Illuminations: Reflections Of Winfield 47
I became aware of the Walnut Valley Festival probably around 2007 when I first got active in the mountain dulcimer scene. All I’d heard was that it was huge. Really huge, with an impressive cultural lineage and a unique atmosphere unparalleled by any other festival in the country. Established in 1972, the festival originally was created as a vehicle for the Walnut Valley National Guitar Flat-Picking Championships and, over the years, it has become THE gold standard for determining the best in musicianship. From guitars to fiddles and banjos to mountain dulcimers, hammered dulcimers and autoharp, the national championships of many different instruments are held each year at the festival’s site: The Cowley County Fairgrounds in Winfield, Kansas. Competitors enter regional contests and, if they win first place, they are then given a free pass to the festival in order to compete in the nationals. Alongside the competitions, there are a number of stages where luminaries such as Doc Watson, Nickel Creek, Tom Paxton, The Steel Wheels, The Tannahill Weavers, Malcolm Dalglish and others have performed and taught.
That, and the legendary campgrounds - Walnut Grove (Westside) and Pecan Grove - where people line up for an epic “land rush” of campers all rushing into the sites to set up incredible locations for gigging, picking, hanging out and chilling down. Some 15,000 people attend the fest annually. Many consider WVF to be the mother lode of festivals and, despite its origins as a festival steeped in bluegrass, there are many different types of music embraced.
I kept hearing from folks that urged me to come to the festival - to compete in the national mountain dulcimer championships or just to hang out. For one, I’ve never been a big competition guy; the pressure whacks me out, and my only real competition experience has been the Central Florida Blues Challenge and the International Blues Challenge. Both are outside of the mountain dulcimer realm. The list of MD winners is full of greatness, and friends, like Gary Gallier, Sue Carpenter, Sarah Morgan, Erin Mae, Dana Hamilton, Jeff Hames, Aaron O’Rourke and others, but by the time I had become well aware of the competition, I had already decided that I didn’t want to compete. Why? Because I already had an established career in music, and if I didn’t win first place, that could, in some folks’ eyes, look like a negative. And a trip to Winfield, Kansas, just to hang out and experience it all, would be difficult to afford if I wasn’t actually able to sell CDs or collect a stipend.
Still, some folks began telling me about the times they went to WVF as featured performers and I wondered how I might get on the festival’s radar. The selection process is quite intensive and the talent level is through the roof, across the board. I chalked it up to a bucket-list aspiration and left it at that.
Much to my surprise, WVF contacted me in 2015 about performing at the festival and I just happened to be booked on those dates. Funnily enough, the gig fell through and I quickly got back in contact with the association to see if I might still be able to participate. Sadly, all performing slots were filled, but they did offer me a stand-by judging position for the mountain dulcimer competition, which I gladly accepted, and made my first journey out to Winfield in 2016.
And that was a flood year.
The fairgrounds are on the banks of the Walnut River and, when it gets ornery, it overflows the banks and decimates the grounds. The flood that year was a pretty severe one, resulting in the relocation of the camping to two off-site locations, effectively putting the kibosh on one of the biggest draws of the festival. With no wild music camps to wander through, the whole vibe changes. Still, it was a lot of fun that first year and I didn’t even need to step in as a judge because everyone showed up. I was struck by the camaraderie between everyone, the care and attention granted to each person that walked through the gates. When people found out that it was my first time there, they were apologetic. “We’re so sorry that you’re not getting the full experience - you have to come back next year.” Well, it was still pretty epic. I wondered just how much more epic it could get.
It was arranged for me to return in 2017 as a performer as well as a teacher during the pre-festival workshops. This time, the glory of the campgrounds was in full swing, thanks to a not-so-active rainy season, and I recall walking through Pecan Grove one night thinking that I had blasted off from earth and landed on a planet where music is the religion and everyone present is a card-carrying member of the church. West side is a bit more chill, lots of camps, lots of jams, plenty of folks having fun and making music. Pecan Grove is like Burning Man for folkies; it’s a 24-7 party with music that rivals New Orleans for sheer variety and good-timing intensity.
