KCUR News
11:50 pm
Tue October 6, 2009

Winfield: The Walnut Valley Mystique

Winfield, Kansas –

CLICK HERE TO WATCH AN AUDIO SLIDESHOW AND A VIDEO FROM THIS YEAR'S WALNUT VALLEY FESTIVAL

(Music under the announcer lead-in was by the band Sawmill Road.)

It's one AM Saturday morning, and the campers down by the Walnut River bridge are turning out the lanterns... when a solitary first-timer arrives. As she puzzles over her brand-new tent, lanterns and flashlights begin to glow. The eight experienced campers have never seen a tent like this one, either, but they are confident they can figure it out.

As they solve the mystery of this fabric and poles jigsaw puzzle it becomes apparent: a stranger in the dark with a new tent is not alone at Winfield.

The closeness is also physical. By Friday at midnight, the average distance between tents, RV's and pop-ups is about four feet.

At night the place resembles a hobo's version of the Plaza at Christmastime - lights, illuminated flags and banners with colorful campsite names like Camp David, LaLa Land, Camp Nowhere, Next to Nowhere and the Banned Camp - B-A-N-N-E-D. First-time attendees are typically overwhelmed by the size and color of the event.

The festival started in 1972 as a two-day flat-picking guitar contest. In its 38th year, about a fourth of the music on the three main stages is bluegrass.

Not surprisingly you'll also hear the old-time, fiddle-tune and country honky-tonk of groups like the Wilders.

In the afternoon sun, the crowd on the grassy lawn at stage 3 is listening to Kansas City Cowboy balladeers Bluestem.

Western chart topper Bill Barwick is wrapping up his show on Stage 1. The grandstands here will seat about 2500, and are full or nearly so for the evening shows.

You'll also hear folk music from around the world, a new-age-sounding group every now and then, and even some classical-gone-rural.

There's music of all kinds on the streets and in the camp sites. The "Carp Camp," has assembled a 38-piece Irish orchestra.

As for the spirit of this place, folk singer John McCutcheon, who wrote the festival's 25th anniversary song, says unlike many festivals Winfield is more of a reunion. A lot of campers agree. The long-time absent find people they haven't seen since childhood.

Friends and family come every year from as far away as California to Camp Nowhere, where Mark Morrisey. As he listens to the family old-time band, he comments: "Almost everybody that comes here the first year comes here every year afterwards unlses there's it turns out there's some reason they can't . But... I think people think about this place year-round."

"How could you not come back to this! Hey, everybody, we're Plain Acre, we're from Lawrence, Kansas, and this our Winfield tradition!"

It's a family festival. The women in the band 'Prairie Acre' from Lawrence, Kansas have their babies on their backs as they play old-time hoedown and fiddle tunes spontaneously on the fairgrounds midway.

Over by Stage 3, harp guitarist Stephen Bennett says returning last year after being sidelined in 2007 by a kidney transplant was special to him: "We become friends, we become family over the years and you know, I guess its the music that bonds us, but I'm not sure that's all it is, really. I think somehow or another there's a sense of community that is forged here. And you know, we don't get enough community in our lives."

Camper Morrisey has a different perspective on the essence of the festival: "It's such a special, charismatic, spiritual, mystical Alice in Wonderland kind of weird thing that couldn't normally exist. But it does. It exists here for a week."

At about 1:20 AM Saturday, the small band of helpful campers successfully completed putting up the first-timer's tent. They laugh, cheer, give hugs.

"I guess we can go to bed now," one remarks.

At least one is not ready to turn in. "Time for a beer," he says.

(Other music heard is by Beppe Gammbetta, the Wilders, Bluestem, Bill Barwick, John McCutcheon, Greene, Block and Taylor, the Carp Camp orchestra,Prairie Acre and variouus campsite and Stage 5 groups.)