Kansas Folk Music and Dance Resource Center
KansasFolk.org Home Folk Here & Now Finding Materials Stories & Photos
Section Home
Preserve It!

The Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships 1981-1990:

Lawrence Community Nourishes Kansas State Fiddling & Picking Championships

by Laurie Mackey

The Kansas State Fiddling & Picking Championships recognizes the Wheat State's talented musicians. Contest organizers endeavor to pull in the best musicians from around and even from outside the state of Kansas.  So why, since its inception, has this statewide music event been held every year in just one Kansas town--Lawrence?  The easy answer is that Lawrence is one of those special towns where music is happening, has always happened.

 The KSF&PC grew out of a strong music scene that was flourishing in 1981, the first year of the statewide contest. The Championships have continued in Lawrence because of the rich music culture that fosters such events and provides volunteers. Certainly, music is alive and very well over all of the state, but here follows a review of Lawrence's traditional/bluegrass/old-time/folk/acoustic music and dance scene over the last decade or so.

The first challenge is to define “traditional/bluegrass/old-time/folk/acoustic music and dance." Everyone has a personal definition, and everyone stretches the boundaries of the definition in one direction or another. That is the nature of folk art of any kind. This fuzzy definition becomes even fuzzier when viewed through the blurred lens of memory. So, one review will include events and individuals that another would not. This discussion centers primarily on that sliver of the Lawrence music scene that calls itself “traditional”-including bluegrass/old-time/folk music--traditional acoustic music played in a traditional manner.

For the lack of a fiddler, dances were known to have been held with only the hum of a Jew’s harp for music. At Niobrara, Nebraska, in 1874 a dance was reported in the local paper as having had a big drum, a little drum, a fiddle, a pitch fork for a triangle, a keg of beer for company, and considerable noise for variety.
--Dick, Everett. The Sod-House Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979, p. 369

It is impossible to trace a chronological time line of traditional music and dance in Lawrence. "Folk" doesn't think chronologically. Rather, what follows will be a look at what one might call a 'time tree" instead of a time line. The time tree has origins, offshoots, influences and past and present permutations. Origins and influences include individual effort and group jam sessions and community dances, live music, and the media (primarily radio). Offshoots include bands and performing groups that grew out of the larger groups.

Any fiddler in town will tell you Billy Spears was singlehandedly the most important bluegrass influence in the mid-1970s. Then, in early 1975, an historic Free University meeting was held at the Kansas Union. Attendees, some of the pioneers of the current music scene, decided to form a regular, weekly, come-one-come-all jam session. The jam was born at a North Lawrence music store owned by Steve Mason and Brian McKinney. It moved briefly to the old opera house (now Liberty Hall), then for the summer to the Country Music Hall at Apple Valley Farm, Lake Perry. It finally found its home at the old Off-the-Wall Hall, owned by McKinney-Mason Music, which had moved next door.

The jam session met every Wednesday night for five-and-a-half years until December 1980. Jammers also got their first taste of community dancing by doing the “Virginia Reel" at those sessions. The jams, like others since, were successful because of involved people, like Gloria Throne and Steve Mason, who always made newcomers feel welcome and who encouraged participation.

Gloria Throne's involvement in the Lawrence music scene had included producing benefit concerts for public radio station KANU, the main broadcast source for traditional/ bluegrass/old-time/folk/acoustic music in Lawrence. In the same capacity she served the Kansas Folklore Center, an establishment she founded to promote the kind of culture-preserving festivities she had experienced at the Beanblossom Festival in Indiana. The Center produced workshops and live concerts at the Off-the-Wall Hall during the same period as the jam sessions. Workshops at the Center were led by such experts as Missouri fiddler Lyman Enloe.

Musicians say the "Wednesday night jams" constituted a golden era. After a while, everyone at the jams wanted to be in a bluegrass band. Nearly all of the bands that have subsequently come and none or come and stayed have played free of charge at the KSF&PC. Some individuals from the bands have gone on to become instrument winners at the Championships and others have served the Championships as contest judges.

