LOS ANGELES >> The little kid stood right in front of the stage, his eyes fixed on Joe Mailander. The kid mirrored Mailander, one of the guys onstage in the Okee Dokee Brothers, down to the plaid shirt, pint-size fedora and toy guitar with steel strings and capo, no less. He mouthed every word that Mailander sang. Between songs, the kid tried to tune his guitar, just like Mailander did.
Mailander has seen it before. Many times, in fact.
“I’d say it happens 50 percent of the time,” Mailander said of young fans who imitate him and fellow Okee Dokee bro Justin Lansing.
Yes, kids’ music stars have their own groupies. No matter where they play.
On that morning, it was Lucky Strike bowling alley in Hollywood. A week earlier, it was Lincoln Center — yep, prestigious Lincoln Center — in New York City. On March 18, the Okee Dokee Brothers performed by the aquarium at the Minnesota Zoo. The next day, the Minneapolis-based duo was in concert at Orchestra Hall with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Welcome to the world of kids’ music. It’s a field in which the Okees have become big-time contenders. Each of their past three albums has been nominated for a Grammy, an uncommon run in the modern era of this particular genre. The duo snared the Grammy once, with their first nomination for “Can You Canoe?” in 2013.
At the zoo, the Okees introduced their latest song, “Countin’ on Me,” commissioned by the zoo to help promote animal conservation projects. It took some back and forth with zoo folks.
“It was learning the technical terms,” said Mailander. “We had ‘buffalo’ in there. We had to make sure that we had the correct term in there — ‘bison.’”
‘OUT OF TUNE’ ORHCESTRA
The March 19 concert was the Okees’ second go-round with the Minnesota Orchestra. Flutist Adam Kuenzel, who doesn’t have kids, discovered their music and connected the duo with the orchestra. The Okees handed some of their songs over to arranger Tommy Barbarella, who used to play with Prince, when the duo and the Minnesota Orchestra performed five concerts in 2015. Barbarella has orchestrated two new tunes from the duo’s 2016 Grammy-nominated album, the Western-flavored “Saddle Up,” for the Okees’ lone concert on Sunday.
“We love the clashing of the light fancy stuff and us doing our folkie stuff,” Mailander said. “We try to keep it just as informal as the conductor. We mess with them a little bit.”
For instance, the Okees play their seldom-performed “Out of Tune” and require the classically trained musicians to play out of tune. During “Jackalope,” the horn players are asked to imitate the sound of jackalopes — something the Okees usually ask kids in the audience to do.
The Minnesota Orchestra concert doubled as sort of a book-release celebration. This month, the Okees offered their second book, “Thousand Star Hotel,” an illustrated tale published by Sterling Children’s Books, a Barnes & Noble imprint. It includes a CD with 11 nighttime songs and a dramatized audiobook of the story. Their previous book, “Can You Canoe and Other Adventure Songs,” was issued last year.
“Music is a fickle industry,” Mailander explained. “You don’t know where digital music is taking us. CDs are still important for families but we notice that books have a special relationship between kids and their parents. So we wanted to explore that medium. Since we fancy ourselves storytellers anyway, we thought we’d give it a shot.”
Their approach is to retell an old folk tale in the same way they play folk music with a modern twist. Their new book is a reimagining of “The Fisherman and His Wife,” with illustrator Brandon Reese.
FRIENDS SINCE CHILDHOOD
Friends since they were 3-year-olds in Denver, Mailander and Lansing went through some major life changes this year — in the same week. Mailander’s son Hap was born on Jan. 15 in Minnesota and Lansing got married Jan. 22 in Nepal, where his wife is from.
“I haven’t seen him around his baby yet,” Lansing, who recently moved back to Denver, said of Mailander. “That’s when I’ll see how he is as a father.”
“Hap needs to meet Uncle Justin,” Mailander, 31, said.
“Are you going to let me hold him?” Lansing, 32, asked.
“Well, don’t get ahead of yourself,” Mailander joked. “I don’t trust you that much.”
The rapport between these lifelong buddies was obvious as they sat in a lounge at the Lucky Strike lanes, interrupted by the occasional young fan with parent seeking an autograph.
Guitarist Mailander knows that his son will inspire some songs in “this new frontier of fatherhood.”
“And I get to write some new uncle songs, which is a new genre — silly, goofy, dumb songs,” banjo-man Lansing interjected without missing a beat.
Despite these family developments, the Okees aren’t coming up with a new five-year plan. They’ve never worked that way.
“For right now, we put one foot in front of the other, a day at a time kind of thing,” Mailander said. “We’re lifelong friends. From the beginning to the end. It’s a long journey we’re on. It’s not the normal trajectory of a band where we’ve got two years to make it.”
They’ve already taken giant steps in kids’ music. Things turned around for these former child-care workers when they conceived a trilogy of adventure projects — canoeing, camping and horseback riding over the Continental Divide. Each trip was shot for a long-form DVD and turned into a themed album with songs inspired by the adventures.
These three projects have turned them into stars in the kids’ music pantheon.
‘SMART BUT SILLY’
“I’d definitely put them in the Top 10 artists making kids’ and family music,” says Mindy Thomas, host of “Absolutely Mindy” on Sirius XM and a longtime program director of Sirius’ “Kids Music Live” channel.
“Their songs speak to adults as much as they do to kids. That’s not always easy to do. They’re smart but they’re silly,” Thomas continued. “My kids — they’re 6 and 9 — love them. They’re so inspiring. I love their message — get out there and explore the world.”
Singer Cathy Fink has been around children’s music for 40 years, successful enough to earn 14 Grammy nominations and take home two Grammy trophies. She appreciates the Okees for several reasons.
“They’re very musical,” she said. “Their production is top-notch. What they do is real. This isn’t a lark for them. It’s a commitment to make music for families. They’re also nice guys.”
Jack Forman, who plays in the Grammy-nominated kids’ music band Recess Monkey and DJs on Sirius XM’s “Kids Place Live,” calls the Okee Dokee Brothers’ “absolute masters at channeling childlike energy onstage.” He also admires them for being progressive musicians willing to work with artists of different styles and ethnicities in the studio.
Despite all the accolades, the Okees are careful to keep perspective on their success. That’s why they still play community centers and libraries as well as big-time venues.
“If we let it, the Grammys could get to our heads and all this stuff could be a little too big for us,” Lansing said. “When we can stay close to the fans and play the community shows that are meaningful and small, that’s really important.”
Cason Gilmer, an amateur guitarist and banjo player from Camarillo, Calif., appreciates that. He discovered the Okees’ on Netflix a couple of years ago. He said he was well into the hourlong video before he realized they were playing kids’ music. So when his son Brixton woke from a nap, the youngster watched along with Dad. They’ve been hooked ever since.
Brixton, who turns 4 next month, has plaid shirts and a toy guitar and banjo. If he plays Mailander, then Dad plays Lansing or vice versa. They watch the videos and sing and play along.
“He’s got a knack for it,” Gilmer said of Brixton. “This is a daily thing with him.”
That was Brixton transfixed by the Okees at Lucky Strike lanes in Hollywood. His 2-year-old brother seemed less attentive to the music.
Said Dad: “At home, they sit together in a laundry basket — that’s their canoe — while watching the Okee Dokees’ video ‘Can You Canoe?’”