Tuesday, September 20, 2011

See Ya' at Winfield!

See ya at Winfield! 
To tens of thousands of acoustic music lovers and performers, See ya at Winfield! is more than a casual statement pertaining to a certain town in south central Kansas. 

Winfield means Walnut Valley Festival and National Flatpicking Championships; it means camping on the banks of the Walnut River; late night jam sessions; family reunions; maybe even a little craziness. 

For the musicians, Winfield is a homecoming, a much-anticipated gig where they can perform with admired colleagues on the festival stages, then join late-night jam sessions with 
amateur pickers around fire pits.

The festival began in 1972 to host the National Guitar Flat-picking Championships. In its forty years, it has grown to a five-day event which also hosts the International Finger Style Guitar Championships, the International Autoharp Championship, National Championships for Mountain Dulcimer playing, Mandolin, Flat Pick Guitar, Hammer Dulcimer, and Bluegrass Banjo. There is also a Walnut Valley Old Time Fiddle competition.

This annual Brigadoon (as Dan Crary called it) would have been called a happening back in the 1960s. (Maybe that's why you see so many in tie-dye attire.) Floods, cold, tornadoes, heat waves, recessions, and the 9-11 disaster have not disrupted the festival, but have merely added to the legends and lore, the stories that begin with "remember that year when...?"

Lawrence, Kansas-based Bluestem, performing traditional western songs on Stage 1
Many think of Winfield as a bluegrass festival.  Yes, it is a great venue to hear lots of fine bluegrass pickin,' but my wife and I schedule our days to take advantage of the variety - Celtic, folk, traditional old-timey, cowboy and western, Cajun, gospel, country swing, early rock, and just about anything acoustic that could be considered Americana or roots music. In other words, something for just about everybody. Four "official" stages are busy on the grounds, several more "unofficial" stages in the campgrounds, plus jamming just about anywhere.

Stage 2, The Greencards, 2007
There is a long list of famed acoustic musicians associated with the Walnut Valley Festival. Many of my readers will recognize these  names of past performers: Alison Krause & Union Station, Mark O'Conner, Cherish the Ladies, Peter Ostroushko, Doc Watson, Robin & Linda Williams, New Grass Revival, and The Dixie Chicks. More recently, festivals which Nancy and I have attended have included noted artists (not present this year) such as The Greencards, David Munnelly Band, Misty River, Mountain Heart, Mountain Smoke, Sons of the San Juaquin, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Nickel Creek.

Nancy and I arrived at the barn (I'll explain that later) mid-afternoon on Thursday, left our luggage in the barnyard and headed for the fairgrounds. That's always a sentimental homecoming for me because my Grandfather Hackney brought me here a couple of times for the fair - and the horse races. We bought our admission tickets long ago, so we only need get our wristbands at check-in, and began our weekend with a casual stroll down the midway. It's a comfort to see that all of the vendors are in their customary spots, meaning we have our choice of funnel cakes, Indian tacos, bison burgers, turkey legs, fried pickles, fried catfish dinners, reubens, and on and on. New this year - hillbilly hash and fried peaches! That's two separate dishes, by the way.

As a rule, we listen to music all day and into the night. Not so this year. Partly due to the weather, and partly due to my back and neck soreness stemming from a minor auto collision in July, we just couldn't hang on as in previous years. Then, a wicked lightning storm forced event organizers to close down the outdoor stages on Friday evening (a prudent decision without question). We missed out on several performers that we were keen to hear. Hopefully next year. Following are some of the great musicians we did hear, and additional views from the festival.

Tommy Emmanuel on Stage 1
Aussie guitarist Tommy Emmanuel is a perennial crowd favorite, at Winfield and wherever he goes. His technical skills rival or surpass that of the world's elite classical guitarists, and he has creatively expanded the versatility of the instrument with percussive effects and feedback sounds that amaze listeners. Check out Tommy's web site (link below), or some of his YouTube videos.

Hot Club of Cowtown on Stage 1

It seems that every year there are a couple of performers or groups that really grab my attention - that ring my bell. One of those this go-round was Hot Club of Cowtown. Their energetic brand of western swing had me tapping my boots, and when they slowed it down with a ballad, Elana James displayed a terrific voice and a lot of style. Elana (formerly known as Elana Fremerman) is a KC-area native from Prairie Village. The ensemble is based in Austin, Texas.

It has been a tradition, at least in recent years, to include a Celtic ensemble in the festival line-up. After all, there is a direct link from Celtic music to American mountain music and other forms of folk music. This year we were very fortunate to hear Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul. Eileen was an original cast member of Riverdance, a founding member of Cherish the Ladies, has performed with numerous major symphony orchestras around the world, and somehow found the time to win nine (yes, 9) All-Ireland Fiddle Championships. She and Immigrant Soul all hail from a hotbed of Celtic music - New York City. Interesting sidelight: her Irish tenor singer was an original member of The Blues Brothers.

Tom Chapin and Michael Mark, Stage 2

Tom Chapin fans at Stage 2 (Hi, Jane!)
Many of us have never experienced Winfield without Tom Chapin and Friends. This was his 18th year at the event, and he has developed a large and loyal following which not only enjoys his original songs, many of which were written for children, but sings along and knows the motions. Nancy used his "A B C" song in the music classroom for years. Always a festival highlight for us!

