Musicians Hone Their Craft at Annual Winlock Pickers’ Fest

Workshop: Attendees Learn From Professionals Such as Mark Johnson, Who Plays Banjo With Comedian Steve Martin

By Kyle Spurr /

WINLOCK — Local musicians gathered under the trees at Winolequa Park this weekend to play their guitars, banjos and mandolins during the three-day Winlock Pickers’ Fest.

The 13th annual event, hosted by the Winlock Acoustic Music Association, offered those in attendance one-on-one workshops with professional musicians, open microphone jam sessions and live performances each night.

“It’s all about the music,” Marv Sobolesky, the WAMA president, said.

The headliners at the festival were Emory Lester, a mandolin player from Ontario, Canada, and Mark Johnson, a banjo player from Florida. The two musicians have performed together for 14 years.

Johnson, who regularly teaches and plays the banjo with comedian Steve Martin, recently won Martin’s Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

As the third annual recipient of the prize, Johnson won $50,000 from Martin, received a bronze sculpture and performed with Martin on “The Late Show with David Letterman” last September.

“Every time I listen to one of his records,” Martin told The New York Times about Johnson, “I think, wow, this is the sound of the banjo that made me fall in love with it.”

Johnson, who played Friday and Saturday night with Lester at the Pickers’ Fest, first reached out to Martin in 2009. He sent Martin a CD and a letter thanking him for his music. Martin responded by sending his own CD and the two have become “Banjo Geeks” together ever since, Johnson said.

“He is a decent man and he loves people in this genre of music,” Johnson said about Martin. “He is fascinated with the power of these musicians. He just likes common people like us.”

Johnson performed in Lewis County once before. He and Lester competed in the Washington State Bluegrass Championship at Yard Birds in Chehalis about eight years ago.

Spending the weekend teaching the banjo and performing in Winlock was a nice change of pace for Johnson and Lester.

“I’m just fascinated with how beautiful it is,” Johnson said.

Sobolesky said when the WAMA started the festival in 2001 in Winlock, they had a no money for a budget. This year, the group of about 100 members had $4,000 to offer the acts that played.

Other performers at the acoustic festival included Rose in the Heather, a Celtic group from Portland, The Loafers, a string band also hailing from Portland, and Blue Pickup, a bluegrass group from the Olympia area.

Misty Mamas, a bluegrass, gospel and folk ensemble of women from the Vancouver and Portland area, played and sang harmony.

“They are able to bring in some high dollar performers,” Dan Lockwood, a musician from Woodland, said. “It’s always neat to learn more. The festival offers a lot of ways to meet people, jam and have fun.”


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