I met Pete Huttlinger, he raved about the Walnut Valley Fest, he described it as something you have to experience to fully appreciate. Then I met Tommy Emmanuel, who said the same thing.
So I went. And how do I describe the experience? You really must go to Walnut Valley and experience it to fully understand and appreciate it. It's just that simple. No words can truly do the event justice in terms of describing the atmosphere, but I'll try anyway.
It was my first time attending the world famous Walnut Valley guitar picking festival. It's in a town called Winfield about 40 miles southeast of Wichita, Kansas. It's a charming little town with a great family-owned donut shop that makes these awesome maple-frosted long johns and has several other shops and interesting houses of types no longer built line it's side streets. It's the kind of place where people say hello to one another on the street when they see each other, which is nice yet strange feeling for me coming there from Chicago.
You really got to pace yourself at this event. It is truly impossible to see everything, four stages on the main grounds churn out constant music from 9AM to midnight daily. There are many more stages in the camping grounds made up of everything from main stage performers at 2AM to the festivals spokesman to the pickers who come to the grove a week in advance and never enter the main ground and just play and play and play.
What is great about the Walnut Valley Festival? Here's my top ten in reverse order:
10. The wide range of artists and the mutual respect they demonstrated for one another.
9. The food - the trucks with every kind of deviant state fair type food you can think of and the bbq's in the groves, you smell food everywhere you go.
8. The friendly, generally mellow crowd. The number of police incidents is incredibly low for a gathering of this size.
7. While it's crowded for some acts, it's nothing compared to many large festivals I've attended, you are really never far from anything.
6. The friendly Walnut Valley staff - you are greeted by helpful people ready to orient and direct people.
5. No alcohol is allowed in the main performance grounds area, it's a very peaceful, no nonsense environment.
4. There are no large blocks of time between sets like there is at some festivals - there is very little down time - there is never a lack of entertainment around you.
3. The various competitions for the various types of instruments are something unique to see.
2. The free flowing way that the artists invited others to play together in an unrehearsed nature, in a world where almost everything is pre-planned to the max, seeing music performed in this manner was most refreshing!
1. Tommy Emmanuel - 10 official sets in 3 days including one at 2AM in the campgrounds playing with people from the campground. Tommy also played with countless other people during their sets. You've never really seen Tommy until you see him in this environment playing random songs with various people, sets over and over again, all while rarely repeating anything except his staple two or three songs.
To get an idea about the other artists and to plan your reservations for Walnut Valley Fest in 2004, please visit
www.wvfest.com. I end as I started, by telling you that you can never truly understand and enjoy what Walnut Valley is until you've been there. Maybe I can see you there next year, the 1,500 mile round trip was well worth it!
They could make some minor improvements that would make the festival better. These issues are small compared to most festivals, but if these were resolved, this would be pure paradise and not just a picker's paradise. Here's that list of suggestions:
1. The main stage area - move the PA speakers back on the main stage
or on the ground on the side of the stage as the view from the sides
of the viewing area is obscured significantly in the present position,
implement a rule that unattended lawn chairs are NOT allowed (the crowd
is simply too large for this practice to continue), there was some hiss
and variability in volume and sound quality which was somewhat irritating
as sometimes the same artist didn't sound as good as their previous
2. Stage 4 - The contest volume often was not high enough and sometimes the sound from stage 3 was directed towards the building was actually heard inside stage 4. Improvements in this situation from a viewers perspective (not to mention it might be heard on contestants microphones creating noise for the judges to filter) would be warmly welcomed.
3. More restrooms within the main performance area, people often left
the main grounds for shorter portable toilet lines outside, this overworks
the re-entry search staff for no reason and is an inconvenience to festival
attendees. A row of portable toilets along perhaps the back of stage
2 along the t-shirt building back wall would keep them out of sight
and increase t-shirt building traffic (not that they really need that
as t-shirts fly off the shelves at this event like none other) as well
as relieve this situation.
National Fingerpicking Guitar Championships - Written by Carl Dalka
Well we all came to see the best fingerstyle guitarists in the world. We had five hours of everything that is wonderful about the guitar, the contests are held in a building called stage 4.
