Picking all summer – Elisi Smith-Waller and Larryfest

This heartwarming story about developing an interest in music later in life is a contribution from Kjerstin Lang, who volunteers at Larryfest in La Farge, WI. The festival has been running for 25 years, put on by the Kickapoo Valley Acoustic Music Association. The 26th annual Larryfest is scheduled for August 17-19, 2023.

Summer is music festival season, a time of year when Elisi Smith-Waller transitions from teaching eighth-grade science to picking her five-string banjo across the Coulee Region. 

Elisi is a musician with the local group, Crooked Willow. They tour at outdoor festivals and concert venues, primarily during summer months, but Elisi’s favorite stop comes late in the season — in hidden valley just 35 miles from her workplace — called Larryfest. Named after a fellow Kickapoo Valley Board Member and bluegrass music lover, Larry Sebranek, pulling into the Larryfest grounds always feels like coming home, she says.

“I know that when I arrive on Wednesday afternoon, I will be unplugged from the rest of the world, and I can enjoy the music, the people, and the beautiful scenery,” she says.

Being a musician wasn’t always Elisi’s thing. She grew up listening to plenty of music at festivals and concerts as the daughter of musician John Smith, but she didn’t learn to play an instrument until she was an adult.  

After her first child was born, she and her husband were sticking around home a lot more. “We didn’t get out to hang out with friends as much, so we started making plans to get together at our house and jam,” she says. “When the weather was nice, we would put the kids to sleep and then go hang out in the garage, so we wouldn’t wake them up.”

Elisi started out with the ukulele, then tried the tenor banjo, and eventually landed on the five-string banjo. She is now learning clawhammer style. “When I first started playing, I was able to play it as a rhythm instrument, but as I have learned more and continued to grow, I have started taking lead on some tunes as well.”

Her friend group also upped their instrument choices and repertoire over the years. 10 years ago they moved from garage jams to public concerts. Today the group Crooked Willow performs a mixture of old-time, bluegrass, jazz-inspired tunes, and Americana covers with her husband Tim Waller on guitar, Jessie McDonald on fiddle, and Erik Hanson on bass.

During the school year, Elisi still teaches science at West Salem Middle School, but she finds many opportunities to incorporate music. 

“I tell my students from the beginning of the year that I love music, I love to listen to music, I love to play music, and I love to use music to help me teach,” she says. 

She plays silly song parodies related to the topics the class discusses on her classroom computer, and she keeps her instrument handy for breaktime. “If we have extra time, I will sing and play for them,” she says.

When Elisi isn’t teaching or performing, you’ll find her sitting in on Kickapoo Valley Music Association Board meetings. KVAMA is the organization that organizes Larryfest. She helps book talent, announce acts, and works with sound engineers and others on many behind the scenes tasks to help make the three-day event run smoothly. 

But at the fest, she is not just a volunteer and attendee, she’s also up on stage singing and playing her banjo with Crooked Willow. It may not sound like much of a summer break, but for Elisi, who grew up at festivals like this, it feels good to get back home.  

“I have had the opportunity to attend music festivals across the country, and Larryfest is something special,” she says. “We purposefully limit the number of tickets sold, so we can continue to enjoy each other’s company without the huge crowds you see at many festivals.”