I spend my time covering the Madison music scene, but everywhere I turned this year, people were talking about Eau Claire.
Even Madison bands.
Natty Nation released a live album at the beginning of the year. They named it Live in Eau Claire. When I sat down to interview the Madison rock band Sunspot two weeks ago, they talked fondly about their fan base in, yes, Eau Claire.
This month, the musical pride of Eau Claire, Bon Iver, landed a spot in Rolling Stone's Top 50 albums of 2008 (#29). Just last week, Bon Iver performed on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Has Eau Claire become the musical mecca of the Badger State? Maybe - but one thing's for sure: Bon Iver is Wisconsin's music artist of the year.
Bon Iver is Justin Vernon, a 27-year-old native of Eau Claire. His high school band, Mount Vernon, evolved into a project called DeYarmond Edison. That band relocated to Raleigh, N.C., in 2004. It was a time of turmoil for Vernon. He returned to Wisconsin in 2006 after breaking up with a girlfriend and acquiring an aggressive form of mono that attacked his liver.
Vernon took refuge in his dad's rustic Wisconsin cabin. It was a time to hibernate, and to write songs.
Those songs became For Emma, Forever Ago. The album is a set of acoustic folk ballads transformed into neo-soul by percussion and Vernon's falsetto vocals.
Vernon hasn't distanced himself from Eau Claire, despite the national prominence he's achieved. He spent Thanksgiving weekend hunting in the Wisconsin woods. Two weeks later on the set of Letterman, he looked the part of a Northwoods lumberjack. He wore a red flannel shirt and stocking cap. He sported a scraggly beard.
Vernon isn't about to run away from the harsh winters of western Wisconsin. After all, Bon Iver is French for "good winter."