Back in June, I think it was, an old friend and musical compatriot, Tom, got it into his head to enter the 40th annual International Guitar Championships in association with the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, scheduled to take place September 14-17. He had planned to enter the finger-style competition, but found that the top 40 places, for which participation was guaranteed, had already been filled. He informed me that there was a wait list, which wasn’t (yet) too long, and encouraged me to enter as well, and put my name on the wait list with his. He also had found that the top 40 flat-picking slots had not yet been filled, so he had entered that, and paid me the great honor of inviting me to be his accompanist. This Festival was something I had been hearing about for years, and I had long had dreams of going—some day. I was resigned to its being one of those things that never seem to happen, and suddenly it’s too late, and you wish you had taken the plunge. Well. I was immediately intrigued, and I ran it by CD, who provided full, enthusiastic support, so I decided to go for it and have an Adventure. We paid our fees and got slots 24 and 25 on the wait list. We made our preparations, which meant playing more than I had been, at least once daily, for at least an hour, to get my fingers back in shape. Actually, my main anticipation was not the actual competition, but rather the prospect of meeting new musical friends and playing with other folks at the campsites, etc. A couple of weeks before it was to start, Tom said that another mutual friend, Zippy, had said he’d like to come along (and drive us in his minivan), and that was fine with me.
And so it came to pass that Tom and Zippy drove down from Lake Superior on Monday, September 12 and stayed for two nights, during which time we played lots of music, ate well, added my two instruments (my Taylor 514 and my Manuel Rodriguez classical) and my other essentials into Zippy’s Town & Country, and set our sights on Kansas on Wednesday morning. The weather was good, and the forecast for the next several days said for moderately cool with a low-to moderate chance for rain. We stopped for breakfast
shortly after entering Kansas, slightly too late for the breakfast menu (I’d hoped for biscuits & gravy), then kept on until we reached Winfield, a total drive of about six hours. We had no trouble finding the fairgrounds, but received conflicting advice from two consecutive helpers at check-in and finally found a rather nice camping spot at the far end of the Pecan Grove site, in the shelter of a line of cottonwoods and about 30 feet from the Walnut River, with a high embankment in between (a good 15’ above water level). We set up our 8×10 tent with Tom’s and my sleeping bags (Zippy decided to sleep in his van) and our 10×10 pop-up, making friends with Robert, our immediate neighbor, a very friendly, soft-spoken fellow.
As soon as all was set up, we took a first stroll to the fairgrounds and took turns watching a show by last year’s autoharp champion and browsing the food kiosks. Most folks had
brought folding chairs; we’d brought low, folding camp seats to the festival, but had left them in the pop-up.
When our legs got tired, we found space on the metal bleachers. It started to turn pretty chilly as dark settled in, and we decided to head back to camp. I tried to be careful as we left, but my foot caught on the edge and I lost my balance, falling awkwardly backward and rather severely scraping and bruising a patch of skin between my right hip and shoulder blade. I was grateful that my camera, which had been around my neck, had not been damaged at all. We put up the rain-flap sides on the pop-up to keep out some of the chill and the breeze that had started up, set up our camp stools, opened our guitar cases and a beer apiece, and started to play. Before long another guitarist joined us from an adjacent camp and soon after that another young man with a folding case holding at least a dozen harmonicas—and he knew what to do with them! We played a vast variety of songs,
and before anyone took note of the time, it had advanced to 4:30! This was what I had come for!
Thursday dawned cool & drizzly, and I was the first one awake, after three hours of pretty good sleep, though I can’t remember the last time I slept in a tent. I quietly slipped out the door, grabbed my camera and my rain jacket, and made my way back to the fairgrounds, satisfying my craving for biscuits & gravy, along with scrambled eggs, “hillbilly hash” (stir-fried onions, peppers, ham, and sausage slices), orange juice, and very mediocre coffee. Not much else was happening, so I went back to the camp to find the others just waking.
My back was now pretty painful, so I told them about the breakfast and laid back down to give it a little more rest. When they returned, we went back for a fingerstyle workshop with Pat Kirtley and Stephen Bennett and some barbecue before it was time for Tom and
me to register for the fingerstyle competition (2:30). We had no illusions about actually
participating, since there would have to be at least 25 no-shows for the list to get down to both of us, but to our amazement, not only were we to be in the competition, but another ten or so who were even lower on the list made it as well! The order was determined by
pulling numbers from a box; Tom drew number 9 and I drew 11. Each contestant must play two pieces within five minutes, with no accompaniment. When his turn came, Tom played very well indeed, and when mine came, I didn’t play as well as I would have liked, missing a few notes, but I got a hearty round of applause and several compliments afterward.
Then we could relax and watch the others. Some of the best guitarists in the world were
here, and we heard some truly amazing music. I soon realized that, though our music was very good, there was no way that we would be in the top five out of the final 40. Those who made that cut richly deserved to be, and my personal favorite (Patrick Taylor) came in second. Back at our tent, we had a quiet evening, playing some music, but turning in well before midnight.
Friday: More drizzle at dawn, but that wasn’t dampening the spirits of a couple of fellow campers and (happily fairly distant) neighbors, who had stationed themselves on the rim of the levee that ran between our campground and an adjacent railroad. (Ah. I seem to have forgotten to mention the trains—probably because I’ve been trying so hard to. There were somewhere in the range of thirty to forty per day, at all hours, and all blowing their whistles at least a half-dozen times while going by. Don’t get me started.) Anyway, one of these two young men had an acoustic guitar strapped around his neck and the other a pair
of drums on stands, and they were pounding away, loudly, energetically, and tonelessly, for at least an hour. Can you see them up there?