It’s important to note that the festival attendees are mostly die-hard music fans, a listening crowd, deeply appreciative of great live music. A good majority of attendees are also musicians, so there’s a critical mass happening there. Not sure of what to expect, I just let fly with my shows, always trying my best to read the crowd to better serve up a set list, and was rewarded with some of the most amazing moments that I’ve ever had on stage just reacting and interacting with the audience. Before I departed the fest, I’d been invited back for the following year.
Which would be this year. I’m in Leeds, Alabama writing this in a Walmart parking lot, having driven from Winfield and there’s been plenty of time to reflect upon the crazy awesomeness that went down this past couple of weeks.
Backing up, I got here early to participate in the Great Plains Dulcimer Alliance Warm-Up Picnic; a day of musical workshops at Island Park downtown with instruction, concerts, a potluck and lots of jamming. In the grand scheme of things, the mountain dulcimer is a minority instrument, often considered marginal by some folks, but there were a slew of them here and we had a great time building skill sets and learning new tunes. The picnic took place on September 8th and then I had a few days to chill before the official WVF pre-fest workshops on the 12th. Due to heavy rains, the land-rush had been postponed and was taking place on the 9th. For the first time, after hearing so much about it, I experienced the insanity of this extraordinary event, where hundreds of motorhomes, RVs and other vehicles all are directed, by lottery, into the two different campgrounds. People camp out for days, hoping for a good spot because many of the camps are located in the same places each year. It’s mind-boggling to think of how internally organized this whole thing really is.
As an entertainer, my camping spot would be by the chuck wagon behind Stage 1, which is the main stage that includes the grandstands of the fairgrounds - the largest capacity of the fest. So I didn’t have to worry about land rush, but I still wanted to get a feel for it. So, I donned my video sunglasses, hopped on my bike and zipped around as this amazing convoy of vehicles was directed by a number of people in ATVs and other vehicles. It struck me as being much like a symphony. One conductor (Rick is his name), rolls through the staging area, pointing at vehicles that have been parked according to their numbers, and systematically directs everyone to their entries. It was incredible to experience first-hand, and thrilling to be at the epicenter of such kinetic activity.
I wanted to get some shots of the campers rolling into Pecan Grove, so I rode my bike over there and settled in. Presently, a dude comes walking along, plants a couple of signs, waves to, and refers to a passing staffer as “boss”, and I figured he was there to help facilitate the land rush. We started talking (everyone at WVF is so nice, so open, quick to engage and pleasant beyond measure) and I found out that his name was Jim Herrmann, one of the founders of Stage 11: The Songwriter’s Stage.
There are a number of “internal” stages within the accepted gates of the fest, but there are also stages in the campgrounds that are well-known and sought-out for their musical excellence. Even if you’re not a billed artist for the fest, you can still sign up for one of these stages to strut your stuff. Jim said that he recognized me and invited me to perform on Stage 11 and that’s how my WVF experience this year began.
He was also excited that Christie Lenée would be coming to the stage. Christie won the 2017 National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship at Winfield and was coming back to participate in a concert showcasing last year’s winners. After initially inviting me to perform on the stage, Jim upgraded the request to a featured spot (a bit longer than the usual slots) right before Christie’s on Thursday night at midnight. It sounded like a great opportunity for visibility - the place would be mobbed to see her - it was a sweet opening spot.
I had no idea who she was, so I looked her up.
The woman is a force of a nature, using a two-handed tapping technique that is, in a word, wonderful. I watched videos of her trading licks with Tommy Emmanuel and, I have to admit, got somewhat intimidated. “Holy crap, I can’t suck on this set,” went my mind.
I had plenty of time to think about it, though. A couple of days camped out - then, teaching at the pre-festival workshop, which was very well attended and it’s always exciting to see that many mountain dulcimer players at a festival that’s not specifically geared towards the instrument. Then, my 12:45 pm Thursday on Stage 2 was wildly epic with a huge crowd and a great response. There were people there who had seen my shows from the previous year, circled my sets on this year’s schedule and planned to be there, which is still something that just makes my toes curl in a good way. My 7:15 pm set on Stage 3 was likewise well-attended and well-received. Having talked up the Stage 11 set at 11:30 pm, there were a good number of folks there and it was a shorter, but still very powerful and engaging set. As I finished and began taking my gear off-stage, I spotted Christie as she moved her pieces into place and she said, “that was awesome”, which, of course, felt really good, considering the source. But then, she asked, “can you play flute in the key of G?”
