The Walnut Valley Festival draws bluegrass musicians and lovers to the South Central Kansas town of Winfield every September. Referred to as a "Pickers Paradise," the festival is home of the International Finger Style Guitar Championship, and the International Autoharp Championship, as well as a number of national contests. This was the 42nd year for the festival that starts every year on the Thursday before the third full weekend in September.
Four stages host the contests and an ever-changing assortment of internationally-known musicians. Surrounding the stages are campgrounds that are home to some festival goers for the long weekend, and peppered within them are ongoing jam sessions and some "unofficial" stages.
This year's winner of the International Finger Style Guitar Champions was Mark Cruz from Austin, Texas. It was his fifth attempt since 1993, and he had planned for it to be his last. He turned 50 the weekend before, and had decided to give it one last try.
After the competition, a former winner took him to Carp Camp, one of the unofficial stages. Carp Camp hosts many of the professional musicians who practice alone during the year and come together during the festival.
"It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life," Cruz said. "It was like I was in the middle of this bluegrass orchestra. They set a chair in the middle with a red carpet to get into the center. It was overwhelming . . . It was all kinds of beauty you can't imagine." He didn't get enough. "I wish I could do it every night for the rest of my life," he said.
Carp Camp is just one of a number of unofficial stages throughout the campgrounds where people gather to play with their bands, some of which were formed only hours or minutes beforehand during impromptu jam sessions. "When you walk around the campgrounds ... there's magic in every place you stop," said Cruz. "There's a lot of great music making going on, too."
Many of the people who attend every year are there for the camping experience even more than the music on the official stages. Jay Yoder of Partridge, Kansas, has been coming to the festival since the late 1970s. He jokes, "Sometimes we make it up to the stages." Bob Colladay of Hutchinson says, "for me it is the camp stages and the jamming in all the campsites that makes this festival."
Two large camp areas are available - the "West" camp and the "Pecan Grove." Within those are communities such as LaLa Land, Camp Brigadoon and Rat Camp. Jamming goes on almost around the clock and many people simply wander from one to the other with their lawn chair and/or instrument in tow. David Kuncicky and his group arrived from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the Saturday before the stages opened on Thursday. He said, "The stages are phenomenal, but the jamming... we've been jamming all week long - eight to ten hours a day - until we just drop."
People make an effort to get in the same area each year during the "Land Rush," that starts well in advance of the festival. People line up to get their spot, and reconnect with people from previous years. Jane Queal, who has been attending the festival since 1975, says there's always room for new folks. "Come. Be friendly to people, they'll be friendly right back. You'll make friends fast," she says.
The Walnut Valley Festival is a tradition for some families, with multiple generations attending. Now that more than four decades have passed since it started, some original participants are bringing the children of their children who grew up on the grounds. One of the big events this year was a wedding on stage five. It wasn't the first one that has happened at the festival.
The Walnut Valley Festival is a great place to hear internationally-known bluegrass musicians, as well as to learn about the up and coming groups. If you want to come for a day or immerse yourself in the entire experience by camping, you'll find a warm welcome at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield.
Patsy Terrell makes her home in Hutchinson where she writes, reads and ponders life's big questions like where to find homemade pie. Alternately she takes to the road and shares her experiences at various online locales. She is passionate about connecting with others through traditional and new media.