Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon returns home to the Wisconsin town that raised him.
Walk into The Joynt in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, at happy hour and a beer will set you back just 30 cents. Signs nailed to the walls read “Give Cheese a Chance,” “No Light Beer” and “On the Eighth Day, God Created the Packers.” A half ziggurat of aged cans with labels now extinct rests atop a bar as old as the bandanna-clad lifer falling asleep at his stool. His blue eyes open only to focus on another sip just as a new song starts spinning on the jukebox. Right now it’s a slow number, but not by any luminary who visited this place when it was a jazz dive in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a song from local boys DeYarmond Edison, former roots rock band of Justin Vernon, the falsetto and strumming hand behind Bon Iver. The Joynt, a signless institution on a drag chock with faceless college hangouts, is the very same bar where Vernon’s parents met for the first time in 1978. It’s where he snuck into shows as a high school student and where he continues to share pitchers with strangers and friends who wheel him out when he’s done. He calls it the “last great American Bar,” and even if there are hundreds of places all over this country with patrons who would beg to differ, it’s hard to argue with him. You might go in alone, but chances are you won’t stay that way.
Eau Claire sits 90 minutes east of the Twin Cities and 250 miles northwest of Milwaukee. It’s a regional center in the Chippewa Valley and home to a satellite branch of the University of Wisconsin, which helps swell its population to 65,000 residents, though downtown feels deserted most of the time. Victorian homes sit on tree-lined streets, the stars and stripes flapping from their front porches. There’s an old drive-in movie theater, a Walgreens and a Wal-Mart. There’s a mall where a family-owned and operated dairy farm once stood. And there’s a stadium shared by the high school and university where Vernon, a jazz band standout, captained the Memorial High School football team to a respectable number of victories. Eau Claire is, in many ways, just like other small towns in America. But as the world connects and cities expand, many communities like this are in danger of becoming less like individual places and more like locally-themed links between urban sprawls. Chain stores, homogeneous homebuilders and uninspired local leadership are at the forefront of this identity theft, but it’s hard not to believe the fabric of towns like Eau Claire remains intact and unique. And though it’s by no means a major trend, some of the young people who left smaller towns in search of greater economic opportunity or wilder adventures are coming back, or not leaving in the first place, to make their mark right where they started. Justin Vernon is just one.
In November of 2006, 14 months after migrating south to Raleigh, North Carolina, with a girl and the DeYarmond bandmates he’d grown up playing with, Vernon returned home to Wisconsin all alone. He’d broken up with the girl and the band, and when he arrived at his parents’ house, there was no one there. Desperate for solace, Vernon gunned it to his father’s hunting cabin, an isolated spot in the North Woods now forever tethered in popular imagination to the wound-licking and self-discovery that galvanized his breakout album For Emma, Forever Ago. He spent several weeks holed up there, sifting through emotional wreckage, wrestling with chores, camping in front of the television set and, slowly but surely, recording folk music unlike anyone, even those closest to him, would have expected. Made of just a newly found falsetto and guitar, each song was more still than quiet, simultaneously lucid and totally opaque. As many fans and followers as it has gained Vernon, For Emma is still the sound of a young man alone in the woods, sweating out his sorrows while the world around him freezes.