770 acoustic string pieces harmonize

September 21, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WINFIELD, Kan. -- Stand on a grassy hillside on a sunny September afternoon and listen to the sound of 770 acoustic stringed instruments play "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Pure bluegrass heaven.

Folks at the 20th annual Walnut Valley Festival broke last year's record of 566 guitars on Thursday when 572 strummed together. They also became the largest acoustic stringed instrument band with 770 instruments.

Carrying every conceivable acoustic instrument, from basses to mandolins, they crowded onto a hillside for an hour of record-setting music. When organizers turned off the stage speakers, a wave of picked and strummed notes sang out over the Cowley County Fairgrounds.

Tanner Nolan, 8, stood up front, playing his grandma's Martin guitar. Why did he want to be in the World's Largest Guitar Band?

"Because it's big," he said.

Though they didn't make the Guinness Book of World Records with their effort (a Texas gathering in the past year holds onto the title of largest band with reportedly about 800 playing in near-unison), the communal feeling was satisfying enough for most of the participants.

Tanner's grandmother, Theoma Ingram of Tribune, Kan., was supervising a passel of grandkids and carrying Tanner's violin, which he has played since he was 3 years old.

"To me, music is the special gift God gives those who will choose to open their hearts to it," Mrs. Ingram said. She came to the stage area "just to see the variety of people and their instruments, to see who took the time to come up out of the campgrounds."

Campers brought guitars, basses, dobros, fiddles, autoharps, hammered and mountain dulcimers, mandolins, banjos and who knows what else -- one man held up a saw when emcee Steve Kaufman asked for unusual instruments.

Mr. Kaufman, aided by Aileen and Elkin Thomas, led the band through "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I Saw the Light," and "I'll Fly Away" -- all "in the universal key of G" -- but razzed guitarists about the ease of their chosen material:

"We're also going to play 'Black Mountain Rag' in the key of B-flat, so all you guitar players get ready," he said. "No capos. This band is really hot, I'd like to say."

Mr. Kaufman, three-time winner of the Walnut Valley Flatpick Guitar Championship, asked everyone to hold up their instruments for still and video cameras on a cherry-picker high over the area. A sea of mahogany obliterated the people.

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