Walnut Valley, Roots N Blues fall music festivals worth the road trip

Courtesy of the Walnut Valley Festival

Last September, I took road trips to make first-time visits to two music festivals that are prominent events in our region as well as on the fall playlists for music fans across the country: Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, an hour’s drive south of Wichita, and Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, an event that started in my hometown of Columbia, Mo., long after I’d moved to Wichita, about 320 miles away.

Both were worth the trip and they have stellar lineups planned this year. Here’s more on my experiences to help you plan on attending.

Walnut Valley Festival

I made a spontaneous day trip to Winfield with a friend who wanted to see a band based out of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains playing the Walnut Valley Festival. We arrived early Friday evening, and parking at the Winfield Fairgrounds was painless: We had a short wait to get into the parking area and our spot was an easy walking distance to festival grounds. Gate admission was $55, which would have allowed us access to acts that started as early as 9 a.m. that day.

The band we were there to see, The Steel Wheels, didn’t start until 7 p.m. so we had time for dinner in the food court, then walked through the juried arts and crafts fair and peeked in on the old time fiddle competition.

Keep in mind, I knew nothing about The Steel Wheels and honestly thought “bluegrass” was in the name of the festival. So I was surprised when the band started playing on Stage 2. It was not the bluegrass I thought I was going to hear, instead Americana-roots with a fresh vibe versus the traditional sound I was expecting.

It pretty much went that way all night. We planned to stay only for The Steel Wheels set but discovered that most bands here play two one-hour sets on their performance days and to hear all they brought to the festival, you need to see both sets. Some of my friend’s favorite songs weren’t played until the 10:30 p.m. set. We had several hours between those sets, which gave us time to see Molly Tuttle, an Americana singer-songwriter known for her award-winning flatpicking guitar technique; legendary multi-instrumentalist and folksinger John McCutcheon; and guitar phenom Billy Strings, who puts on a high-energy bluegrass and rock show.

The lineup for the 48th annual Walnut Valley Festival, Sept. 18-22, is just as diverse. McCutcheon will be making his 38th appearance at the festival and there will be other returning favorites, but nearly 40% of this year’s performers are new, said Rex Flottman, media director of the Walnut Valley Association.

Headliner Appalachian Road Show is making its first appearance. The newly formed five-man, not-quite-bluegrass band includes veteran musicians, and they are up for New Artist of the Year in the 2019 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. Their first radio single, an Appalachian version of the Steve Miller Band’s “Dance, Dance, Dance” is nominated for the association’s Song of the Year. Other headliners range from Grammy-nominated, all-female string band Della Mae to Western music trio The Cowboy Way to JigJam, playing a new genre of Irish influenced Bluegrass called I-Grass.

The five-day festival is expected to draw as many as 12,000 for eight acoustic instrument contests, including the flagship National Flat Pick Guitar Championship, and about 30 acts on four stages. That doesn’t include the impromptu jamming and picking you’ll find in campground areas; Flottman estimates 80% of attendees play an instrument.

Advance tickets are available until 5 p.m. Sept. 17: $95 for the full festival, $75 for Friday and Saturday, $65 for Saturday and Sunday, $45 for Friday or Saturday only. Gate prices, available after 5 p.m. Sept. 17, increase a few dollars and there are more options: $100 for the full festival, $85 for Friday and Saturday, $75 for Saturday and Sunday, $55 for Friday or Saturday only, $50 for Thursday only, $20 for Sunday only, $5 for ages 6-11, free for ages 5 and below with a paid adult.

Tickets and the full lineup are available at wvfest.com.

Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival

My second September music festival road trip was a planned drive to take in the three-day Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival in Columbia, right off I-70 in the middle of Missouri. While it’s now considered Missouri’s largest music festival, one of the features I liked best about Roots N Blues was its compact footprint and simplified organization.

About 30 national, regional and local artists perform once each during the Friday-through-Sunday event, on one of two stages that are no more than a five-minute walk apart on about 50 acres of the 116-acre Stephens Lake Park. I didn’t have to choose between stages. The staggered schedule allowed for starting at one stage and then walking over to catch some of the performance on the other stage, too.

Between the two stages is a midway of craft vendors and about 30 food and drink concessionaires. Though barbecue is in its name, the 13-year-old festival’s early focus on one culinary specialty has waned. You’ll find barbecue options alongside tacos, pizza, traditional festival foods as well as outlets for popular local coffeehouses, craft breweries, pie makers and a food truck with a menu revolving around biscuits. They use a cashless system, so your wristband is your ticket as well as your wallet, once you’ve loaded it with funds.

This year’s festival is Sept. 27-29, with music starting at 4:30 p.m. on Friday and the weekend’s final headlining act—four-time Grammy-winning Americana artist Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit—starting at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Roots N Blues has become as much of must-do for performers as music fans. This year’s headliners include two making their first appearances there: Grammy-winning country music singer/songwriter Maren Morris (Friday) and three-time Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals (Saturday).

Several festival favorites are back as well, including Grammy-winning singer/songwriter John Prine with his legendary catalog of country-folk songs and The Mavericks, who played a Latin-tinged country-rock set last year that reminded me some artists just need to be seen live.

The festival draws about 10,000 people over the weekend and performances cover the gamut of American roots music, from blues and soul to country and bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll to pop.

A full schedule and tickets are available at rootsnbluesnbbq.com. You can buy daily passes starting at $70 and weekend passes starting at $173. They also offer VIP passes starting at $130 for daily and $353 for the entire weekend. Early-bird discounts end Sept. 7. This year, Roots N Blues raised the age for free youth: ages 14 and younger get in free with a general admission ticket/pass-holding adult.

I tried the VIP experience, which had benefits like small plate meals and snacks and access to private restrooms. The perk that made the cost worthwhile to me, though, was having access to lounge areas within view of each stage as well as upfront viewing areas at each stage. There was plenty of room around each stage for viewing throughout the weekend without the VIP pass, but for the biggest draw of the weekend when I was there, The Avett Brothers, it was nice to have access to a reserved standing area right in front of the stage.

Because 10,000 people attend the festival and Columbia is a college town with other events happening the same weekend, you’ll want to reserve a hotel room as early as possible. There is no parking at the festival site, but it’s easy to either one of the free shuttles to and from the site or park nearby in a free parking garage and walk to the festival.

Another great feature of Roots N Blues is that the venue is no more than a 10-minute walk to Columbia’s downtown, known as The District. The 50-block area is bordered by the University of Missouri campus and two other college campuses, giving it a lively, walkable feel with access to creative, diverse and predominantly independent retailers, restaurants, coffee shops and bars, as well as performing arts venues, galleries and services.

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