I told her that I could - and she invited me to come up and jam with her.
First of all - I LOVE JAMMING! Making shit up on the fly is awesome, and I’d rather do that than play established tunes. But here was an artist who has made a name for herself by writing and performing wildly inventive instrumentals with lots of voluminous space. This wouldn’t be laying down some flute fill for a basic tune. This was going to be some seriously expansive exploration, if her videos were any indication, and I was pumped.
As it turns out, the fest would be the first time she had gigged with violinist/vocalist Lydia Bain, and though she still wanted to jam a duet of guitar and flute, she also brought me up to play the title track from her latest CD, “Stay”, with Lydia.
So, guy with a flute and a song he’s never heard before plus two incredible musicians equals a magical moment that seemed to exist for an eternity while I sank deep into the tune, watching for signals of dynamics, reading the vibe, listening to the carefully rehearsed interplay between violin, vocals and guitar, stepping in, stepping back and picking up on Christie’s subtle direction. There’s video - I don’t have it processed yet - but it will show up at some point. In short, it was musical bliss, ringing with emotion. “Stay” is an amazing song, and can I tell you how hard it is to provide musical backup while also trying to not be mesmerized by the performances that you’re supposed to be accompanying? I just wanted to stop tooting and listen, first time I’d heard the tune, but I stayed on it and happily wore the side-man shirt. The crowd went nuts.
After the set, and many hugs, I sat in the Stage 11 green room with Christie, Lydia, Thomas, Emily and Jim, jamming, laughing, enjoying libations and great conversations. Christie had just the one official winners set on Wednesday and nothing more, so I invited her to join my Stage 3 set on Friday. One of her tunes - I would just improvise on the Native American flute. By the time it was all said and done, I’d gotten back to Imua around 5 am and crawled into bed at 6 am. Six hours of sleep was necessary to get a good start to another busy day.
I woke a bit earlier than six hours would’ve allowed on Friday, got up, made breakfast, went for coffee and greeted my friends Nancy and Tom Garrett, who said, “isn’t it wonderful? Wendy won!”
I blinked and asked, “Wendy who?” Nancy replied, “Wendy Songe - she won first place in the mountain dulcimer competition.”
My first thought was, “AWESOME!” My second thought was, “I had no idea she was even competing.” Wendy was a student of mine in 2010 and I coached her for a few years before she caught fire in the dulcimer scene. I produced her debut EP “Test Drive” as well as her full-length CD “Driven” in recent years. She’s competed before at WVF, taking 3rd place in 2016, but now she’d gone and won the whole darn thing, so I sought her out and invited her, also, to join my Stage 3 set later that day. I wanted to get both her and Christie more Stage time and exposure to the audience.
While backstage, John McCutcheon walked up, greeted me and gave me the inside tip on a festival that he thought was a perfect fit for my skill set. Shortly after that, Tom Chapin, who was sitting in with John, greeted me and said he’d heard great things about my music. Cue the mind-blown thing again. These guys are legends - how did I end up on their radar?
The level of musicianship at this festival is through the roof - you will not find better pickers anywhere. There’s a high that sets in after awhile, hearing so much stellar music, being around such great people, it’s a euphoria that longtime attendees know well and crave. These people appreciate the artists that come to the fest and they let you know just how much you’re appreciated.
I’d been fighting horrific allergies coming into the week, so I played it safe between sets (seven in all over four days) in order to rest my throat, which was wracked and raw from coughing and yucky drainage. Lots of Neti Pot and Ginger Tea with honey, lemon and whiskey. But in the evening, I ventured into the campgrounds and just flitted from site to site like a hummingbird, stopping when the groove sounded perfect and then hovering long enough to warrant an invite to come, sit and pick for a while. I had a particularly grand time at Camp Nowhere, where Tom and Nancy were hanging out, just playing, chilling and sipping Limoncello like it was Coca-Cola (because that’s how we ROLL.)
