The Walnut Valley Festival was launched in 1972 when a guitar maker [the late Stuart Mossman], a farmer [Bob Redford], and a businessman built their own music festival from the ground up. It has made the small town of Winfield into an annual destination for acoustic musicians and music lovers from around the world, and it has always been participatory, with the informal campsite pickin’ as much a part of the event as the stage shows and instrumental contests. The Walnut Valley Festival has always been proud of its deep-rooted traditions, but most of all, it is a community celebration.
Local historian Seth Bate tells the Walnut Valley story, in a new book, Winfield’s Walnut Valley Festival (The History Press), with reflections from festival staff, emcees, performers, campers, and characters from throughout its history.
Orin Friesen enthused …
“This is a ‘must read’ for anyone who has ever attended the Walnut Valley Festival.”
Bate explains what led to the book ….
“I moved to Kansas in 1989 to attend Southwestern College in Winfield. I fell in love with a Kansas farmgirl, Jenny, and have been here ever since. I attended my first Walnut Valley Festival in September 1989, and except for a year Jenny and I were living in Greece, have not missed one since. I started working on the stage crews as an emcee and stage manager in the late 1990s, and a few years later Jenny and I took over managing the Wednesday workshops—half- or full-day workshops that give participants the opportunity to learn directly from festival artists.
In addition to my own love for the festival, I married into a family connection. Jenny’s dad, Joe Muret, was one of the three founding members of the Walnut Valley Association, the business entity that stages the festival. Joe ended his association with the WVA in the early 1980s, but he and his wife, Christie, are still a great source of stories about the early days.
Working for Wichita State University has given me the opportunity to travel Kansas extensively, and I find the whole state fascinating. I decided to pursue a master’s degree focused on community and local history. I wrote a paper about the way Walnut Valley Festival has maintained a family-friendly image. When it came time to select a thesis topic, I was leaning to something that seemed more scholarly. My thesis advisor wisely said that organizations nearing significant anniversaries are often ready to look inward and backward. I built a trusting relationship with Bart Redford, then the new president of the Walnut Valley Association, and wrote this history.
When Bart and I started talking about turning my thesis into a book, the easy thing would have been to just condense what I had written and add some of the WVA’s amazing collection of photos. That was what I envisioned. Bart and his team wisely suggested something more collaborative, reflecting the Winfield spirit. Bart and I collected contributions from artists, emcees, crew members and campers. I edited those into a multifaceted view of the festival, and augmented them with the history I researched.”
Among those contributors are Dan Crary, Beppe Gambetta, John McCutcheon, and Orin Friesen.
The book, which has about 100 black and white images, extends to 17 chapters and a conclusion. Additionally, there are two appendices, one identifying festival milestones and the other lists the entertainers from 1972 through to 2021.
World-wide, Winfield is known primarily for its annual contests. In fact, when the Walnut Valley Association was founded, its sole purpose was to produce the Walnut Valley National Guitar Flat-Picking Championships Festival, also known as the Flat-Picking Championships.
Also, it hosts the International Autoharp, National Mandolin, National Mountain Dulcimer, National Hammered Dulcimer, National Bluegrass Banjo, and the Walnut Valley Old Time Fiddle Championships.
Through the years some illustrious musicians have basked in the glory of success at Winfield.
Lynn Morris won the first National Bluegrass Banjo contest in 1974, and won again in 1981, while Tony Furtado won the National Bluegrass Banjo title in 1987 and 1991.
Some other legendary “names” include:
- Mark O’Connor, with numerous titles, including Walnut Valley Old Time Fiddle in 1974, 1977, and National Flat-Pick Guitar 1975, 1977 (He has won or been placed in more Walnut Valley Festival contests than any other contestant)
- Alison Krauss, Walnut Valley Old Time Fiddle, 1984
- Chris Thile, Walnut Valley Mandolin, 1993
Some of the many names that serious bluegrass fans will recognize include:
- Steve Kaufman, National Flat-Pick Guitar, 1978, 1984, 1986
- Martie Erwin Seidel (Dixie Chicks’ fiddler) in 1987 and 1989
- Cody Kilby, Walnut Valley Mandolin, 1996, National Flat-Pick Guitar, 1998
- Kyle Tuttle, National Bluegrass Banjo, 2017
Winfield’s Walnut Valley Festival will be published August 15. It will soon be available directly from the Walnut Valley Festival. In the meantime it is available for pre-order from Watermark Books and Arcadia Publishing. You can also pick one up at the festival.
Publisher: The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina
Paperback: 176 pages, including the two appendices
Dimensions: 15.24 x 0.79 x 22.86 cm / 6 x 9 inches.
Bate’s writing has been recognized by the Kansas Association of Historians and appeared in the Kansas Leadership Center Journal.
The 2022 Walnut Valley Festival National Flat-Picking Championships will take place leading up to the third weekend of September (14 -18) at the Winfield Fairgrounds in Winfield, Kansas.