Championship season at Walnut Valley Festival

Maybe they should change the name of the Walnut Valley Festival to the Festival of Champions.

With the upgrading of the festival’s mandolin contest to the status of national championship, that brings to seven the number of Walnut Valley instrumental competitions that confer a national or international title.

In other words, there’s a whole lot of high-level picking and fiddling going on during the festival, which runs Wednesday through next Sunday.

Though well attended, the instrumental competitions are sometimes overshadowed by well-known performers on the festival’s big stages and the free-flowing fun in the Cowley County campgrounds. But they’re a big part of what puts Winfield on the traditional music map.

Ever heard of multiple Grammy winners Mark O’Connor and Alison Krauss? They’re past winners of the fiddle contest.

The competitions are held indoors on Stage 4 -- the “red barn” -- throughout the day from Thursday to Sunday. Contestants, limited to 40 in each category, are given five minutes (seven for fiddlers) and judged on criteria including their execution, arrangement and expression. They’re allowed one backup musician. First-place winners can’t enter the same competition again for five years.

Winners of the finger-style and flat-pick guitar contests go on to play shows on Stage 1 -- the grandstand -- on Friday and Saturday, and all winners are invited back to open the next year’s festival during the “Champions Showcase” concert held Wednesday night.

Festival organizers decided to turn the mandolin contest into a national championship when the previous owner of the trademarked event let it lapse.

“It just adds some credibility to anybody that happens to win it,” festival spokesman Rex Flottman said. “A lot of the contestants are trying to win our contests to use as a stepping-stone to being in the music business full time. It just makes it more attractive to the better musicians to make it worth their time and effort to come here.”

Among contestants this year are musicians from Canada, England, Italy, France and Japan.

In addition to mandolin, the festival hosts the national guitar flat-picking, bluegrass banjo, mountain dulcimer and hammer dulcimer championships, and the international guitar finger-style and Autoharp championships.

“We have a full house on most of those,” contest coordinator Karen Deal said. “But our biggest attendance is usually at the national hammer dulcimer championship. It’s because of the uniqueness of the instrument.”

Wednesday’s concert by six of last year’s champions is open only to holders of full festival wristbands. The festival’s regular schedule starts Thursday and features a full slate of music, workshops, crafts and food.

Among nine acts making their Winfield debuts this year are Teada, an Irish group playing high-energy, traditional dance music from that country; Sierra Hull, a mandolin virtuoso who’s been garnering a lot of attention in traditional music circles while still attending the Berkeley School of Music; and a trio of youngish bands — the Fairwell Drifters from Nasvhville, the Hillbenders from Springfield and Milkdrive from Austin.

“We’ve got quite a few younger ones this year,” Flottman said. “It’s kind of fun.”

Performers who have already developed solid fan bases at the festival and are back include folk singer John McCutcheon, the electric duo Small Potatoes and Mountain Heart, which Flottman describes as “as close to a rock and roll band as we’ve put on stage here.”

Also among the 31 acts performing during the festival is Wichita musician Trevor Stewart, who plays the unusual Chapman Stick.

The concerts, workshops and competitions go on from 9 a.m. Thursday to 5 p.m. Sunday on the festival’s four official stages, and the festival’s juried arts and crafts show is expected to draw about 75 vendors. A number of unofficial stages in the campgrounds also host music, vying for campers’ attention with jam sessions, potluck dinners and other forms of homegrown entertainment.