think it’s important that more people understand how important it is. I don’t think everybody understands how important it is. I think that there are some people that think it’s a nuisance, some people would like to see no lights, they’d like to see no traffic, they’d like to see no nothing, because it’s an inconvenience to them at times, because it causes traffic, obviously, it causes noise, and we’re not probably unique but we are constantly fighting our battles about people that don’t want traffic, or they don’t want noise or they don’t want things to happen. But I think it’s such an important part of everything that’s going on here in Eau Claire, that I think it’s important that people know that we do need support because there are people that do not want the festivals around. There’s people that don’t want the Confluence project, there’s probably even people that don’t want the university, there are people that just, they don’t want nothing. Twenty years ago, they used to be able to fish on this thing and they can’t do that right now, or whatever. Or they used to farm on this thing and they can’t do that anymore. But, I think it’s important that people
understand that these are important to have around, and I think that without the festivals, and they shouldn’t take them for granted. We’d like people to be as supportive as possible. And not everybody wants them around.

KG: Do you think it would hurt Eau Claire if there were no music festivals?

JB: Ooh, yeah. I mean, you take away the weekends that hotels are sold out, it’s estimated that the three festivals bring in 18 million dollars into the community of outside money. And you take that tourism, you take 18 million dollars out of the economy each year, and it definitely changes what’s happening with the Confluence project, it changes what’s happening with all the restaurants and hotels being built right now. Probably changes the new hotel and hospitals, the new everything. They are singly
the biggest tourist attraction that this area has individually of any of them. It definitely would have an impact.

DI: Anything else you want to share?

JB: No, appreciate you being here.

DI: Thank you for having us

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