It is generally agreed that the first real band to come out of the jams was the Lemming Family. The Lemming band, formed in late 1976, played a sort of folk bluegrass music and had some of its audiences fooled into believing the members were all related! The Lemmings disbanded in 1980, and some of them were reborn in a new band called Prairie Fire. Prairie Fire first played traditional bluegrass music (Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe fare), evolving later into jazzier styles. A Prairie Fire distinction was winning the 'National Bluegrass Band Contest" in Iowa. Prairie Fire finally called it quits in August of 1989. Band members' having kids might have had something to do with it. Murphy's Law (1977-1981) paralleled Prairie Fire and was a favorite on the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA) circuit. It played its last gig in Courtland, KS.

In 1980 an overlapping with Prairie Fire took place when Bluestem came into being. Former members of both Prairie Fire and Murphy’s Law came together with other musicians to form this new band, which set out to play western and bluegrass acoustic music. In its third and fourth years Bluestem won the SPBGMA's “Most Entertaining Band of the Year" award. Marvin Pine has won "Best Bass Player" for the last four consecutive years. Bluestem also wins the Lawrence prize for stability; no personnel changes have occurred in its ten-year history. As the house band, the Bluestem boys have become popular with audiences at KANU Radio's "Goodtime Radio Revue."

A concurrent open jam to the Off-the-Wall-Hall jam was held on Saturdays at Johnny's. This was in 1979, the year recognized as the beginning of the Alferd Packer Memorial String Band. Back then, if you were at the jam, you were in the band. In fact, the club owner was considered a member of the band! The jams were called “Alferd Packer Memorial Cabin Fever Relievers," and early incarnations of the band played at the first Kansas Folklife Festivals. Alferd Packer Memorial jams continued later at the Perry Pub. The “Al Packs” claim to have had about 28 different members over the years. Now 11 years old, it is one of Lawrence's oldest bands, with washboard player Jim Brothers the only remaining founding member. The band describes itself as playing 'buffalo grass" and various cannibalized musical styles. It has featured such odd instruments as the saw, shopping bags, camp stools, train horns, guns and water-gargling. Today's Alferd Packer band has distinguished itself by playing at such well-known sites as Silver Dollar City in Missouri.

A pre-Packer band, the Washington Creek Boys (1978-present), continue in the spirit of loose, not-so-organized music, while Alferd Packer has cleaned up its act (a little). “Packer practices; we don't,” say the Boys. The Washington Creek Boys, who also emerged from the Johnny's jams, played two nights a week for six years at the Apple Valley Country Music Hall. The band members say they were all influenced by the folk movement of the 1960s; one member's father sang Pete Seeger songs to him when he was young. Besides traditional music, the W.C. Boys play their own original music and children's songs and 'any music that isn't very hard to play." The Boys add their authentic sound to the turn-of-the-century Independence Days festival each year and play for Lawrence's Seem-To-Be-Players.

1981-1984 saw the Flatland String Band play its distinctive folk rock at such memorable institutions as the annual Everybody Day in Lawrence and the Foolkiller in Kansas City.

A noteworthy band from Lawrence's recent past was Last Kansas Exit (October 1985-June 1988). Last Kansas Exit played traditional bluegrass music (Stanley Brothers style). Recognized as a first-rate band, Last Kansas Exit won the International Bluegrass Band Championships in Nashville, TN in January 1985. Ironically, like Murphy's Law, Last Kansas Exit played its last gig in Courtland, KS. (There's a bit of Lawrence trivia.)

Another group of Lawrence-area musicians met as neighbors, started out as front-porch pickers, and then evolved into playing for nursing homes, small-town festivals, old-timer days, cider days, you name it. They called themselves Poverty Pocket Pickers and for a long time played “just for fun" and later “for just a little money."

Dance caused a new band to form. Two Poverty Pocket women and a third friend took a clogging class together in Topeka in 1980. Because they preferred not to continue dancing to the taped music used in class, they and some other musicians started the Scrapwood Old-Time String Band and Cloggers in 1981, which featured old-timey music and clogging. At that time, it was the only group in this area to showcase clogging to live music. Scrapwood, an extensive extended family, played at such places as Mountain View, AR, finally breaking up last year.

