Dana Falconberry & Medicine Bow Are Playing a Tour of America's National Parks Because Nature Rules

The Austin artist explains what it's like to discover a new side of touring that involves worrying about bat flight patterns.

Allie Volpe

Photo by Courtney Chavanell, courtesy of Dana Falconberry

Dana Falconberry has been sprinting up and down hills to get in shape. When she answers her phone, she’s just gotten home from this workout. The Austin-based folk artist isn’t just ready to talk about music; she’s got nature on her mind.

In a few weeks, Falconberry and her band, Medicine Bow, will be hitting the road for a summer tour. But instead of playing the usual slate of clubs in cities inundated with live music, they’ll be performing in national parks, celebrating the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. The tour will take the band from Pine Springs, Texas, to the middle of the redwood forest of Sequoia National Park to an island in the middle of Lake Superior. Then Falconberry will rough it in the wilderness for another week on a backpacking trip, which is why she’s building up her endurance right now.

“It’s going to be intense,” she says. “And with my dad and boyfriend, no less.”

As a kid growing up in Michigan, Falconberry’s family would take hiking trips in lieu of vacations to Disney World, eating dehydrated fruit instead of giant turkey legs. Her fascination with the natural world was ignited. There was something about the interaction with wildlife that stuck with her—such as the time she watched a massive moose bathing in a river on Isle Royale, the same Lake Superior island she’s playing on this tour.

As she got older, she’d subconsciously work natural images into her songs, evoking themes of love and relationships with metaphors about birds. On “Cormorant,” the standout song from her April album From the Forest Came the Fire, she finds a parallel with the title species, which can dive 100 feet below the water’s surface. “I couldn’t breathe below the deep sea, but it does breathe underneath me,” she sings, voice skipping from note to note. Plucks of banjo, strings, and vocal harmonies from Medicine Bow add an Americana flavor and infuse the music with just as much mystery as the lush woods that the songs are inspired by.

Throughout her music, Falconberry’s vocals bounce and weave like a nymph flitting through the woods. Her wide-eyed lyricism and lullaby-like cadence paint pictures of fields and mountains urbanites only see in computer desktops. “So look now to the mountains and take my hand / Run me through the sagebrush fast as you can,” she sings in sweetly on “Copperleaf,” off of 2012’s Leelanau, an album named after the Michigan peninsula where her family would take trips as a child.

The National Park Tour takes Falconberry to nine reserves, offering fans a way to see the music in the environment it was intended—and to celebrate the land in which they stand. It’s a whole lot of nature to prepare for, though. She jokes, “My next record is going to be all about air conditioned apartments.”

Photo by Courtney Chavanell, courtesy of Dana Falconberry

Noisey: When did you decide you wanted to tour in national parks?
Dana Falconberry:
We’d talked about it three or four years ago in the van. One of the things we do on tour whenever we have downtime is we look for parks to go hiking in. We had played a show at the top of a mountain, Mount Baldy, which we’re going to do again, and it’s right outside of LA. We were there and talking about how it would be cool to plan a tour of national parks. I decided to go for it because I’d been touring for years and years and the same old circuit was getting old.

I don’t necessarily think that bars are the best place for my songs to live. I do enjoy playing a fun bar show—I’m not against that or anything—but I’m always intrigued by doing something different and being creative about every aspect of it, the booking as well. I thought that it would be really magical to have these gorgeous backdrops as opposed to a cinderblock wall. Also the centennial anniversary of the parks was coming up so I wanted to do something to coincide with that and our album was coming out and I wanted to do something really cool to celebrate that.

What’s performing on top of a mountain like?
We didn’t get to go all the way up to the top of that mountain because there were crazy winds at that time. We ended up playing at the Mount Baldy Lodge, halfway up the mountain. It was still totally amazing and gorgeous. There’s nothing like playing your music in this gorgeous environment. I also feel like if nobody comes to the shows and if the sound is horrible and everybody’s mean, it doesn’t even matter because I’m in a national park—it’s beautiful!

Your music has this outdoorsy feel to it, so it feels right at home.
That’s what I mean when I say that my songs aren’t best suited for bars. The songs are all about our connection to land and the spookiness of the natural land and the supernatural aspects of the natural world. Doing that in that environment is a really intriguing idea. I’m really interested in providing the audience that comes to our shows, whatever show they come to, with an experience that they’ll never forget and that will mean something to them. I think we have a much higher percentage of doing that in these parks than anywhere else.

Will the audience have to hike to the shows?
Yeah! I played a show in Hot Springs, Arkansas. My friend Bill usually sets up the show and then sets up a secret after show for me. A couple months ago when I was there, he set up a show on the top of a mountain, but you had to hike to get there. We all hiked up there as a group and then I played some songs there while the sun set. I had a totally different relationship with that audience than if I would if they had come to a bar to see me play.

So will this tour be like that?
There will be much less hiking for audience members. Most of these shows will be in or around the visitor center area. A lot of these parks have amphitheaters, so they’ll be accessible to people. There will be much less midnight hiking down a mountain, though I do hope that sense of “Hey, we've all come here together for a purpose and it’s not just to get drunk down the street,” but to be in this spot and to really think about this spot and honor it.

Logistically, what does it take to bring a tour to a national park?
It takes, like, 4,000 phone calls and just as many emails and a lot of patience. I do all my own booking, so booking this has been totally different than booking a normal tour. I’m just trading in one set of hurdles for another. It has been refreshing in a lot of ways. Usually you email a club and they’re like, “Oh, we’ve had that date booked for seven years” or “How many people are you going to bring?” The questions that a park ranger asks are totally different. They're like “What? You’re going to play music here? Is it going to be loud?” There’s that aspect of it, and then there’s the logistics of how do you bring music into a park. There’s been a lot of things I didn’t think about when I started this process that you have to think about when you’re planning this sort of thing: Where’s the electricity? What’s the bat population like? Will we be interfering with the bats’ flight that night?

Dana Falconberry & Medicine Bow / Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyonl, courtesy of Dana Falconberry

Has the response from park officials been positive?
It’s been hit or miss. I’ve definitely been told no. I’ve been told, “Our park is for people to quietly respect nature, and we don’t think your music fits into that.” But I would say for the most part, the usual response of the ranger has been curiosity. Like, “What are you talking about? This seems weird. We're kind of terrified of you, but keep talking.”

You’re kind of bringing the music industry to non-music industry people.
I hope I’m not bringing too much industry. [Laughs] The main part of wanting to do this was to escape that. But I’m kind of combining those worlds. That’s been one of the coolest parts about this: that I’ve formed these relationships with these rangers. National park rangers are my hero. I think their outfits are so cool. Ever since I was a kid, I was like, “Oh my god, you’re a ranger, you know everything!”

And to know that they’re listening to your music to see if it would fit into the scope of the park.
Actually one ranger had heard of my music before, she heard it on NPR or something. I was so blown away by that, because nobody else had ever heard of me or knew anything about what I was trying to do or had never been asked these kinds of questions before.

Do you have any fond memories from hiking in national parks?
I have a million memories of being a kid and going backpacking with my family. I don’t think i ever came to the realization that was amazing until maybe ten years ago. One of my favorites is I was on Isle Royale, which is the last park that I’ll play on this tour and that’s where I’ll be backpacking with my dad and my boyfriend. So when I was a kid I went backpacking there with my family and we saw moose. I also, later in the trip, was filtering some water by the lake and I saw a moose bathing in the lake at dusk. I can still see that scene, it was so beautiful. I hope I get to see something like that again this summer.

Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter.