Where the Bluegrass Grows: Winfield (Walnut Valley Music Festival)
Photography by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee (shot from 2008-2017)
Text By Tom James
In the summer of 1966, some young Kansas college students traveled to the iconic folk festivals in Philadelphia, Newport and Mountain View, Arkansas. They returned with a passion to bring the same type of gathering to their rural college town of Winfield. One of these students was Stuart Mossman, a pioneer American guitar maker. Fueled by widespread interest in his guitars, two successful folk festivals were held at Southwestern College, and, in 1972, the event moved to the Cowley County Fairgrounds, where the Walnut Valley Festival has been held ever since.
In the ensuing forty-four years, a steadfast community of music lovers and players has taken hold on this wide, sweeping curve of the Walnut River, under groves of Pecan, Walnut and Cottonwood trees. Every September they gather, from all corners of the globe, in all manner of tents and trailers, in every possible weather, to renew their allegiance to this family of their own making. Neighborhoods exist as real as any on any street of any town, and live and grow over time with the depth and love that a true neighborhood should. To many of it's inhabitants, Winfield Village is their true home, the one they work the rest of the year to return to.
Folk and Bluegrass music is certainly not high on the pop culture radar, but we do have our stars: people like John McCutcheon, Tommy Emmanuel and Tom Chapin, or Norman Blake, John Hartford and Doc Watson back in the day. We have folks like Allison Krause and Mark O'Conner who came as teenagers, camped along the river bank, entered the fiddle contests, won the fiddle contests, and went on to pretty respectable careers in the larger music world. We also have a blazing village intertwined with home-grown music and exquisite food, built with long-standing companionship over years of shared joys and sorrows; communities entirely populated by folks who never once set foot inside the stadium to see the stars. They have their own stages, with their own stars, their own reasons to lie awake with the dawning light holding a new song on their lips, or a new tune on a well-worn guitar. These people, many believe, are the heart of this festival. This, many believe, is the way we should live our lives.
FOR MORE: check out the Winfield section
Recording by Joe Stolarick