I walked back down for another breakfast (just biscuits & gravy with o.j. and real coffee), then headed to the showers. It’s a good thing that the drizzle had stopped by the time I had mine, as there were no roofs on the facilities. I was able to get my first look at my injured side, and I was very thankful that I had been wearing several layers, including a fleece jacket, and that I hadn’t cracked a rib or two in the process. I now had an abrasion some 6” long and 2” high, with a bruise extending for another inch in each direction around it that had the most amazing colors, including yellow, green, and even orange, in
addition to the expected purple and blue. Feeling much better after my shower, I spent the afternoon with the guys attending various shows that interested us, most especially a flatpicking workshop with Dan Crary, Pat Flynn, and a third guitarist, followed by an hour with the Byron Berline band—whose banjo player, John Hickman, I had met in Columbus,
OH during my freshman year in college in 1964, and with whom I had studied banjo for the better part of a year. He pretended he remembered me, but hey, that was—OMG—47 years ago!
Then an hour of Stephen Bennett, and then it was time for Tommy Emmanuel! I had heard of him but had never really experienced anything of his amazing talent until now. I sat transfixed as he performed magic with his guitars far beyond anything I had ever imagined was possible. I am not prone to gushing, but I have never seen the like. Check him out at his website and on YouTube.
The rain had started again, just before Tommy’s set, and the temperature began to fall, and we retreated. Back at our camp, our weather radio told us that more rain was on the way, so we reached an easy consensus to break camp tomorrow and head back to Omaha
a day early. We packed up as much as we could, then grilled Cajun sausages that Tom had brought and played again until we were tired, and turned in around eleven, trying to prepare for a predicted low of 46°F and looking forward to a last peaceful night…
Saturday: …but it was not to be. Somewhere around 1:30 a.m. a vehicle arrived, bringing a group of young semi-adult persons back from some other activity, and they were in no mood for rest. For the next four hours, with absolutely no regard for anyone else, they cursed, screamed, beat on a guitar, tried to sing as loudly as they could, and laughed hysterically, making it plain in some of their talk that they had found security so lax at the fairgrounds gates that next time they would plan to bring drugs to try to sell. There was no quality sleep to be had, and both Tom and I, among the most peaceable folks I know, were wishing that we knew a local number to call to report the inexcusable disturbance. If we return, we will know one. To add to the general misery, a series of thunderstorms started rolling in around five, and the rain started in earnest just as we finally turned out of our sleeping bags at dawn, bleary-eyed and grumpy. We struck everything but the tent and pop-up shell and loaded it all into the van, and then Tom and I scouted out what seemed to be the best path for our escape up the steadily-increasingly slick and muddy slopes and guided him to somewhat surer footing before it would be too late. As soon as the van was on higher ground, we walked back and struck the rest, stowing it all in the driest tarp we had and packing it in with the rest of our gear. Tom had to register for the flat-picking
competition at 8:30. He and Zippy went for showers first, while I started to get warmed up on my accompanying parts. They took their time, or else there was quite a line, but whatever the reason, they took much longer than I’d thought, and we barely made it to the registration in time. The rain was now not only steady but heavy, and the wind was picking up, and we’d cut it so close that Zippy actually drove us as far as he could so that we wouldn’t have to walk so far trying to keep our guitars dry under our umbrellas. He
then parked his van closer to the exit. The storm had increased to such an extent that they had moved the registration back to the warm-up tent, which was also outside and without walls, but larger and somewhat more sheltered. Tom drew number 19, so we could “relax” for a while. We used the time to keep warmed up on our instruments, trying to keep them relatively dry in the driving mist coming in from the raging monsoon outside, and Tom writing out some last-minute chord charts for me, since one of the two numbers he’d selected was fairly new to me.
The weather became so fierce that they decided to allow everyone waiting to play to come in to the protected backstage area. The rain relentlessly hammered the corrugated metal roof for the first hour and a half of the competition, then miraculously stopped with mere minutes of Tom’s slot, and there was complete silence for the first time since it had begun as we played our two pieces. I thought he did very well, though he says he missed a couple of notes. I am delighted to be able to report that I made no mistakes. But, again, we were far outclassed by some of the others, who had come from as far as Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. Ever the optimists, though, we waited until the top five were announced. This time we didn’t wait around to hear their playoffs, but headed back to the van to stow our instruments. The sky had mercifully cleared.
Reasonably sure of an escape from Pecan Grove, Zippy chose to walk back to the fairgrounds for a last look around and to catch parts of another act or two, and Tom decided to go along; I readily volunteered to stay with the van and catch a few moments of better rest than I’d had for most of the night. By the time they returned, a good hour later, several vehicles had tried—with varying degrees of success—to negotiate the path we’d have to take to reach the paved road, and not all of them had made it, with the result that it had become ever muddier and more difficult to negotiate.
We had to back out, and when it was our turn, our first try failed, and Tom and I had to push hard (in spite of my bruised back) to extricate two mired wheels, but we barely managed it. Then he and I posted ourselves at the top of the rise so that Zippy could make a straight, powered run up the last slope to the pavement. That worked—again just barely—on the first try, and we all let out yells of grateful relief.
On the whole, looking back on the whole experience, I’d definitely do it again, but with several important modifications. When—if—I do this again, I will be much better prepared. I, for one, will not be bothering with entering the guitar-playing competition, though there is also a song-writing competition that may be far better suited to my particular talents. Will have to register at the very beginning, though… Will not camp in the flood plain. Will arrive early enough to meet and get to know other musicians in advance of competition days. Will be better prepared for cold/wet weather (e.g., thermal underwear). Will have a soft, light, weatherproof gig-bag for my (smaller) guitar. Will take a full-size folding chair for playing comfortably at camp. Will know in advance how to report unreasonable rowdiness. Will take the time to make more photos. Will keep you Posted.