When not on stage or stalking the campgrounds, I moved from stage to stage, listening and also talking and visiting with folks, one of my favorite parts of any festival. People are damned interesting anyway, but the folks at WVF are a real treasure. It’s people that truly make this festival what it is and their collective ownership of this festival is part of what makes it so great. I’m not one to blow smoke and I avoid making general declarative statements that can be repeated at numerous events to score points. You can give praise without superlatives, but I don’t mince words in saying that Walnut Valley Festival is the BEST festival that I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. It’s unlike anything else that I’ve ever experienced and it is a non-stop rush of goodness. In my third year attending, and my second year as a performer, I realized why people proudly tout those bumper stickers, key chains and other items that plainly state “I can’t, I’m going to Winfield!” They set the hook real good, these folks. Once you go, you can’t imagine NOT going. It’s that incredible.
There’s no way that I could cover all that went on during the festival, but I can capsulize my on-stage experience in the situation that came up during my final set on Saturday evening at 7 pm on Stage 2. Temperatures had risen considerably since the start of the week and I had a good summer outdoor venue sweat rolling off of my arms and hands, onto the dulcimer bridge, which shorted out, caused some distortion drama in the speakers and then promptly died. Been there, done that, but didn’t bring a backup dulcimer (first set where I didn’t prepare for an emergency), so I finished with ukulele only. No worries! I welcome distractions - they make for some magical stuff.
Like Saturday at noon. It would be my first time playing on the big stage, Stage 1, with the grandstands as the audience and the dirt track serving as loge seating with portable chairs. There’s a rail line that runs right past the fairgrounds and a train schedule that, I swear to Doc Brown, involves freighters every seven minutes or so. Often times, at venues nearby train tracks, I’ve seen acts break away from their planned sets to do a train song when one comes barreling along. I was in the middle of a subdued, chilled, Irish set when I heard the distant wail at the next crossing up the road. The timing worked out; and I finished the second of three pieces, cocked my head and held a hand up to my ear, saying, “do you hear that?” And then launched into “Folsom Prison Blues” while the train roared past. When the song, and the train was done, I then slipped right back into the set and finished with “Danny Boy.”
That’s kind of a bucket-list thing. So glad it happened at Winfield.
After my final set on Saturday, I headed into the campgrounds with the full intention of not coming out until sunrise. I sat in again with Christie and Lydia on Stage 11 with some assisting musicians, closing the stage for the weekend, and took part in jam sessions throughout Pecan Grove. I heard lots of fantastic music (including my new faves, Cowtown Country Club), met lots of amazing people and had a great jam with a couple of guys (James Houston Bales on fiddle and Arch Stanton on vocals and bones.) I also spent some time teaching a tune to Dylan Roe, a fiddler who expressed an interest in learning the tune “John Stenson’s #1.” All in service of the music - it’s a Utopia where we all get it - it’s ALL about the music! If we could all have that level of dedication to the craft, I totally think we’d all get along much better as a race of humans. There’s an invisible bubble that encapsulates the fest each year and, inside that bubble, all the weirdness of politics, religion and social status gets the big heave-ho in favor of goodness, kindness, peace, joy and, oh yes, lots and lots of music. No wonder some folks have been attending this festival annually for 47 years. It’s something to aspire to.
I don’t know if I’ll be invited back to perform next year, but I’m already planning on being there anyway. They got me. It took a while, too long, but the net worked and now I’m landed with it. I can’t imagine a year without the Walnut Valley Festival now. And if you’ve never been, then let me say what everyone else has been saying: you just need to go once. The rest will take care of itself.
And if you’ve been before, then you already know this.
Sometime on Saturday evening, fireworks began to erupt to the east, and we all stopped what we were doing and watched them, marveling at the cleverness, and the balls, of whomever had set up the display. Whether that, or the people riding bikes with multi-colored lights decorating the spokes, or the wild, incredible and spontaneous jams that are literally around every bend, or the genuine familial feeling that connects everyone, there are always these sublime moments of magic that are a perfect mixture of time, place, intent and lots of heart and soul. I didn’t fully understand the attraction until I actually went.
And for the past three years, I’ve left the festival grounds energized, challenged, inspired and uplifted. A most heady mixture of the bestest. I know that’s not a real word, humor me.
I hope that you will someday take the opportunity, if you haven’t been, and go see for yourself just how extraordinary it all is. If you love music and people, you will surely not be disappointed!
And if you do decide to come, let’s walk through the campgrounds together - because I just want to watch your expression as it all washes over you. Words can’t adequately describe the Winfield experience - but the music does a very nice job.