Summer calendars in Wisconsin seem to overflow with music festivals. One of the longest-running gatherings is Larryfest, which has been showcasing some of the region’s best acoustic roots music since before it was back in the mainstream. WPR’s Ezra Wall tells us more about its lasting legacy.
It’s a rehearsal day for the Trempealeau-based bluegrass band, Crooked Willow. The group formed in 2013 and features Elisi Smith-Waller singing and playing the banjo. Her husband, Tim Waller, plays guitar and writes some of the group’s songs. Jessie McDonald and Erik Hanson round out the group on fiddle and bass, respectively.
Crooked Willow gets together to practice in the Wallers’ living room before their upcoming performance at Larryfest. The popular bluegrass festival has made rural La Farge a summertime destination for more than 25 years.
The ‘Larry’ in Larryfest is Larry Sebranek, a maple syrup frmer who lives near La Farge in Vernon County. He doesn’t mince words when he talks about how he got interested in bluegrass music.
“It’s probably been quite a few years ago, but after country music went to hell,” laughed Larry Sebranek.
Larry Sebranek, his brother and musician Dan Sebranek, and friend Larry Liebl talked about the festival’s unassuming name and its humble origins.
“After the first festival we were sitting at our local bar. There was about 10 or 15 people there and they all had hats that said ‘Larryfest’ on it,” said Larry Sebranek.
“And you hated the idea,” said Larry Liebl, operations manager of Larryfest.
“I didn’t like it,” said Larry Sebranek.
“It took about five years to get used to it,” added Dan Sebranek, a member of the group String Ties. “But after the first one we did – ‘Bohemian Glen Music Fest,’ which doesn’t really roll off the tongue – somebody came into the bar, Leo and Leona’s, and said ‘Are you gonna do that Larryfest thing again?’ Somebody said it and I said, ‘That’s it! That’s the name!’”
Elisi Smith-Waller of Crooked Willow says the remote, rural setting helps to remove the distractions of modern, everyday life for musicians and festival goers alike.
“There’s something special about Larryfest. There’s no internet service, so you just have to kind of be present,” said Smith-Waller.
The music may seem old-fashioned to some. But Smith-Waller’s fellow band members, bassist Erik Hanson and fiddle player Jessie McDonald – both public school music teachers – say connecting people to traditional music is important.
“I think it just speaks to people’s souls. It’s just a departure from what you hear day to day,” said Hanson.
“There’s good music across all the centuries. So often folks think music from long ago just isn’t fun or lively, or it’s stuffy and stiff,” said McDonald. “Any great musician or artist or person who’s passionate about what they’re doing, they can make it come alive.”
The culture of Larryfest is a highlight for all the people I talked with, not just the music. There are a handful of quirky traditions the fest faithful have come to look forward to: Mysterious, illuminated skeletal figures dance through the woods. Giant piles of sweet corn – free for the taking to Saturday attendees. And of course, the traditional lighting of the woods.
“So if you’re on the main stage looking out there’s a grove of trees off to the left, probably 70 to 80 trees,” said Dan Sebranek. “We wrap those all with miniature Christmas lights and we light them up at night. It’s pretty cool.”
The ethos of Larryfest seems infectious. Multiple visiting artists have even composed songs about it, including singer and Wisconsin native Tom Wopat, more famous for his role on “The Dukes of Hazzard” television series. He offered his homage live at the festival in 2021 singing, “There’s just one place I wanna go…I go to Larryfest, it’s not the biggest but the very best.”
Larryfest is all set for its 26th year on August 17-19, 2023. Of course, it’s out on Larry’s farm near La Farge.
BONUS: Hear the full interview with Larryfest organizers Larry Sebranek, Dan Sebranek and Larry Liebl on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Newsmakers.”