It is hard to describe the talent of these competitors. The worldwide flavor of the competition against local boys and ladies was intensely exciting. Could the locals hold off the foreign entries?
Could America down-home picken hold up against classical training from other nations?
The competition had the high drama of a chess match where the audience dare not move or make a sound. We were warned that the folks near the performers should not get up or make any noise while the performer was playing. At one point a cell phone buzzed and the audience groaned as if they wanted to take that poor soul out and hang him. These folks measure every note and every missed note. This group knew good guitar and they showed it for each good performance.
But the best part of Winfield is the entertainment during the competitions. If you are into fingerpicking guitar, you can get there early in the morning and be amazed by world famous artists: like Tommy Emmanuel, Steve Bennett and Pete Huttlinger. The folks have brought folding chairs and their knitting on this overcast and windy morning to the other stages. You have to smile because all of them travel a lot just to entertain us in cites across the world - to spread the word about finger style guitar. You could get to six hours of guitar before the competition.
We got to Stage 4 early enough to listen to past Champions of the Mountain Dulcimer: Mueller, Hamilton and Manning. They told of how they left guitar or autoharp to become champions. They tuned our ears for the competition to come with beautiful work of fingering and timing. And they had time to tickle us with real down home humor.
O.K. now here is what we saw and witnessed 34 players each to do two melodies. They seated at a single mike with no other amplifier and judges listen off site, meaning that they only hear the prefromers. Now, one at a time (some numbers are missing due to contestants that did not show), here are my notes about each performer.
1 Pete Steinberg … Quiet - soft opening - very good rhythms and timing. After Pete left the stage the audience asked that the sound be turned up and it was. Well someone has to go first.
2 Yuji Yuzawa … Strong shape picking, plays a soft pattycake on the sounding board, picks with a little of a Japanese sound, pounds some on the body of his guitar for effect, does two handed picking on the neck of his guitar, gives you the feeling he plays other instruments. I give him a full star and later place him fourth on my list.
3 Barret Smith … Quiet soft opening - watches his hands (That is fine because the judges are hidden away and they only hear him they do not see him.) My feeling was that both of his tunes seemed the same. Maybe each being different would have interested me more. The "cushion on his leg - put a murmur in the audience.
4 Chris Micheals … Had this lovely small guitar and he played a nice base sound. He played a distinctive march. No one else played a march. It sounded as if he missed some notes in the tap-dance or clog part he played.
5 Mark Anthony Cruz … Soft opening - but crisp with strong well played cords - his fingering was outstanding --- seemed the Beatles would be proud of his rendition of their song. Gave him a star and a twinkle. We found out later that Mr. Cruz had place 2nd a few year ago.
6 Roger Hardin … His first piece was an old Christian standard and his fingering reminded me of an friend of mind from a long time ago. As he played ragtime - his work with his thumb pick was outstanding - my eyes were riveted as he worked.
7 Masaaki Kishibe … he had his own footrest and velvet towel for his lap that was nothing compared to his very strong opening. His tone was the same as if he was raised in Tennessee. The guitar was his friend - his performance got him my star rating.
8 Brian Henke - nice pick sound - gentle cord slip and changes - sounds like a dulcimer in high gear - it was 4:15 p.m., when he played the Kansas anthem. Found out a little later that he has his own label and folks who know guitar know his sound.
10 Just Cal … oldest looking guitar in the competition - nice strum and his cord hand showed how holding a cord should be done - multi repeated cord changes. Have a feeling he went past his five-minute limit by quite a bit.
11 Den Foley … had some cord change problems - he played against my tin ear. Both songs ran long or maybe they just seemed long.
12 Don Adler … a little too western for me or is it the music is lively after all the quieter pieces. I'll have to give this one to the other judges.
13 Ikuhiro Akazaki … well done opening ( I sat up straighter) - zinging cord changes and the second best fingering of the day - a little oriental sound on some passages. I wasn't sure it sounded like a guitar. I liked his work and almost gave him a star.
15 Mark Sganga … sounded like a lot of Spanish or European training - the wide neck of his guitar made it easy to watch his cord work - nice job.
