Today the Western Hills Bluegrass Festival will kick off for the 41st time. The festival is held at Western Hills Guest Lodge in Sequoyah Park near Wagoner. If you have never attended, this is a great, all ages, entertaining event that features regional bluegrass bands that touch all styles of music.
The original concept for the festival dates to 1979. Three couples, Don and Wilda Thomas, Bob and Murel Wackerly, and Stan and Bonnie Stamback, had been attending a December festival and awards show in Missouri for several years and felt there was a need for something similar in Oklahoma. Oklahoma had several bluegrass festivals that had become popular on the circuit in McAlester, Hugo, Duncan, and Langley. There were bluegrass organizations in the area that hosted other events during the spring, summer and fall. But there seemed to be a void for the winter months.
Don Thomas was a well-known, hard-driving banjo player from Shawnee. His band, The Arbuckle Mountain Boys, had been traveling the USA playing festivals and building a large network of fans and friends. After brainstorming with the State Department of Tourism, the group decided to start this event at Western Hills. The first festival kicked off on Friday, January 18, 1980 and ran through Saturday, ending with a devotional program on Sunday.
Eventually, the Sunday program was replaced by the Thursday gospel night. Thursday night still is one of the biggest nights of the event! The bands for the 1980 event included Tennessee Gentlemen, Parker Mountain Bluegrass, The Campbells, The Arbuckles and Blue Mountain Boys
My first time to attend was 1982. Friends had turned me on to the talent of Don Thomas in 1980. As a young banjo student, I was immediately captured by his drive, speed, and unique style of playing a banjo. He and his sons also manufactured custom banjos in Shawnee, for which I acquired for the first time in 1981. When Don delivered my banjo at a truck stop café on I-40. The smell of fresh lacquer still comes to mind when I recall how he pulled out my new custom banjo and ripped off licks that seemed light years away to me!
Fast forward a few years, and a few thousand hours on the banjo, I found myself starting a band in Nashville, Tennessee, with Don’s son, Steve. Steve made the move to Nashville to be a songwriter in 1986 and I moved in 1989. A chance encounter reconnected us and soon we were working on a new band, Free Wheel Drive with Gregg Lee and Steve Story. We made our first appearance at Western Hills in 1991, appearing every year through 2010 although our name had eventually changed to The Neverly Hillbillies.
Western Hills was always a highlight for me to play. The best way to experience the festival was to get a room and hang there for 2-3 days. The workshops and shows were great, but the lobby, halls, and many banquet rooms were packed with various jam sessions that went on into the early morning. More than once I saw the sun come up from jamming with Don all night long. Many musicians have worked the stage at Western Hills and found national success, such as Rhonda Vincent and Darren Vincent (Daily & Vincent). Others have gone on to work with acts such as Ricky Skaggs, The Osborne Brothers, and many others. Fiddler Shawn Camp went on to not only become a great country solo artist, but penned tunes for Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, and Josh Turner.
Out of the three couples that started Western Hills Bluegrass Festival, only Wilda Thomas survives. Now aided by her children, the festival is as strong as ever, and for 2020, new and old bands (and styles) will be featured. The Neverly Hillbillies will return for a Saturday night show. Two Muskogee-based bands, Springstreet and Mike Davis & The Bluegrass Travelers will both perform Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Heartland Express out of Tulsa has also returned all three days. A new upcoming group out of Oklahoma City, Steelwind, will be making their first appearance on Friday. With much original music and lot of young talent, they have become one of my favorites in the area (and I had the pleasure of recording on their CD, F5 a few years back). They will continue to go places with their style of bluegrass and this will be a great opportunity to see them in this area. The Begonias, from Tulsa, will also be making their first appearance on Friday. The style of acoustic music is reminiscent of the 1940s big band era with some great standards. Coincidently, Ricky Bentley, who fronts this group, conducted the banjo workshop when I first attended in 1982. The talent is completed by Roving Gamblers, The Horn Family, and The Foust Family. It will be a great weekend of music!