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‘It’s a whole atmosphere’: Winona’s Boats and Bluegrass brings diverse music, community to Prairie Island

September 26, 2018

The Boats and Bluegrass festival isn’t just a place to listen to music.

It’s an experience. A community. A self-described family reunion.

And starting Thursday, that’s exactly what will Prairie Island Campground will become. The festival will run through Saturday night, with camping until Sunday morning. it will feature about 45 musical acts along with plenty of nonmusical acts — like the “Dangerous Fun Show,” a performance by the local dance group Ignite and a puppet performance by Dr. Bob. There will be craft and food vendors, including apple pies from Ecker’s Apple Farm and a special brew from Bent Paddle Brewing that was made specifically for the festival.

“It’s a special place,” said organizer Rebecca Sammis. “It’s a whole atmosphere.”

An atmosphere filled with a family-oriented focus and a ton of positivity, she added. So much so that Rebecca has dedicated seven years to helping the festival continue the tradition.

“It’s really great how happy everyone is,” said her husband Isaac Sammis, who she happened to meet at the festival seven years ago.

As a way to stay true to that family-oriented focus, the festival lets in kids ages 16 and younger for free with a paid adult so that it’s more accessible for families.

“If you’re a parent of three and they’re all under 16, you get in with one ticket,” Rebecca said with a smile.

The festival also offers a plethora of family activities, including yoga classes, mini day camps for kids to explore the wild, workshops on fly fishing, boat rides and more.

That’s of course all aside from the actual musical performances, which will be split between two different stages.

Speaking of those, Rebecca and Isaac made sure to note that diversity is another focus for the festival.

“We put a big focus on diversity,” Isaac said.

Diversity between male and female leads within bands, diversity within the bluegrass genre, and even diversity in the types of music being played.

“It’s not just bluegrass,” Isaac said.

There’s some new acts for the festival, like Fruition and another called Billy Strings. And there’s some of the old time favorites like Them Coulee Boys, Mike Munson, Dead Horses, and the The Pistol Whippin Party Penguins.

Isaac and Rebecca said none of it would be possible without the connected community that comes together to make it happen between organizers, volunteers, the city, the musicians, and the attendees.

“Everyone has so much enthusiasm,” Isaac said. “It’s an expression of hundreds and hundreds of people.”

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