Sunday, August 17, 2014

Winfield, Kansas where you're not in Kansas anymore at the Walnut Valley Festival

If you are a foreign or domestic tourist (scary phrasing in this day and age) I’m about to do you a favor. If you don’t know what the Walnut Valley Festival is, read on for a real Americana treat, even a shocking , yet delightful treat. The locals call it simply “Bluegrass.” If you ask for directions in Winfield, Kansas you can just say, “Where’s Bluegrass?” (Doesn’t work the same way in Colorado.)
I’m going to tell you about the unofficial festival which is just across the street from the official one, but first a bit about what the promoters would want me to say. At this music festival you can attend contests wherein outstanding musicians from all over the world compete for glory and great prizes.
Thurs. 9:00 AM
Stage 4
International Autoharp Championship
Thurs. 3:00 PM
Stage 4
International Finger Style Guitar Championship
Fri. 9:00 AM
Stage 4
National Mountain Dulcimer Championship
Fri. 1:00 PM
Stage 4
National Mandolin Championship
Fri. 5:00 PM
Stage 1
Finger Style Winners (victory lap)
Fri. 6:00 PM
Stage 4
Walnut Valley Old Time Fiddle Championship
Sat. 9:00 AM
Stage 4
National Flat Pick Guitar Championship
Sat. 3:30 PM
Stage 4
National Hammer Dulcimer Championship
Sat. 5:00 PM
Stage 1
Flat Pick Winners (victory lap)
Sun. 10:00 AM
Stage 4
National Bluegrass Banjo Championship
There are the contests; the days this year refer to the dates from September 17th through the 21st, but the chart online said 2012 so just know this years festival is Sept. 17-21. Past winners of one or more of the contests include Mark OConnor, Alison Kraus, Chris Thile, and Peter Ostroushko. If you have no idea who these folks are, no matter. Also, look online for the artists who will be performing. The party I’m going tell you about is across the street. If you don’t like to par-tay, scroll down to one of my political blogs! Or, you can search online for the festival info.
You need to search and select ‘camping’ info because I’m telling you too late to get a motel room unless you drive to St. Louis. If you do that you mis the party. Camp. Now, in 2009, there was a flood of rain and I managed to get a motel room because so many people canceled, but the festival went on. (Bring mosquito repellant and coils to burn) You’ll be camping and trust me, you want to camp! You want to camp in Pecan Grove, my partying friend. You’re too late to bring an RV this year, but you can find a place to park a car and pitch a tent. Stake a reasonable amount of space for your tent by placing stuff or stakes around, because on the weekend a Pecan Grove that seemed full all week will swell to half again that full of college kids.
Here is a picture from 2009 that gives you an idea of the funky fun to be had in Pecan Grove. This is not Pecan Grove, they had to move Stage 5 that year due to mud.

Yeah, Stage 5 man! Wow! You want to see and hear three barefoot hillbillies get DOWN jammin’? You want to hear folk tunes on a concert harp? You want to hear songs about drinking? Smoking pot? And, really – songs about killing bad cops? Whoa. Yep, I’ve heard it all at Stage 5. There are bands that sing songs sooo deeeeep in Americana that they must know they have no chance of hitting the big time, but they have big followings in and around the Ozarks. You will see crowds heading places around Pecan Grove. Follow them. They are heading to other stages where a popular person or group is about to play. Stages 5, 6, etc. all began as unofficial projects, but Stage 5 is now semi-official. Let’s say not official enough to be censored. I didn’t specify that this is an acoustic instrument festival – I mean its Bluegrass. They don’t even want a drummer! I wandered into a dispute one year that ended with a drummer getting kicked out of a roadside jam. He took it like a man, but I was drunk and, after another song I called out, “Great, but it’d be perfect if you got a drummer!”
There's a lot of drinking going on, but most people are sober (most of the time). Then there's the dude who yelled, “Play on, I’m just hitting my first wall.” I’ve never drunk enough to get past the first wall, but you will see plenty of more experienced drinkers.
This raises the question – bring the kids? Hell, no, but people do. I guarantee you that no one will change their set list. They’ll still sing songs like Suck My Balls. Fights? I wouldn’t worry. Cops? Yes, enough, but they have backed off a lot. The festival lost money during years when the police were overzealous about arresting people. It’s so much a let-your-hair-down event that one year I even questioned things. A young woman left her drunken man after an argument. He drank on, yelling shit. We were camped by the river. He yelled, “I’m gonna kill someone.” Then there was a big splash. “Fuck, I fell in the river!” The cops came, talked to him and left. His friends spent the rest of the day baby sitting. I commented to a friend, surprised he had not been arrested. The regular attendee said, “You see that camp? All cops off duty having fun. You see that one? All firefighters. That asshole was just al talk.” The firefighters were taking turns hitting each other with a swat board (like in old-time schools). “A young woman called out, “You made a welt!” I don’t think she minded that much.
Well, this crap is not why I would want to go so let’s move to music. Do you play? Guitar, banjo, mandolin, acoustic bass, fiddle? Just carry it with you as you stroll around anytime day or night. There will be a jam session going. Join in! I jammed with a band called Whistle Pig (a word for, I think a groundhog). Three mind-bogglingly good musicians man, I hung on by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I play softly on the outskirts of a jam until there’s a song I know. Then, I get louder, maybe get nodded to for a solo, “You want one?)  Fun, fun, fun until Daddy takes your T-Bird away.
Here’s a thing. Years before I attended there was a tradition of some large camp putting up a façade that looked like it came from “Streetcar  Named Desire.” Folks began standing front of it doing their best Marlon Brando. “Stellllllaaa!!!!!”  So, I’m  sitting with a new friend, somewhere in the distance we hear “Stella” and he tells me the story. The façade hasn’t appeared for years! It’s just that some old-timers still yell out “Stella!”
There you go. Will one more thing – all the other campgrounds are for normal people so you can camp there and just go slumming in Pecan Grove if you don’t drink too much to find your way back to reality.
Oh, yeah, I am, after all shamelessly promoting my music and my son’s. I’m a Winfield Winner! YeeeeFuckingHaaaaaa! I won a category of the song contests (across the street) and, new contest that it is, the only prize is getting to sing your song on an official stage. That was enough for me. I overcame my horrific performance anxieties (we won’t talk about my humiliations in the dulcimer and autoharp competitions- “How’d you do?” “I sucked.” I heard you practicing, you’re good!” “I sucked – donkeys.” “Oh sorry man, here have a beer.”) and did good! That was the highest high of the year for this old man! Here is a link to my picture onstage. The guy copyrights his work so I won’t paste it here.
 And here is my Winfield-Winning song, as recorded in Texas with Big John Mills and Sterling Finlay. The song category was “religion/spirituality.” The gospel truth is that I was runner-up, but There Bible (yes) couldn’t attend so I won.

Oh yeah, one more thing. I mean you will be right next to Missouri so people of color might want to know - you'll see hip Japanese tourists, hispanics, and some black folks. This thing is very white, but I'll bet you will not experience any racism. In fact, this year I bet people will go out of their way to make you welcome. Come for the bluegrass and not to gawk. Gawking would raise hackles. Don't come to laugh at people. Come to get crazy and/or jam. You may even get kissed by a libertarian. Many local attendees might have right-wing leanings, but they ain't there for political or religious reasons. What happens in Pecan Grove stays in Pecan Grove.

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