16 Cindy Egger … if I say mournful, I hope you understand it is the slow sorry sound she put out on her first piece. An unusual guitar position - something like an autoharp. A second tune is perky - strong and maybe too much strums. She does get my star rating.
17 Andy Mckee … good fingers right from the start - quick clean changes - original right hand moves - three times he played two hands on the high neck with the lower right hand doing cords and the upper left hand picking, uh-hua that is what I saw. Slaps a lot like Tommy Emmanuel and looks good doing it. How about one strong star? I found out later that he was in 3rd place two years ago. If one person got jobbed not being in the top 5, it was clearly Andy.
18 Kevin Smith … gentle opening, as good as Egger on the slow cords - has a gentle pat and a pinky note that is just wonderful.
20 Kev … Makes the guitar he is standing with look very small - put out a mandolin sound - his fingering was clear and he work a hot strum. I liked him from the moment he started playing.
21 Richard Hudson … wayfaring as the beginning - nice pick - nice cords - near a Gene Autry sound.
22 Bob Evans … whose guitar is that and whose hat is that - fine sound with a good pat - a little steely - saves the top "E" string and thumb picks the middle - very straight picken. Close to a whole star. Found out he was third last year.
24 Dave Welker … Wide neck - strong hands - one sound all day - zing on the cords - he works for a strong clear sound.
25 Reverend Fred Baue … class opening - crisp pick - soft as a lute - with a music box or old English sound. I could listen to this on my own time.
26 Mary Flower … Quick trip-it-ty fingers - well practiced - no hesitations! Sounds like a sure thing for Saturday Night on PBS. Has a sound that stays with you. Found she finished third a few years back.
27 Lee Hardin … seemed nervous at the opening - zinged a cord change - 2nd tune was better.
28 Joe Tholen … Slow to set up what sounds he wanted - then the guitar slipped - poor tune selection.
30 John Taylor Lewis … played off his left leg - well schooled in classical - had the bad luck to zing a cord change - is he playing a medley? That is not allowed. May be good enough for the Grand Old Opery.
31 Rolly Brown - well schooled in classical - plays like he is enjoying it - maybe the wrong hat.
32 Roger Hudson … good cord work - repeats to let you know he did it that way on purpose. There is something here that sounds very good - there is a star in his future
33 Steve Waechter … almost too quiet a cowboy sound - oldest looking guitar in the competition. I felt he was playing his own music from way he held the guitar - my kind of music.
I wish him luck in years to come.
34 John Boyd and it is 6:45 p.m. … Has a friendly sound that says let come together - a big yes to his hard work.
36 Mark Bayer … good opening - got me up in my seat - then the strums seemed to slow - and he tired. Someday he is going to star.
37 Steve Nowicki … listened to a lot of people - has talent - nice to look at cord changes.
38 Dennis Loyd … oldies but goodies - ok for me with the Nearness of you". How do they play with their hands so cold?
39 William Byrd … Pretty quick on his fingering - quiet sound , I leaned forward to hear. I could listen to him again.
40 Kyle Rieder … good opening - late night sound - someone must be last.
Well, the judges picked vanilla. There was slightly upset
contingent in the back of the room regarding some of the more cutting-edge
people not making the final five. And rightly so. They picked 6, 7,
21, 22, and 26. They redrew numbers and came out for two more tunes.
1 Richard Hudson … did a nervous Frankie Laine and the ghost rider rode off.
2 Roger Hardin … was great and did a picken tune that was good for me.
3 Bob Evens … stayed on his middle strings and masterful thumb picken. I'd say he stayed with the girl that brung him. I felt he was in the top three.
4 Masaaki Kishibe … still strong on all his moves and a very good ending - Osocka, Japan should be proud. He had been to Winfield before.
5 Mary Flower … plays like a river of joy - she did no
Believe me it finished: 3, 4, and 5. Canada is happy.
I chatted with Bob Evans "the champ" and his smiling wife - the next
day. His plans were to go back home and enjoy being Champion. He mentioned
his radio show and his website. Next year the competition will officially
become International, instead of just National, we'll have to wait until
then to see how that changes it.