Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon, the falsetto-singing woodsman who crafted his breakthrough album in a lonely cabin in Wisconsin, now sells out music halls all over the world. But even after winning two Grammys and hitting the top of the charts, he never migrated to a millennial music capital like Austin or Brooklyn. Instead, he stayed home and helped build his own. Vernon’s heart never left his native Eau Claire, a former lumber town (pop. 68,000) situated in the upper left of the Wisconsin map that’s tattooed on his chest.
As recently as a few years ago, it would have been hard for outsiders to tell what Vernon was so attached to. The town had suffered the typical Midwestern hollowing-out: the tire plant had closed down, and downtown was left for dead. Nothing much changed for decades, until lately almost everything has. This summer, an estimated 100,000 visitors will head to Eau Claire for five major music festivals, bringing a $40 million economic boost to a region that now calls itself the Musical Capital of the North. The postindustrial town is reinventing itself as an outdoorsy cultural mecca, complete with new boutique hotels, locavore restaurants and an $80 million arts complex under construction at the meeting point of two scenic rivers. Says Vernon: “I hope we can really sprout, really blossom.”
He has done his part. Eau Claire’s breakout attraction is the indie-inspired music-and-arts festival Eaux Claires (the plural of the town’s French name, meaning “clear waters”), which Vernon launched last summer with Aaron Dessner of Brooklyn-based band the National. The 48-act festival was an immediate hit, drawing 22,000 fans to a site perched on bluffs along the Chippewa River. What made Eaux Claires different from VIP-studded festivals like Coachella was the collaborative, blue collar spirit of the musicians as they pitched in with one another. Friendly, folksy touches were everywhere. Each guest was given a little yellow booklet as a “field guide” with Vernon’s notes on the bands, while local author Michael Perry served as narrator, giving a kind of benediction: “And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of sound.”
While Vernon says he drew inspiration for Eaux Claires from the richly eclectic MusicNOW festival in Cincinnati, initially his plans were anything but grand. “At first it was just music, Eau Claire, O.K.,” he says. “Now it feels limitless.” He plans to add dance, film, ambitious cuisine and a set of brand-new material from Bon Iver to this year’s Aug. 12–13 event. The genre-mixing lineup will include at least 54 acts, among them Erykah Badu, James Blake, Beach House and a rare appearance by Dessner’s all-star Grateful Dead tribute band.
Why is all this happening here? Much of Eau Claire’s cultural chemistry can be traced to three townies in their 30s: Vernon and two friends, all of them musicians who went to local schools, attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (as did this writer) and then stuck around (which I did not). Vernon’s pal Zach Halmstad, a jazz pianist, co-founded JAMF Software, which employs hundreds of people in a sleek new office on the Chippewa. The third pal is Nick Meyer, publisher of the regional arts magazine Volume One, whom Vernon credits as the “first one to put a mirror up,” showing the town what it could become. But what they saw needed some work. Halmstad, whose company recruits far and wide, was frustrated that the only big downtown hotel was “so atrocious that we couldn’t put people there. They’d wonder why we live here.”
Therein lies the new paradigm for towns in turnaround mode. Instead of chasing smokestacks, why not build a place where young people want to live and work? So Halmstad invested $23 million to turn the downtown hotel into a modern boutique, the 112-room Lismore, a rustically stylish structure with a restaurant that’s named, with Wisconsin understatement, the Informalist. All three friends are partners in an even more Bon Iverish venture set to open this fall, the Oxbow Hotel, a total makeover of a seedy motel into a 30-room miniresort with a live-music lounge and kayaks that are ready to launch.
Eau Claire has more-traditional economic drivers too, including a branch of the Mayo Clinic, with 3,600 employees. But music has been the spark, which is no accident. The city’s high schools and university take music quite seriously. “I spent the last 12 months of high school deeply, deeply studying the arrangements of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,” Vernon recalls. And since music scholars also like to rock out, “even our cover bands are a little better,” boasts Ben Richgruber, the regional arts director and a partner in the Oxbow.
James Schmidt, chancellor of the university, is overjoyed at what his three alumni have wrought. At a time when state funding for higher education is sharply diminished, “the only way we can be sure to get things accomplished is to do them ourselves and with our neighbors,” Schmidt says.
For Eau Claire, the crowning achievement will be the Confluence Project, a collaboration between the university and the town, in which dorm rooms will cohabit with theaters and classrooms. “When something like this works,” Schmidt says, “it gives us encouragement to propose other crazy things, which may not be so crazy after all.”
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.