March 15, 2014

Champion Picker

by Jim Newsom

The Walnut Valley Festival brings throngs of folks to Winfield, Kansas, every September for five days of bluegrass and acoustic music performances, and a series of competitions among players and pickers to crown a “national champion” on various instruments. The headline event is the National Flat Pick Guitar Championship. Steve Kaufman, who comes to Virginia Beach for a concert and workshops March 22-23, has worn the crown three times.

“You are only a number,” he explained recently. “You can’t speak onstage; the judges are about a hundred yards away in a trailer. You play two tunes. You can have a backup guitarist, but they don’t even have a mike. It’s only you going out to the judges. Out of that first round, they cut it down to five. Then you do two more tunes and they place them in order. And that’s it. When you win it, you are barred for the next five years.”

His first win came in 1978, when he was just twenty one years old.

“I was raised in New Jersey,” he said. “As soon as I got out of high school, the next day, my friends put me on I-80 westbound, and I started hitchhiking through the festival season going to guitar contests. Every weekend was another guitar contest. I would just stick my thumb out and go on. I did that through the summer until it was Winfield time, which is the end of the season in September.

“I graduated in ’75, so the first time I entered it I finished in the top ten. The next year I didn’t get anything. In ’77 I was second to Mark O’Connor. So he was barred and I came back in ’78 and won.”

What does one do as National Flat Pick Champion?

“I got my degree,” he replied. “It proves that I knew what I was doing, but it doesn’t say that I can do anything more with it. Then you have to create what actually happens from that. For example, the first time I won it, they said ‘we’re gonna set up a tour of Europe and we’ve got all these record deals in place for you.’ Then you sit by the phone waiting and it just gets dusty. After the second one, a friend of mine said ‘you really need to do something with this.’ I was teaching private lessons, about eighty five a week. After I won the third time, I hooked up with Homespun and Mel Bay, and that’s really where things changed for me.

“I’d been teaching private for so long, and each lesson was a handwritten custom lesson for that person, one after another, seventeen a day. So I got good at writing things down quick. When I did my first book for Mel Bay, they said, ‘Can you write us a championship level guitar flatpicking book?’ I said ‘yes’ and I wrote it out in a month. It’s still a best seller called Championship Flatpicking Guitar.

“I designed a course for Homespun called Bluegrass Guitar Solos Every Parking Lot Picker Should Know, which are just jam tunes that everybody plays, but there were three different levels. I decided to put the three levels into one book so the student could progress. It’s been their number one seller since ’91. I don’t know how many books I’ve got out now; I know it’s over a hundred.”

Steve and his wife Donna have become important economic drivers for their adopted hometown of Maryville, Tennessee. They purchased and renovated the Palace Theater there, turning it into a first class performance venue, and every summer they draw musicians from around the world to Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp at Maryville College.

“We bought the theater in 1999,” he said, “and restored it back to what it was when it opened up in ’34. It’s pretty cool. You have to picture our downtown—it’s three blocks long and in its heyday in the ‘30s, the sidewalks were twelve feet wide on either side of the road, and they still had hitching posts on the street. On a Saturday, you could not pass people on the sidewalk, you had to pass them on the street because there was so much commerce going on.

“When we bought it, it had been deserted for about twenty five years. It was nasty. We were the first to buy in that downtown area. We were like the catalyst. Now, we can’t even find a parking place nearby because all of the buildings are occupied and restored.”

Steve Kaufman is that rare musician who has found a way to make a living doing what he loves while still being an involved husband and father:

“When my son was born, who is twenty one now, I would go off to teach in the morning and he’d be asleep, and when I came home at night he was asleep. I realized I was gonna miss everything if I didn’t change. So I started booking myself up on the weekends. That gave me Monday-through-Thursday off. I could take him to school, help him with his homework, go to practices. This whole weekend thing started because I wanted to be a dad.

“I would call a group or a music store and begin to explain who I was, and they’d say they already knew me because they stocked my Mel Bay books. I was cold-calling but it wasn’t like I had to introduce myself. Once I booked a year in advance, I started backing off my students. And I’ve been going out for eighteen years booking every weekend that I have available.”

Steve Kaufman
March 22 – 7:00 pm: Concert at the Meyera Oberndorf Central Library
March 22 – 11:00 am: Mandolin Workshop
March 23 – 1:30 pm: Flatpicking Workshop
Tickets and Information: (757)626-3655; tidewateracoustic.org

copyright © 2014 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.