Stephanie Bettman & Luke Halpin at Stage 3

We just got in on the last couple of songs of a set by Stephanie Bettman and Luke Halpin,  performing "folk/Americana music with blues, jazz, and bluegrass influences." The first thing I noted was Stephanie's lovely, pure voice, which at times reminded of Joan Baez.  We made mental notes to check out more by this engaging duo from Denver making their first appearance at Walnut Valley Festival. Didn't happen. The weather and my aching back conspired against that. Hope they are invited back so we can hear more!

Bill Barwick, guitar and vocals; Steve McCartney, standup bass and coyote sound effects
Bill Barwick is definitely no stranger to Winfield. His gravelly, basso profundo voice and his vast repertoire of cowboy/western songs and stories have graced these festival stages for 18 years. Always a treat to listen to Bill, whether he is performing his own set, or accompanying  or sitting in with other performers.

Trevor Stewart and the Chapman Stick
Rare is the year when we don't hear or see something, in this case an instrument, that was completely unfamiliar to us. 2011 - Trevor Stewart performing on the Chapman Stick. As you can see in the photo, the instrument has a long fret board spanning the guitar and bass ranges. The strings are tapped, not plucked, using two hands. Electrical amplification is necessary.

The Wilders, 2009 Walnut Valley Festival
2011 - Some of the Wilders' "honky-tonk" fans
If you don't have body parts movin' while listening to The Wilders, you just might be dead. This Kansas City-based group can play numerous styles, but they are at their best when kickin' off a soulful Hank Williams country classic or rocking the joint with a hard-driving honky tonk fiddle tune.

Talented young singer, 2011

2007 - Rockin' Acoustic Circus, or something like that!
Acoustic Kids One of the important annual events is held on Friday and Saturday mornings - Acoustic Kids time on Stage 2. It is not a contest, but an opportunity for some deserving young talents to show off their chops in front of a large and appreciative audience. Some of those performers have returned to Winfield to compete in the contests and/or perform on the "big stage."

It would be impossible to present a balanced picture of the Winfield experience without talking about the campgrounds. Furthermore, it would not be possible to describe that camping experience in one paragraph, or a couple of photos. Many families or groups have been camping together at Winfield for decades. Many show up for land rush to reserve and set up their camping area and begin camping a week before the festival begins. Many of the camping areas a wildly and creatively decorated; some are set up by groups from certain states. Children are everywhere! It is a family experience.

2009 - Crab Camp
2011 - La La Land
The music doesn't stop when you leave the fairgrounds and enter the camping areas. If anything, there is more! Jam sessions are going 24/7 (so I am told), lending credence to those who say Winfield's motto is "Sleep when you're dead." There are a couple of stages in the campground area, of which the best known is Stage 5.

Stage 5
Prairie Acre at Stage 5
I want to give a "shout out" to The Prairie Acre, the Lawrence, Kansas, band which appears in these two pictures. They enjoy playing music and make music FUN. Their style? What is usually described as "old-time." It's pickin' and grinnin' with an emphasis on grinnin.' They also happen to be extremely talented. (You might note that this picture is blurred. Taking a picture of these guys while they are playing is like taking a photo of a hummingbird - you better have lots of light and a fast shutter speed.) I would hope this group gets an opportunity to perform on one of the main festival stages in the near future. 

Nancy and I are not Winfield old-timers, but we're not exactly Winfield Virgins either. 2011 was our seventh festival. We did miss the 2010 festival in order to spend five weeks in Italy. Campers? Not us - we spend our nights in The Barnyard Room in what was once the hayloft of a barn. But before you think we're roughing it, let me explain that the barn is now a bed and breakfast. The old barn was disassembled and moved, piece by piece to its present location, then cleverly converted to the Barns at Timber Creek B&B by Martin and Cheryl Rude, faculty members at nearby Southwestern College.   We're what festival veterans refer to as flush and shower campers. (They could add heating and air-conditioning to that phrase, too, creature comforts which we have found to be very important on more than one occasion.)

For those who might wish to attend the festival and are not campers, I should note that rooms are booked well in advance at motels in the area, and that the Rudes have a long waiting list of folks wishing to stay at the Barns on festival weekend.


Walnut Valley Festival: www.wvfest.com/
Winfield Convention & Tourism: www.winfieldks.org
The Barns at Timber Creek B&B: http://timbercreekbarns.com/


Tommy Emmanuel: www.tommyemmanuel.com
Hot Club of Cowtown: http://hotclubofcowtown.com/
Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul: www.eileenivers.com/
Tom Chapin: www.tomchapin.com/
Stephanie Bettman & Luke Halpin: www.stephaniebettman.com/
Bill Barwick: www.billbarwick.com/ 
Trevor Stewart: www.trevorstewartmusic.com/
The Wilders: http://thewilders.us/
Prairie Acre: www.theprairieacre.com/


Still on the Hill: www.stillonthehill.com/

Dan Crary and Thunderation: www.thunderation.com/
Notorious: www.notoriousfolk.com/
Bluestem: www.sunflower.com/~bluestem/
Beppe Gambetta:  www.beppegambetta.com/
Kenny & Amanda Smith Band: www.kenny-amandasmith.com/