Down in the Valley: Every September, the Kansas town of Winfield comes to life with the Walnut Valley Festival
On Saturday morning the local Masonic Lodge’s breakfast tractor chugs through the Pecan Grove, pulling a flatbed trailer and a crew selling coffee and donuts. I’ve been waking up to that tractor every third weekend of September since the beginning of high school.
Like a good folk song, the morning campground script at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, replays along standard lines each year. First comes the sound of your half-clothed neighbor brushing his teeth two feet outside the tent. “Hey, you got an extra onion?” someone yells across the road. The family next door gets the kids, the Coleman stove and some 1970s Emmylou started up. The three college guys who slept in chairs around the fire warm up their fingers picking “Shady Grove”. The main stage soundcheck drifts across the fairgrounds. We’re all relieved to see Kansas has decided to hold off on the rain.
Last year I was living across the country, lured to Pennsylvania by graduate school. I was feeling like cultural theory had eaten cultural practice, and it seemed I could justify a weekend at the Walnut Valley Festival as good medicine. Of course, I also had a duty to uphold traditions of short nights and front-row-seat stakeouts with the folks who had grown up at Walnut Valley with me. I bought a plane ticket.
Each of the last 32 years, the town of Winfield, Kansas — population 12,206 — has put out its best garage sales for the festival (this year’s runs September 15-19). Every year my friend Jen and I get lost in Winfield, trying to remember whether Eighth or Ninth street takes us out to the Cowley County Fairgrounds. We once lost the grill on her van to a combination of adrenaline and a nasty dip in Winfield’s red brick streets, but that’s another story.
I’ve always thought what makes this middle-America gathering unique is the fact that there’s no typical Winfielder. People travel from every state in the nation (and 27 foreign countries) to the Walnut Valley Festival — known simply as “Winfield.” Bob Redford, president of the Walnut Valley Association, says it’s “a family-oriented festival.” This isn’t just Bible belt speak meant to keep away troublemakers. Both teenagers and their parents attend the festival, and some people really did grow up coming to Winfield every fall as a family.
But Winfield also lets you re-imagine “family.” Redford proclaims, “We haven’t had a fight at the festival in 30 years,” and that’s something to consider when you survey the crowd sharing port-o-potties, food, beer and firewood: over 16,500 bikers, hippies, yuppies, college students, farmers, corporate professionals, teachers, retired folks, high school kids, conservative Christians and pagans, Democrats and Republicans, Greens and Libertarians. People fly American, Confederate and anti-war flags and play everything from Irish to punk to bluegrass on their instruments and stereos.
Most of these people are returnees, and Winfield is a tradition they come back to reconstruct. They produce music around the clock in the campgrounds, hold group reunions, run an on-site festival radio station, choose next year’s stage performers through surveys, and buy performers’ albums.
Though the festival won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Bluegrass Event of the Year” in 1999, Winfield isn’t precisely a bluegrass festival. Between the five official stages, which run simultaneously from grandstands and on grassy hills from 9 a.m. to midnight, there’s bluegrass, early string-band, contemporary folk, old-time country and honky-tonk, Celtic and cowboy music.
Most of the performers are also returnees. Recent acts include Hot Club Of Cowtown, Laurie Lewis, Claire Lynch, John McCutcheon, Nickel Creek, Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott, Tom Chapin & Michael Mark, Dan Crary, Tommy Emmanuel, Special Consensus, and Beppe Gambetta, as well as regional groups such as the Prairie Rose Wranglers, the Walnut Valley Men’s Chorus, and the Wilders, from Kansas City.
The festival hosts eight instrumental contests and a variety of workshops; it’s most famous for the National Flat Pick Guitar Championships. Alison Krauss, Chris Thile and Mark O’Connor were all winners of Winfield contests in their early years.
Winfield has shored up a regional acoustic music consciousness and converted unbelievers to bluegrass and other roots music. I can testify to the influence of the event on young musical minds. When I first attended the festival in high school, I was struck by how people in the audience were interested in listening to the instrumental solos, stories behind songs, and singing along. Later I’d hear the same folks picking at their campsites.
Now, granted, as a 15-year-old, my foremost interest was in the four days of camping and social freedom. But by the middle of high school, I’d gone from buying Weezer to buying Alison Krauss. I got my parents interested in attending the festival. But when they were listening to Tom Paxton, we were dancing to the aggressive old-time string-band music of the Freight Hoppers. Now disbanded, the North Carolina-based Freight Hoppers played music we knew almost nothing about. I think the music seemed old enough that we knew these young players were reworking it, which meant old music had new possibilities. If it could make us dance like this, there must be something real about it.