Two Scrapwooders joined together with some of their own family members and some neighbors they met at a pickin' party to form the Calhoun County Bluegrass Band. They say they play bluegrass and mountain music. The C.C.B. Band has enjoyed playing at such places as the McDonald, KS, centennial celebration, Independence Days in Lawrence, the Vinland Fair, and Baldwin City's Maple Leaf Festival. The members consider their playing a community service, and they often entertain folks at small-town festivals and at retirement centers. To add some variety, the show includes clogging.

Some other Scrapwood alumni got together in 1989 to jam with other musicians. After about six months they formed Ragged But Right, and now play old-time and barn dance music and also feature clogging.

In 1987 three musicians (two former Scrapwood, one former Alferd Packer) formed a band called the One Hand Clapping String Band, which played one time only as a warm up act for John Hartford at Liberty Hall. More musicians joined them, and by their next gig (the KSF&PC), they had taken the name Euphoria String Band. Appearing mostly at festivals around Kansas and Missouri, Euphoria plays old-time country and string band music popular in the early part of the century in an old-time radio show format.

The Cabbage Patch Dulcimer Club, active in the early 1980s and open to all who wished to play mountain dulcimer, was the breeding ground for another band. One of the dulcimer players entered the KSF&PC mountain dulcimer contest in 1983. While waiting to compete, she met another mountain dulcimer contestant. They formed Full Circle, an all-female band, and polished their songs in time for the Smoky Hill River Festival of 1985. Today Full Circle plays traditional and contemporary folk music, a potpourri of different styles, unique arrangements, and up to four-part vocal harmonies. Featuring fiddle, piano, accordion, guitar, bass and percussion, the band has played at the Veiled Prophet festival in St. Louis and at Crown Center in Kansas City, MO, as well as at engagements in Kansas and surrounding states.

Blending traditional Irish music with traditional American, Newgrange formed in January 1987 to play on KANU's “Goodtime Radio Revue," broadcast from Baker University. Band members liked Irish music, but they considered themselves straightforwardly American. Calling their music "New Midwestern Celtic," they wrote in classical traditional styles but maintained a broad scope that was conceptually fresh. Through their music they reflected the fact that culture comes from the everyday things one does. Newgrange's last official performance was in the same Baker University hall where they opened. The band, however, has engagements scheduled for another year.

Avalon, a newer contemporary Celtic band, also plays original folk and folk-rock music. Some of its music sounds English, as one of its influences is the great English band Steeleye Span. Probably half the music Avalon performs is original. In fact, a “folk suite” composed by one Avalon member lured the other band members to come play it and then join together as a band.

Bluestem, Full Circle, and Last Kansas Exit have reached the pinnacle of success in Kansas - playing at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield.

Speaking of "Winfield," as the regular festival-goers call it, Lawrence's homegrown KSF&PC contest for 1990 has been accredited officially by Winfield's sponsoring organization, Walnut Valley Association, Inc. Therefore, it's worth mentioning past first-, second- or third-place winners at Winfield who were Lawrence residents at the time: Mike Allen (banjo), 3rd-1984, 3rd-1985, 1st-1986; Chris Biggs (Flat-pick guitar), 3rd-1978, 3rd-1979, 3rd-1980; Doug DuBois (autoharp), 3rd-1984; Matt Kirby (hammered dulcimer), 2nd-1980; Karen Mueller (autoharp), 3rd-1985, 1st-1986; Gib Sosman (mountain dulcimer), 3rd-1982, 2nd-1987, 1st-1989.

The Musicians Unite and Sing In Climax festival, the brainchild of Lawrencian Doug DuBois, took place in 1983. Although a majority of musicians came from Lawrence, the festival was held on the grounds of a one-room schoolhouse in Climax, KS. What distinguished this festival was that a high-quality recording studio was set up inside the schoolhouse, and everyone took part in recording songs (many original) for a festival tape. The 1984 Climax festival took place in Lawrence, again with recordings, and a smaller campout festival was held in 1985, back in Climax. Lawrence bands hadn't made many albums before Climax. Now at least five have: Prairie Fire, Alferd Packer (two), Bluestem (five), Full Circle (four), and Avalon (in progress).

