One of the most important expressions of local musical culture happens every third week in September, when thousands become willing refugees from the city and head south to live in a shanty town founded on bluegrass. It's called the Walnut Valley Festival, but the regulars just call it “Winfield.”
Bluegrass concerts and competitions are the ostensible reasons to go, but the soul of Winfield comes from its Midwestern do-it-yourself spirit; most people come with their own musical instruments and they come to jam. These campers tap into their backwoods altar-egos, making music the way the way our ancestors did: picking and trading songs around a fire.
National acts perform on the four official stages, but, to me, the soul of the festival, the reason Winfield is important is because of a renegade fifth venue, Stage 5, that sprang up among the tents of the Pecan Grove camping area.
Stage 5 is a Chevy flatbed truck that diehard music lovers converted into a rolling performance facility, complete with sound system and lights. From 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 a.m, the cream of Kansas bluegrass talent volunteer to play here for the most enthusiastic and supportive audience you’ll see anywhere.
This is where Kansas bands like the Dewayn Brothers and Truckstop Honeymoon showed their willingness to bend the rules and create their own sounds. The Stage 5 spirit is no more personified than in Split Lip Rayfield, who launched their international reputation here, fusing bluegrass with high-energy punk.
And that spirit seems to be catching on; now there’s a Stage 6 and even a Stage 7.