I have been gorging myself on western and midwestern small-town culture, since retiring. In the last few weeks, I’ve been to a rodeo, a county fair, and Charlie Adams Day (a festival honoring a town legend and his horse). Last week I attended a huge event that shows just how influential a small town can be.
Winfield is a little town in rural Kansas that was the home of the now defunct but much-beloved Lutheran school St. John’s College. It was also the home of a man named S. L. Mossman. He made guitars. Really good guitars. In the 1960s, more and more people wanted them, and his business grew, though he refused to mass produce the guitars and kept making them by hand. After awhile, his company sponsored a competition there in Winfield for the best flat-pick guitar player. Around that event grew a festival, with more championships (in finger-style guitar, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, autoharp, and fiddle) and performances in bluegrass, folk, and other kinds of acoustic music. Thus was born the Walnut Valley Festival, which has launched the careers of countless musicians and has become one of the premier events in American music.
My brother Jimmy, author of the most-read post ever on this blog, and I went to Winfield last week for the festival along with my friend the musician, novelist, and pastor, the right Rev. Fred Baue. After the jump, I will tell you of our adventures, my musical discoveries with YouTube videos, and some of what I learned.
This was the 44th year of the festival. Some 15,000 people attend. Some of them have been here for all 44 years. The people at the festival are an unusually knowledgeable crowd. A big part of them play themselves, and each night in the campgrounds people are picking and jamming all through the night and into the morning. My brother and Fred did this. I tagged along, just listening and marveling.
Fred actually won a song-writing competition, so he got to play on one of the main stages, as well as at several other song-writer showcases. He asked my brother, whom he had never met before, to accompany him on mandolin. Within minutes, Jimmy worked out a part for the brand-new song, and they made me proud.
One of the biggest highlights was getting to hear and actually chat with Mark O’Connor. Back in 1974, this 13 year old kid showed up at Winfield at won both the national fiddle championship and the national flatpick guitar championship. This drew the attention of Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and other luminaries in attendance, who would invite the young man to tour with them. This launched O’Connor’s career, and he has gone on to become a giant in American–yea, international–music, playing not just bluegrass, but also jazz, world music, and classical, recording with artists from Byron Berline (also at this festival) to Yoyo Ma.
O’Connor has done a lot to break down the barrier between classical and traditional music. He has gotten interested in music education and has published a line of music curriculum that employs the so-called O’Connor Method.
His approach teaches children to play the violin by means of fiddle tunes and classics of American music, teaching them to play with others and to improvise. O’Connor is opposed to the Suzuki method and the usual method of force-feeding meaningless ditties and watered down classical etudes down children’s throats. He made the point at the festival that students don’t get to the really good classical music until they are in the advanced courses. Instead, he uses really good American music of substance that children really enjoy, while still learning the same techniques that will serve them well no matter what style of music they later choose to play.
Anyway, he did a workshop on his method and my brother (who also has some ideas about how music education can be improved) and I chatted with him afterwards on the subject. Jimmy was at Winfield the year O’Connor took the prizes, and he saw him even earlier at a bluegrass festival in Langley, Oklahoma, when the lad was going from festival to festival for the prize money, so they talked about that too. What a modest, down-to-earth, approachable guy. The format is such that after every set, the performers go to an area where they can interact with members of their audience.
One of the biggest musical rushes of the festival was to hear the O’Connor Family Band, consisting of O’Connor, his wife, his son, his “partner” Kate Lee (a great vocalist), and an unrelated bass player and a guitarist. This, in fact, was their official debut, getting their start at Winfield just as their patriarch did, and it was stunning. Here is a sample from an earlier performance (but without some of the other players who had joined for Winfield). Listen to both songs, including “Johnnie Be Good”:
There was so much other good music, including what I heard around the campfires. One other highlight, though, was the group Della Mae, which reminded me of a more traditionalist version of the Dixie Chicks (also Winfield graduates, as was Alison Krauss). Here is a sample of one of their songs, one with a gospel foundation (not all of their songs are this old-timey, but I love the ones that are):
Anyway, a good time was had by all. This festival is close enough to where I live now that I want to keep coming back. Maybe one of these days, if any of you can make the trek, we can have a Cranach campfire and those of you with an acoustic instrument can pick with my brother.