The Okee Dokee Brothers Make Records For Kids — But That Doesn’t Mean Their Music Isn’t Serious
With Brambletown, the duo has made their most honest album yet.
The Okee Dokee Brothers can’t remember how many albums they’ve released. The Grammy award-winning pair have crafted their signature Bluegrass sound since 2008, and Brambletown is the most recent entry since 2020’s Songs for Singin’. But how did these two dads — who are not actually brothers — become a folk duo who write kid’s music? Speaking to Fatherly, the musicians broke down what their latest record is about, an honest and moving experience that bravely elevates what kids' music can be.
Before they became The Okee Dokee Brothers, Justin Lansing, and Joe Mailander grew up singing John Denver songs around a campfire in the Colorado mountains with each other and their families. Those experiences offered them a revelation, discovering they wanted to be outside, write songs about what they experienced there, and inspire others to find a similar way of life. The new album, Brambletown is filled with banjos and brass, classic folk music jams which will have toes tapping from the youngest child to the oldest adult. It’s a walking tour through the forest with its residents, from the rambunctious Junkyard Raccoon, wise Doctor Mole, the unyielding little Rabbit, and many more denizens happy to share their life stories.
But Brambletown isn’t just a whimsical woodland filled with adorable critters. It’s also an album that holds a mirror to our world and ourselves and approaches it through a realistic lens. It tackles broad issues like environmentalism, while also zooming into personal matters, spotlighting a vulnerability and openness rare in children’s music. Much like the animals roaming the forest, many of the tunes offer more meaning beyond their surface level.
One track, “The Fox and the Hare,” is a good example of how the album works: It’s a song about the beauty of beginning a relationship and how that feeling can fade over time. “I wrote the song originally as kind of a happy song, a love song where everything works out,” Justin tells Fatherly. “Through my own experience of having gone through a divorce, I thought I would try to write the version that was a little truer to my experience, and that was the ending of a relationship...This isn't really something that I think gets talked to kids about a lot, especially in song form. It was like, ‘Should we put this out for kids?’ When we looked at it, honestly, it was like saying something true from ourselves. Some kids have the experience of parents going through a divorce, and we thought it would be really important to put this out as a way to process it.” “
“Old Badger” is another deeply personal song, a tale about dependency and recovery. Joe has been sober for 13 years and acknowledged that much like domestic separation is a part of certain family’s stories, so too is this. “We're not all alcoholics or addicts, but our whole world is addicted to something,” Joe reflects. “That might be screen time or candy or anything for kids that they could relate to.”
The Okee Dokee Brothers don’t shy away from tough concepts and never talk down to their young audience, which makes Brambletown, their most honest record yet. “I think kids deserve to have these types of conversations so we can all start warming up to the idea of self-reflection,” Joe says. It’s not all serious though. “The Varmints” is a wonderful call-and-answer song, alongside the soothing “Little Birds”, rounded out among others by “Critter Jitter Brew”- a song about pooping (and a fine one, at that).
Joe tells Fatherly they want their music to affect adults as much as kids to make it a full family experience. “If we're putting out something that the parent can resonate with, the kid is going to be intrigued by it, and try to understand it from their perspective.”
“Little feelings or little beliefs have a big impact on the community around us because we're interconnected,” Joe says. “This album is not about one person,” Justin adds. “It’s about a community, and communities are the most important living organism in our lives. We need to be part of a community to feel like we belong to something, and we all need to feel like we belong.”
Here’s Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander, talking about family time, me time, and everything in between.
What’s your favorite thing to do together as a family?
Joe: We love getting out of the city, spending a few days in a tent, turning off the phones, meeting up with some friends, singing around the fire, and telling old stories. We actually just got back from one of those long weekends as a family and I can really feel my family reconnecting with the help of nature and a slower way of life.
Justin: We're a very young family. We just had our first kid, Woody, 6 months ago. So right now life is very simple. Nothing all that adventurous. Which I'm learning to love. Our little daily routines are my favorite part of family life right now. Specifically, our bedtime routine of turning the lights down, calming ourselves, reading a little book, and singing a song together is what's making us into a beautiful little family unit.
If you have an hour yourself, what are you doing?
Joe: Taking a walk along the neighborhood creek and letting the ol' spinning brain unwind until I can start to listen to all the life around me.
Justin: Just always trying to listen and learn. Playing music, listening to music, messing around with a new instrument. Also, I learn a lot from other house projects. Gardening especially gives me the centered mental space to come back to the family with a good outlook on life.
Name the most important skill you’re passing down to your kid/kids.
Joe: I hope we're passing down the skill of self-care and self-love. Of course, we want to teach our kids how to be giving, selfless, kind, and compassionate, but without first establishing some skills around taking care of yourself and filling up your own well, acting from love on a consistent basis can be hard. Self-love looks like us taking time to ourselves, quietly reading a book, going on retreats or trips alone, prioritizing date nights, journaling, nourishing our passions and hobbies, and making time for health, routines, and friends. When our kid sees us model this, we start seeing him take the time he needs for his passions too.
Justin: Having such a young kid, I think what we can teach him is basic, but essential. I hope we're teaching him how to love. His mother and I are his examples, and even when we disagree, we're trying to show how to do that in a loving way. It can be a challenge at times, but I know that he sees our love for each other, and those are the moments that I think he is learning the most.
Give us a book, record, movie, or TV recommendation.
Joe: How about a podcast? "The Emerald" podcast by Joshua Schrei is a life-changer. It's full of mythic explorations about this time we're living in - all through the lens of animist/nature wisdom. Carve out sometime (long drives, flights, walks), dive in, and try a few episodes.
Justin: Here's my recommendation. To be honest, I don't live by it enough, myself. But, try to do something each day where you're not listening, reading, watching, or consuming. The more often I do less, the more full I feel. There's so much content out there, I don't think anyone needs more recommendations. I hope that's helpful.
If you could give one piece of advice to that kid-free self, what would it be?
Joe: Self-love can help you find that capacity in yourself to witness challenging situations without always needing to react to them.
Justin: I guess I would tell him that now is a good time to do the things that will make you who you are. So do all the things that you're drawn to, without fear of rejection or failure. Then, once you have a family, you can settle down and be more comfortable with who you are and what you've done, and you can pass all your stories and experience down to your children. This doesn't mean that you won't continue to grow, and fail, but you'll be okay with your limitations, and you'll have plenty to share.