For many, the Walnut Valley Festival campgrounds offers a unique 'Winfield experience'
For nearly 50 years, the Walnut Valley Festival has attracted thousands of visitors from across the country. For many of them, the festival means seeing top acoustic and bluegrass musicians perform on one of the main stages.
But for others, the essence of Walnut Valley is the non-stop jam session that takes place in the campgrounds.
"There are festivals that are listening festivals, and there are festivals that are picking festivals," Richard Crowson said. "Winfield is for the pickers."
Crowson, a banjo player, is a member of the Avalon campsite.
"There are great acts on the stages, but the campgrounds and the jams around the campfires … that's where it's at [in] Winfield," he said.
There are hundreds of campsites at the Walnut Valley Festival, and they're filled with people who are passionate about music and what they call the "Winfield experience."
People play with old friends, but anyone is invited to join a circle — whether they're experienced or just learning an instrument.
"It's very ... democratic," Crowson said.
Next door to Avalon is the Geezers of Anarchy campsite.
"We won the best in campsite two years ago, which was when they last had the festival, and we won several years ago as the best in campground campsite," Joyce Owen said.
It's a fierce competition, and Joyce and the other Geezers are duly proud. A lot of the campsites go all out, with twinkle lights and decorations, outdoor living and dining areas and, of course, the campfires, which make even the quirkiest campsites warm and cozy.
The Geezers are one of the larger campsites with about 30 RVs and a dozen tents – about 60 people in all. Many have been camping together at the festival for 30 years.
That kind of history creates a lot of traditions. Mike Owen is the official Keeper of the Fire, which has its own ritual.
"On Saturday, we have a fire ceremony where people who have gone on in the past year, we add their ashes to the fire," Owen said. "And then as camp ends, we take the ashes out of the fire and bring them back the next year to add back in during the fire ceremony to keep the spirit of the people who have gone before us alive."
The camps have colorful names — River Rats, Carp Camp, Lit on the Low Road — and distinct personalities. But music is the overarching theme.
Walking through the campground at night, songs from the different campsites blend together with a background of crickets and the ever-present trains.
The Walnut Valley Festival does have amazing musicians: 30 main performers plus those participating in the festival's eight national and international competitions.
But after the stages shut down for the night, the official performers will often wander into the campgrounds.
"There are people that appear on the fairground stages and people who hang around like we are and get around the campfire and play," said Bob Hamrick, an accordion player in the Avalon camp. "But a lot of times those things bump into each other, and you'll be sitting next to somebody who's been nominated for Grammy awards and has taken home a slew full of bronze and gold medals … and you're playing with them.
"It … doesn't get any better than that."