I was sitting at a table at the Walnut Valley Bluegrass festival eating lunch. It was a warm sunny mid October day in Kansas. You never know what the weather will be like in Kansas. This day was a great autumn day. Across the table was a friend that I had just met. We were talking about the Bluegrass festival.
He was a guy in his fifties with gray hair and a beard. He loved coming to the Walnut Valley Festival. He had been coming for years. He would bring his motor home and camp in the same area with all of his family and friends. At night they would sit around the campfire and play music. Bluegrass and country songs. A few songs that somebody in the group had written themselves. It was a great time.
He told me that he was a guitar player. Not only was he a guitar player, he was a fingerstyle guitar player. You might not be too familiar with fingerstyle guitar playing. Have you ever heard Chet Atkins play? He is the original fingerstyle player or maybe a better way to say it is he is the most popular original. He was able to combine chords with a melody. He would play a bass melody with his thumb and play the melody with his fingers. The music would sound like two or three guitar players but it was only one person playing. Chet Atkins.
He said, "One of these days I am going to enter the Walnut Valley Bluegrass festival fingerstyle guitar contest. I have been practicing all of these years and I'm gonna do it." I asked him, " Did you sign up?"
I knew the answer before I asked the question. I had signed up earlier in the day and I hadn't seen him in the competition. The event sign up is on the Walnut Valley Festival website and people sign up in January to get a chance to compete. I asked the lady at the table if it was full. She said, " Some of the people that signed up don't show. They were taking names of folks that were interested in completing, and would I like to sign up?"
I said, "Sure." I knew that I was not going to win the contest but I wanted to compete. I had some fingerstyle guitar songs that I played at the coffee shop and I figured I would play them. They might not be the style of music the judges were expecting but it was fingerstyle guitar. I was told to come back at 10 am and meet under the awning behind the stage. They would explain the rules and have a drawing to determine who would get to play.
The contest was limited to forty contestants but thirty five could be on the stand by list to replace any of the original forty that were no shows. The contestants that had signed up on the computer nine months ago were automatically in the contest. The rest of us who had signed up at the tent would be decided by drawing names out of a hat. I waited anxiously hoping that my name would be called. It was not looking very good. They were down to the very last person to be in the contest. The guy reached into the hat and said, "Jim McCarter."
Up until that moment I was not nervous at all. Now I was nervous. I was actually going to be competing in the contest. What song to play? I better do some practicing to warm up for this big moment. The truth was that I had been practicing for this moment for the last thirty years. All of the times that I played songs over and over trying to get better was in preparation for this moment in time.
I decided to play a gospel song and a Eric Clapton song. I played As the deer. You might not know the song by that title. The lyrics go, As a deer panted for the water so my soul longeth after you. The Clapton song that I decided to play was Layla. I had played both of these songs at the coffee shop so I knew them well. The hard part was the waiting to play. Everybody plays two song so the contest runs for about three plus hours.
The rules are that you can't talk on stage. You play your songs. This was hard for someone who likes to talk before and after songs. Did I mention that they five away free guitars and money to the winners. The guitars are top of the line guitars. Brands like Taylors, Martins, etc. The prize money would be maybe $3000 to the winner of the contest and first pick of the guitar that you wanted. They would have three winners.
If you won the first round you would need to play two different songs in the next round. I didn't know what I would play then. I was playing my best songs in the first round. It was not the time to worry about the future. I was worried about the first round. If I did win the first round, then I would question my strategy.
I heard a lot of songs that were played in the competition. The total contest would consist of eighty songs. Almost all of the songs were originals. I heard about five songs that were popular songs. I played two of the songs that I recognized. One guy from Japan played Michael Jackson's Beat it. It was great. He was one of the winners of the contest. The reason that they write their own songs is to be able to show off their techniques they have learned. I would rather hear a song I know with the techniques applied. Personal preference.
The contest lasted about three hours and I was one of the last performers. I played my songs and had a great time. I was glad that I did it. We had to wait about an hour to get the results. Drum roll! Not a winner. You noticed I didn't call myself a loser. I just didn't win this particular contest at this exact moment in time. I am still on my journey to be a winner.
I am glad I did this. I am glad that I am not the guy I met at breakfast that said, One of these days I'm going to _______. I would love to have a dollar for every time I have said if or thought it. How would you fill in the blank? Take a vacation to Alaska, retire and travel the country, find a job I love, marry my best friend, buy a home in the country, or play a writer's round at the Bluebird Café.
I am still waiting to hear if I was selected to play at the Bluebird Café. The tryout winners were to be announced in four weeks. It has been four weeks and three days but I'm not counting. The great thing about not knowing is that I still have hope. When I find out the answer, that is the results and hope goes away until another day.