It had been five years since I’d been back to Winfield, Kansas for the Walnut Valley Festival, a wonderful and quite unique gathering that’s been going for 33 years now. My first Winfield was in 1976, the same year I moved to Colorado. My, how it’s grown!
The venue is part of the magic. Aside from the huge grandstand, two other sizeable stage areas offer a great variety of acoustic music acts to very enthusiastic and knowledgeable audiences.
Another part of the magic is the high-level campground picking, thanks especially to the many instrument contests throughout the weekend. The competition is especially hot for the National Flatpicking Guitar Contest, long-known as “the” guitar contest, with pickers coming from all over to compete. After all, Kansas is the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states, making a great home for any competition calling itself “national”.
But it’s not all about flatpicking. There are also the nation’s toughest banjo contest, fingerpicking guitar contest, mountain dulcimer and hammer dulcimer contests, and more. Winning at Winfield is a major credential that lasts a lifetime. You can imagine the talent in some of the “casual” picking that goes on! And on the stages circulate some of the all-time greats: Dan Crary, Beppe Gambetta, the incredible Tommy Emanuel, Pat Flynn, John Cowan, Stuart Duncan, Scott Vestal, and more. The Waybacks, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, the Hot Club of Cowtown, and many others provided plenty of hot picking.
Flexigrass (formerly the Live Five) was well in our element there. Though acoustic string instruments are the general rule, our having only one of those (me) caused no controversy or problems. After our first set, when I’d done a little explaining of how we are and aren’t bluegrass, my friend Danny Wheetman of Marley’s Ghost (Winfield perennials) said, “This is one place where you don’t need to explain anything. It’s Winfield.”
Truly, Kansas is a socially conservative place, but in some ways, this festival nicely exemplifies an “anything goes” attitude. The practically circus-level atmosphere in the campground has become justly famous, as the gathering starts a full week before the festival, with many makeshift structures, holiday lights, and signs for the various long-running annual campsites (River Rats, Watering Hole, the Greenhorns, Joke Camp — where admittance requires telling a joke, and dozens more). It’s no exaggeration to say an awful lot of people spend a long time preparing for Winfield.
The first of four Flexigrass shows was at the grandstand at noon Friday in front of a sizeable crowd, and we delivered a high-energy set that finished with an encore. That particular day was probably the hottest I’ve ever experienced in Walnut Valley. It was a good thing there is ample shade, but it was sweltering nonetheless. Someone reported it was 96 degrees, and more than one person passed out that afternoon.
I sat on the stage and watched Tommy Emanuel’s whole set. I had been hearing about him for years (amazing guitar player, Australia’s Entertainer of the Year a number of times, great performer, etc.). In the backstage trailer, while tightening my banjo head, I had listened to him warm up on some nice Merle Travis-style picking. He looked over at me and stood up and came over with his hand out. “You’re Pete Wernick, aren’t you?” Very surprised, I said yes, and he started describing how he and a friend were deep into the early Country Cooking records. Yes, he had even learned Orange Mt. Special, the tune Hank Miller and I wrote to be the hardest tune possible. (Those were the days!)
Tommy’s a very interesting person. He doesn’t live any particular place, but has different sets of “necessary stuff” in different places, including Australia, Germany, London, and the U.S. He pretty much lives on the road. With a winning personality, and a great variety of music he plays ranging from simple and soothing to explosive, he really is a master entertainer.
The most unique thing I heard was a couple of numbers at the end of his set where he made some unique and fully engrossing music on his guitar using the strings only incidentally. With the help of a looping effects device, he created all sorts of rhythms and textures by hitting different parts of his guitar (sometimes hard!) with open hands. He popped the strings on the fingerboard, picked the very short string lengths on the peghead side of the nut, scratched the string windings, and even hit the mic as part of the rhythm patterns he wove. This guitar-as-percussion-instrument display was most impressive and above all, musical. He concluded with a set of moves rubbing and scratching the face of the guitar with both hands to make the sounds of pounding waves with ocean spray and seagulls calling in flight. Totally realistic and evocative, and all from one man’s hands and guitar (and looping effects device!). His guitar-god status is well-earned.
Other magic moments for me were sitting in with Marley’s Ghost, hearing Byron Berline’s band for the first time in years, the Flynn/Cowan/Vestal/Duncan high energy one-time supergroup, and truth be told, the campground. More on that in a bit.
Flexigrass had four good and well-received sets, with encores each time but one (one of those sound-problem situations, at the end of the sweltering Friday afternoon). The band sounded tight, which pleased me, having called a couple of practices just to prepare for the festival.
Did I mention the corn? It was Kansas, after all, but I was told that the guy who provides the corn every year said that this was the best corn he’d delivered yet. Greg said he had five ears on Saturday ($3 an ear!). I didn’t have that many, but I sure did like that Kansas corn!
Joan and I did a little campground tour late Saturday night. There was such a nice community feeling there. Many old friends who see each other only there. Communal campsites with plenty of seating, a well-constructed shelter, a whole table for food, and even amenities like portable wading pools and comfy reclining chairs. Late at night, while adults were picking old-time music, it was sweet to see several kids sleeping soundly, bundled up in those reclining chairs. Not a hundred yards away was Stage 5, a makeshift stage just for the campground folks to entertain each other. With speakers suspended from various unlikely places, a big crowd was enjoying music from a band featuring two guys in overalls playing fiddle and banjo.
It’s often said that at bluegrass festivals, the picking in the campground is sometimes at the same level as the stage picking. Stage 5 shows the truth of that, and the Winfield campgrounders cheer on their own with pride. Stage 5 is small, but it’s colorfully painted, and lined with strings of lights. Around 3am Joan and I finally called it a night, leaving behind a still-throbbing campground scene. Goodbye Winfield, hope to see you soon.