Winfield, Kansas – For the second time in less than a decade, the famed Walnut Valley Festival, home to the national championships of flatpicking and fingerstyle guitar, mandolin and banjo, had to overcome an act of God as waters cresting more than 30 feet above flood stage forced the evacuation of thousands of campers and pushed festival organizers to scramble to pull off the event.
With vehicles, RVs, campers and tents already in place a week before the official start of the event, a torrential rain shower upstream on the Walnut River pushed the waterway out of its banks in minutes. Many vehicles were inundated, and festival organizers launched an immediate effort to relocate campers to several off-site locations. Those who weren’t lucky enough to get to their vehicles in time often found them submerged in murky floodwater or so trapped in hub-deep sticky black mud they needed to be hauled out by tractor.
Despite the inconvenience, the famous festival endured. Entertainers ranging from Bryan Sutton, Tim O’Brien and David Grier to Byron Berline, Dan Crary, Beppe Gambetta, Mark O’Connor, Claire Lynch, John Cowan and Pat Flynn and many others all managed the situation with a “show must go on” attitude that thrilled the slightly diminished crowds.
As always, the contests were a great highlight of the event, often overshadowing the major entertainers. The flatpicking winners, the heart of this great festival, included contest standouts Steve Lewis, Jason Shaw and Eric Hardin. Nebraska native Shaw is one of the most decorated players in Winfield history, winning the flatpick contest a record-tying three times, placing second or third another two times and winning and placing multiple times in the fiddle contest. This was Lewis’ first flatpicking win, but he also has numerous wins and placings in the flatpick and national banjo contests at Winfield.
The fingerstyle guitar winners were Jack Wilson, Dan Bliss and Chung-Lin Chang, who travelled from Taiwan to this remote Midwestern destination to claim 3rd in his first-ever Winfield. After being announced as the third-place finisher, Chang declined to play an encore and brought his girlfriend on stage, where he dropped to one knee and proposed. My Mandarin Chinese is terrible, but her reaction seemed like a solid “yes.”
For the entertainers, the weather-stricken event caused a few problems. But despite thick mud around the main stage, once the initial storm had passed the long weekend remained mostly dry and allowed the crowds to enjoy the shows. I asked Bryan Sutton if this was his first Winfield.
“No, it’s my first as a headliner. But I was here maybe 10 years ago playing guitar with the Greencards,” he said. “It was just a short-term gig. They were between guitar players and asked me to come fill in for a few dates, including Winfield.”
For David Grier, who took second in the flatpicking contest in 1980, he told the Fretboard Journal it was his first trip back to “Picker’s Paradise,” as the festival is known, since he appeared with Richard Greene in 1996.
Grier left as soon as his last set with Tim O’Brien was over, but to close out the main stage on Saturday, the festival brought on four superstar flatpickers – Bryan Sutton, Dan Crary, Pat Flynn and Beppe Gambetta – to honor 45 years of flatpicking excellence at Winfield.
Of course, the biggest attraction at Winfield is always the quality of the campground jams. At any given picking session, one can easily find multiple past champions or others who’ve placed in the prestigious contests. But for 2016, that side of the festival took a major hit: Only one of the outlying stages where unofficial events happen during the festival was allowed back on the main campgrounds. That was the famous Stage Six, the designated jamming stage, which has hosted some of the best players in the world at its legendary all-night jam sessions over the last four decades.
“We tore down Stage Six twice and finally got it up on the main campgrounds. A lot of work, but definitely worth it,” said, Leo Eilts, cofounder of the stage and a member of such seminal Winfield bands as Total Strangers, Spontaneous Combustion and the award-winning cowboy swing band 3 Trails West.
For the rest of the jamming scene, as they did in 2008 when the last flood forced a bluegrass diaspora into the surrounding countryside, long-standing camps like Stage Five, the Irish-themed Carp Camp, the Coyote Camp, Camp Metaphysical and others found new homes and the jams went on. It was far from perfect, but any Winfield is better than no Winfield.
In the end, tunes were played and guitars, fiddles, mandolins and banjos (along with a few accordions, flutes, hammered dulcimers and other instruments) wailed away long into the starry Kansas night.
And if you ask me to do something on the third weekend of September 2017, my answer will be: “I can’t. I’m going to Winfield!”