The power mower upped and quit just before I arrived. Still. Looking out over the steep, grassy-green hillside that had been mown, it was as if Monet owned a John Deere. Crickett and Tim Lochner appeared out of thin air, bouncing up to the side of my car in one of those little Mule ATVs. Taken by surprise, I fumbled to turn off my GPS, phone, and other technology that a person quickly forgets — or can’t even access — when one is in the primordially beautiful hills and valleys of Richland County.
75,000 years before Tim and Crickett met me at my car, the Cordilleran ice sheet cleaved a gash into the earth. In tandem with the Pinedale glacier movement, pits, valleys and rock walls were left in the geo-wake. More recent glaciers missed the area, leaving the rugged terrain. When you talk to the Lochners, they come across as grateful inheritors of a large amount of cosmic kismet, namely Crickett’s sixth-generation family farm that she and Tim have transformed into a profit-making entertainment enterprise called the Driftless Music Gardens.
It wasn’t just luck and family property. It’s been a lot of hard work, too, since the couple got the idea of using the land for music festivals back in the early 2000s. That’s when Crickett threw a rave way up on the property’s ridgeline. It was a big draw. “That showed us that people would travel out here to see music,” says Tim.
The nearest community to Driftless Music Gardens, about four miles away, is Yuba, population 90. The route from almost anywhere to here is a maze of crisscrossed county trunks, two-lanes and dead-ends. You really have to want to get there.
In 2008 the couple started People Fest, featuring the band Tim continues to play with, The People Brothers Band. They first held it in Hillsboro, about 15 miles away. When Tim and Crickett saw the turnout and enthusiasm for the fest, they asked themselves, “Why aren’t we doing this on our land?”
The answer was that their land was still basically a cornfield in a basin. In 2019 the couple sold their house in Madison and moved to the farm full time. Right away they found out there’s no user manual, and no YouTube videos for turning an old farm into a music venue.
“I would come up here on weekends when the band wasn’t playing and stay out here five or six days at a time in this little cabin while we started putting in the road,” Tim says. “We had to put in the electricity, take out a lot of barbed wire. We leveled terraces in the hillsides for campers. We quit our jobs. We had to make it work.” Today, it is their full-time occupation.
The Gardens’ first event was in May 2018: a concert by Duluth-based folk-music wizard Charlie Parr, a particular favorite of the Lochners. Vendor booths lined the twisty little road (actually more of a path) that winds its lazy way through the center of the valley. People camped, partied and played music deep into the night, long after the show lights went down on a rented stage.
Among the many things the Lochners learned during that first event was that a festival didn’t have to have a ton of acts to draw a crowd. “People like to come out in the country and see maybe just one or two bands,” says Crickett. “Lots of times people will go to a [festival] like Summerfest to specifically see one band,” adds Tim. Driftless Music Gardens gives patrons the opportunity to stretch out their time in beautiful surroundings before and after the show. To visit. Take a nap. Take a hike.
I asked them what the neighbors thought about a bunch of hippies in hippy clothes dancing hippy dances into the night. After all, I passed more than a handful of faded MAGA flags tacked up to fence lines on my way there. “It helps that I come from here,” Crickett says. “People know my family. My dad is still right up the road. My mom, too. This area is known for young people leaving and never coming back.” Crickett came back and believes respect is connected to her return.
The Lochners also have Amish neighbors. I passed no fewer than five horses and buggies filled with bonnetted young passengers on my way to the Gardens. At one point I slowed my car to a stop while Amish teens tugged the reins of a draft horse roped to a huge fence post. The ropes went taut and the massive animal pulled the timber up out of the ground and dragged it up onto the lane.
“Amish families helped me pour concrete here,” Tim says. He points down into the valley to the old farm house. “Amish families helped me put on the new roof on the old farmhouse.”
This summer is the Gardens’ most ambitious slate of shows to date. There will be four events. The Bonfire Music Festival will run June 9-11. Featured performers include Shook Twins, Magnolia Boulevard and The People Brothers Band. Madison jam rockers Armchair Boogie host two days called The Boogiedown July 15-16. Trampled by Turtles, the Gardens’ biggest get yet, appears on Aug. 5; Charlie Parr supports. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades appear with Pokey LaFarge Aug. 6.
Meanwhile, the Lochners’ cosmic kismet continues. COVID years were even kind to them. The pandemic gave birth to 18 shows. Instead of showing tickets or phone codes at the gate, online registration upon purchase included a patron’s license plate. The plate became the no-contact entrance check when drivers pulled into the festival grounds. After that, they drove onto mown, individual tailgate slots to get out, picnic and watch the show from up on the hill and at a safe distance from the next group of cars.
From family property to COVID success to community acceptance and Amish help, things seem to go the Lochners’ way. A mischievous twinkle lives in Tim’s eyes as he ponders shows from the venue’s past: “Every time a rainstorm appears on the horizon, it just seems to move around us.”