Mid West Music Fest: A Voyage of Discovery

By Parker Forsell, MWMF Festival Director

Parker Forsell

Blackfoot Gypsies by Bob Good
Blackfoot Gypsies by Bob Good

Over ten years ago, visionary Sam Brown brought experience back to the Midwest from his college days with the Cherry City Music Festival in Salem, Ore. He had landed back in Winona, Minn., a jaunt down “the big muddy” from his hometown of Red Wing, Minn., and was participating in AmeriCorps. For his capstone project, he decided to celebrate the fertile Winona music scene by replicating what he had participated in while in Oregon – a multi-stage, multi-genre festival focused on both local and regional music.

The festival has grown over the past nine years, notably to include La Crosse, Wis. as well as Winona, Minn. The focus remains on local and regional music, while also including some national acts. “When I started the festival, it was always in the back of my mind that it would someday expand beyond Winona, that was part of the reason I called the festival Mid West Music Fest,” Brown said. Coming up on its third year in La Crosse, inklings of the move have been going on for several years. “I love to see the bridges that MWMF is building between the La Crosse and Winona communities,” Brown added.

As a graduate of UW-La Crosse, who has been involved in a myriad of ways with the music scene in La Crosse dating back the late-80s, I was really excited about the addition of the La Crosse weekend; it’s a kind of “coming home” of sorts for me. When I moved to Winona in 2008, after several years of bouncing around the country as part of the organic farming community, I did not have the intention of getting back into music. However, the incredible talent coming through Ed’s No Name Bar in Winona was a real inspiration to me when I landed back in the area for work. In addition, the weekend I moved to Winona, Boats and Bluegrass was happening. I remember going to the fest and thinking, “Wow! This place is really hopping!”

These were also two of the revelations that inspired Brown and encouraged him that his idea already had fertile ground and would likely work in this music-friendly community. Brown and I met each other in 2010 – two music geeks in a fairly small town. While I was only marginally involved in the first few years due to the birth of my daughter and work obligations, we remained connected through the fest and a shared desire to see the music scene continue to grow. Brown had inspired a huge circus of musicians to come to town on an annual basis and there was room to grow the event into something bigger.

In 2013, our professional paths became more intertwined. I had begun advising a couple of local musicians who were beginning to draw notoriety on a regional level. I had spent the past eight years working with small farmers on business planning and realized that entrepreneurship follows much of the same path in the artist community. Brown and I had developed a close friendship by this time. We began talking more and more about the growth of the festival, next steps in the vision, and Brown’s desire for the festival to become a nonprofit.

These weekly discussions became a series of steps that involved working on a nonprofit application and developing a board. In the fall of 2013, Brown and the new board asked me if I would be willing to step into the newly created role of Festival Director. Brown has continued on in a permanent founder position on the board of directors and maintains a strong advisory role. He also further explores his visions through a new festival (Big Turn Music Festival) modeled after Mid West Music Fest in his hometown of Red Wing.

The entire process has been a voyage of discovery for everyone involved in both Winona and La Crosse. Friends old and new have been a huge part of making these ventures successful and Brown readily admits, “The festival is really a community effort,” From the bands to the volunteers to the donors, a festival like this is a picture of the community in which it is held.

I don’t think we would have smoothly pulled off our transition to La Crosse without the help of Kay Mazza. Mazza and I have been friends for over twenty-five years and we’ve always bonded around music. She helped tremendously with helping make connections and to develop a steering committee to steward the establishment of the fest in La Crosse.

“Mid West Music Fest has long been a jewel for Winona Minn. I feel the move to La Crosse has changed the live music scene here permanently,” Mazza said. “I have seen some of the most candid and intimate performances the past couple years. I also feel there has been a perfect kind of community exchange between local and regional acts, audiences, and small downtown businesses. MWMF is shared energy,” she added.

Old friends and new friends, both musicians and business leaders have played a big role in making the festival relevant and well attended by the communities in which they live. Matt Mahlum is a La Crosse musician and involved in marketing at Mid West Family Broadcasting.

“When I heard that MWMF was going to be bringing the festival down river for a La Crosse weekend, I was beyond excited. After that first weekend two years ago, I knew I wanted to be involved. I saw artists that would never come to La Crosse normally. I saw La Crosse artists, many of whom are close personal friends, play for people that would never have seen them otherwise, “said Mahlum. “The two years have blown me away. I would love to see La Crosse open their eyes, ears, and hearts to this festival. It really is the coolest thing I’ve seen in La Crosse in my 35 years living here,” shared Mahlum.

One of the key components of the Mid West Music Fest mission is to promote economic development through music tourism in these river towns. Local artists and local businesses stand to grow as the festival grows. Music festivals have become big business, drawing thousands to different spots all over the world to take in music and the arts. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota economic development numbers reflect that both of these two-day events that are held in these two river towns are bringing over $500,000 to the local economy in the area each year.

Island City Brewing in Winona was in its first year of operation during the festival, says owner Colton Altobell. “Last year, being a venue for MWMF was a treat in so many ways. For us, it was our first big event. MWMF are total pros when it comes to staging, sound, and managing a host of volunteers. As a new venue in 2017, you’d never know it was our first time hosting a full-on concert, let alone a full weekend of back to back shows.”

Island City credits MWMF as one of the reasons that they felt confident in taking the leap to start a new business in Winona. Altobell is originally from Winona but lived for many years in the Twin Cities where he met his business partners through connections to the robust brewing community there. “From the perspective of a native Winonan and someone who chose to start a business here, MWMF has stood out as a huge cultural landmark in Winona that we couldn’t be more proud of. MWMF helps us expose our brand and products to a huge market. It demonstrates Winona’s charm as a destination. And it’s a damn good time to boot,” Altobell said

Jon Swanson, curator of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum has attended every day of the festival in both towns since their inceptions. “I am proud to be MWMF ‘ticket holder number one’ for the third year in a row. This is my favorite music festival for many reasons including it directly benefits my community, local business, and brings in visitors to our town. The fact that MWMF is community oriented and non-profit, ensures it will not grow too large, in a negative way, or become too commercial. Quality is much more important than quantity,” said Swanson.

Swanson himself, beyond being the curator of one of the more amazing art museums in the Midwest, is a huge music fan, much of his interest fanned by growing up in Duluth, Minn. He was there to see the growing fame of Low, Haley Bonar, Trampled by Turtles, and Charlie Parr. “I really appreciate the effort to present a wide variety of musical styles by new and established musicians. The quality and variety allow me to see many of my favorite acts and be exposed to many newer bands I have not seen or heard before,” added Swanson.

As one might imagine, he is a fan of the addition of the La Crosse weekend. “The expansion into La Crosse is a great way to grow the festival and bring in a new audience while remaining local,” said Swanson.

These visions are still incubating and with the help of both communities, the aim is to keep inspiring and discovering new artists, volunteers, and sponsors. These events will grow as the communities grow around them and they will also continue to bring music tourists to town and help brand both towns as key Midwest music city destinations.


Mid West Music Fest

La Crosse Weekend
April 13-14

Winona Weekend
April 27-28



Event Info

CORRECTION: The print version of this article listed Parker Forsell as MWMF Co-Founder whereas his correct title is Festival Director. 

The Heavy Set
The Heavy Set


Parker Forsell  author

Parker Forsell is the Managing Director of the four-day, 11-stage, 400+ musician Mid West Music Fest and founder of Ocooch Mountain Music. Since 1992, Forsell has been organizing events, music performances and grassroots community networks of consumers, farmers and musicians. He has been a…