The community old-time barn dances now held in Lawrence evolved from the KU Folk Dance Club. Catherine Baer, a KU student, came from a family of folk dancers, Her father Richard, a caller from Chicago, visited Lawrence during the 1980-1981 school year and called the Lawrence group's first barn dance. Both he and Catherine were influenced by activities at Folklore Village near Dodgeville, WI. In 1982, during a barn dance at the Winfield festival, Catherine decided Lawrence should have regular barn dances. She taught herself to call dances, and by the end of that September, Catherine and dance veteran Bayliss Harsh founded the Lawrence Barn Dance Association. The first dance was held in St. John's Elementary School. Other early sites were Off-the-Wall-Hall and the Ecumenical Christian Ministries building near the KU campus. The dances have moved from the Lawrence Arts Center to the Lawrence School of Ballet to the Lawrence Senior Center and occasionally even to a barn south of Lawrence. Lawrence has enjoyed at least a barn dance a month for eight years. After Catherine graduated, John Forbes, Mike Rundle, and a number of others assumed the calling honors. John brings his years of living in the famous dance capital of Berea, KY to this area. Mike follows his uncle, Daniel O'Connell, and a grandfather, U. S. “Shorty” Wood, who were barn-dance callers. Dozens of Lawrencians have served on the LBDA board, ensuring that each dance would have a hall, a band, and plenty of dancers.

Just as the jam sessions have given rise to bands, the barn dances have given life to bands and performance groups. One popular Lawrence barn-dance band was the Daniels Family Band. Genealogical investigation reveals that some of the Daniels Family are related to some of the Lemmings Family--the band from a decade before! A little known fact is that the Daniels Family changed its name to Milwaukee Blues Band in the middle of its last gig.

Closely linked with the LBDA have been two performance clogging groups. Lawrence citizens had their first chance to clog through the KU Folk Dance Club and at a workshop taught in 1981 by an old-time clogger from Oklahoma. The Kaw River Cloggers, the first homegrown group, stomped and kicked from 1982 to 1984.

In 1987 a group of LBDA dancers interested in clogging met weekly to perfect the shuffle and the cowtail. By summer 1988, the practice group became the Barnstorm Cloggers. The Barnstormers dance old-time style regularly in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.

Some local bands have distinguished themselves by receiving Kansas Arts Commission Touring Grants: Full Circle, Alferd Packer Memorial String Band, Euphoria String Band, Last Kansas Exit, Bluestem and the Barnstorm Cloggers. Full Circle and Last Kansas Exit have been accepted on the Mid-America Arts Alliance. Full Circle and Newgrange are on the Young Audiences program. Many local bands play in Lawrence's summertime Brown Bag Concerts.

Another offshoot of jams, bands and other musical events in Lawrence is the strong tradition of songwriting, established largely through the efforts of Rick Frydman. Rick organized a festival in 1982 that highlighted songwriting, and in 1983 he put on the first Kaw Valley Songwriters Association contest. That year and every year since, Rick has brought in national songwriters to help judge the contest and to give concerts. The Kaw Valley Songwriters Association festival, September 2930 this year, is Lawrence's answer to the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival. The 1989 KVSA contest drew 60 contestants. Rick considers live music a form of art and has contributed to that art form by producing a number of memorable concerts in town.

Radio has played no small part in encouraging and influencing Lawrence music. The longest running show featuring traditional/bluegrass/old-time/folk/acoustic music is the 'Flint Hills Special," airing Sundays from 7 to midnight on KANU. Well-known, flat-pick guitarist Dan Crary started the "Flint Hills Special" in 1971, while he pursued graduate studies at KU. The station took a real gamble by deviating from its usual classical and jazz programming to give this “hardcore, original-sound, rock-solid, red-neck bluegrass music" a try. The gamble was worth it; listener support and mail has ensured a permanent spot for bluegrass and folk programming at KANU. Since 1982 "Flint Hills Special" Listeners have had the good fortune to hear the golden voice of host Mike Allen (Last Kansas Exit), who grew up with bluegrass music as a member of the famous (in Crescent, Iowa, anyway) Allen Family Band. When the family band needed a banjo player, Mike's dad told him he wouldn't have to do the dishes if he'd learn the banjo. Faced with those choices, Mike chose the banjo, luckily for anyone who has ever heard Mike play (although he probably would've made a great dishwasher, too). Mike and 'Flint Hills" co-host Dick Powers feature live music and recorded bluegrass, Celtic, old-time, and folk music every Sunday night.

Rick Frydman hosted his own show, the “Ethnic Cowboy" on KJHK radio from 1979 to 1987. “Ethnic Cowboy" moved to the “Flint Hills Special" in 1988-1989. Thousands of, or at least several, Lawrencians credit Rick with introducing them to their favorite singer-songwriters or folk musicians. KJHK continues “The Country Music Show," hosted since January 1990 by Kim Forehand, the 1989 Kaw Valley Songwriters Association winner.

Lawrencians were lucky when KANU hired Rachel Hunter, who brought with her the experience and desire to produce and host a live radio program. Her first “Goodtime Radio Revue” hit the airways in February 1987 and has played to a
sold-out house (usually at Liberty Hall) ever since. Each show features the house band Bluestem and, more often than not, other Lawrence musicians who have competed at the KSF&PC.

The influence of live music on Lawrence's music culture cannot be overemphasized. Lawrence has been fortunate in that a number of individuals and groups have taken on the task of producing local concerts for all to enjoy. Some of Lawrence's producers are Rick Frydman and his Ethnic Cowboy Productions, Kim Forehand, and Radio Station KANU. Popular sites for concerts are the renovated Liberty Hall and Burcham Park during the Independence Days festival. In addition, dozens of Lawrencians open their doors for house concerts, usually providing solo touring musicians a chance to perform for smaller audiences. This  year the KSF&PC is getting into the concert-producing act by bringing the Fiddle Puppets and John McCutcheon, each in their first Lawrence appearance.

Here's a sampling of other live music artists Lawrence has enjoyed: Loudon Wainwright III, Lucinda Williams, John Gorka, Nancy Griffith, Hot Rize, Nightnoise, Bryan Bowers, Kevin Burke, Johnny Cunningham, Noel Hill, Touchstone, Chet Atkins, Eugene Friesen, Jim Scott, Dan Crary, Richard Thompson, John Hartford, Kenny Baker, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, Norman and Nancy Blake, Tony Rice, New Grass Revival, Riders in the Sky, Doc Watson and Bill Monroe.

The spirit and energy of the “Wednesday night jams" continued in Lawrence even after the jams stopped in 1980. As a moveable feast it lived for a couple of years at the Centenary Methodist Church in North Lawrence; it moved to an “open mike” format at the Harvest Restaurant; and then again as a weekly jam at the Wantametcha Cafe. Then it moved across the parking lot and until 1989 stayed among the doughnuts at Muncher's Bakery.

In 1983 the Kansas Arts Commission awarded Gloria Throne a grant to establish the Lawrence String Band Project. Day campers in the project made a recording and performed at the very first Independence Days festival. Over the years, various group music lessons also have afforded jam session opportunities. Monthly jam/potlucks now occur at a private residence, a musical Grand Central Station. This jam follows and joins years of similar ones at dozens of homes around town. Pickers and fiddlers also can be found on Saturday afternoons sitting on the front porch of Harmonic Arts music store downtown. Every year friends of Alferd Packer gather at Jim Brothers' for an outstanding all-night (all-weekend) jam. During the winter, jammers meet the second Sunday of every month at Lake Perry. Regular monthly community dances continue, along with special ones, such as the one on August 25 in conjunction with the KSF&PC.

And the future? Doug DuBois, for one, has a vision of creating a country place called Harmony Farms, which might bring all the elements together--dances, concerts, regular jams--in an atmosphere where people are in harmony with the earth and each other. The key is people coming together. That, finally, answers why Lawrence is a good music town. People here come together to make music and then the harmony spreads.

Footnote. The author wishes to thank the following musicians for their time and assistance in compiling information for this article: Steve Mason, Gloria Throne, Greg Allen, Mary Franzke, Kevin Carr, Linda Carr, Matt Kirby, Jim Brothers, Doug DuBois, Marianne Schnebel, Deborah Pine, Karen Mueller, Chris Biggs, Larry Carter, Dick Powers, Rick Frydman, Mike Allen, Stan Rood, Bayliss Harsh, Mike Rundle, Gib Sosman, Kim Forehand, Mike Helvey, Tom Sherwood, Eldon Pickett, Reva Friedman, Jim Rome, Doug Jones, Lisa Harris, Catherine Baer.

Back to Stories & Photos Home