Winstock memories: a country music college

June 3, 2013

by Ryan Gueningsman

I did not attend the first-ever Winstock Country Music Festival in June 1994. I believe we were on a family vacation at the time, and I would have been 10 years old.

However, the next year, my parents took me to Winstock, and it’s safe to say I have been hooked ever since.

One of the things I remember from that year is singers Sammy Kershaw and Michelle Wright sitting in their tour buses in the backstage area, signing autographs for anyone who could get something brought back to them.

I also remember the kindness of Boy Howdy lead singer Jeffrey Steele, making sure every last autograph was signed. And, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was there, so it must have rained.

By the next year, I had begun hanging out at the newspaper, and had somehow talked my way into sitting in on an interview with the legendary Charlie Daniels.

Considering the impact Winstock has gone on to have in my life, it is probably fitting the first article I ever had published was when Stephanie Bentley was added to the Winstock ‘97 lineup. I would have been 13 at the time.

I remember being blown away that year by performances by BlackHawk and Little Texas; two of the hottest groups in country music at the time, and there they were, playing in our backyard.

The first interview I conducted with a Winstock artist was in 1998, with Michael Peterson. He was a singer who looked to be on the rise, and had a couple of hits by the time he performed at Winstock that year. Though his career never took off to the magnitude I felt it should, Peterson remains active in music and motivational speaking.

I had the chance to visit with Peterson again in 2010, when he did a small show in St. Paul, and showed him the photo of he and I that was taken at Winstock that year. It was obvious when both of us looked at that picture that a few years had passed.

In 2000, I had tried in earnest to land a phone interview with another country icon – Merle Haggard. I was shot down by everyone I had attempted to go through.

“He doesn’t do that anymore,” I was told.

Well, I decided to try once more at Winstock. I got up the nerve to introduce myself to Haggard’s tour manager, told him I had attempted to set up an interview with Haggard, but had been shot down, and asked if there would be any chance at all to chat a few minutes with the legend.

The manager told me that Haggard was in a pretty good mood that day, and told me and my editor at the time, Jane Otto, to stop back by the tour bus a few minutes after Haggard walked off stage.

Sure enough, that same manager stuck his head out the bus door, pointed at Jane and me, and invited us on board. Next thing we knew, we were sitting on Haggard’s tour bus speaking with him about music and life.

Talk about a career highlight at age 16. I am not sure if that one is ever going to be topped.

The next year, in 2001, I had landed an interview with an up-and-coming group that had its first hit on the radio called “Prayin’ for Daylight.” The interview was to be done on their tour bus prior to their show.

I had everything prepared and was about halfway through a great interview when I realized my tape recorder had quit. The guys in Rascal Flatts laughed it off, and we basically did the entire interview over after I found replacement batteries and somehow got the thing working again.

I’ve been going to Winstock Rumble nights since before I was old enough to get into a bar. In an interview found elsewhere in today’s paper, Nick Hoffman of The Farm said touring with Kenny Chesney was like his “college of country music.”

Winstock was and continues to be my “college of country music” as I continue to grow right along with the festival and appreciate every opportunity that it presents.

When one looks back at the impact the festival has had on so many people in the Winsted community, it is quite unbelievable. I bet Judy Langenfeld never would have guessed 22 years ago that she would spend 20 years working with tour and production managers of country music’s top artists.

Judy’s husband, Dick, and Tom Ollig brainstormed the idea that became Winstock after a Holy Trinity budget meeting more than 20 years ago to raise funds for the school.

I’m not sure either of them could have envisioned what the festival has become today, though they certainly had high hopes and big dreams.

All of their hard work has paid off, as Winstock not only celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, but also a Winstock first – a complete sellout.

Talk about a fundraiser.

And, talk about the people. The first few years, it was said there was more security than attendees. Now, for that one weekend in June, Winsted becomes home to thousands of country music lovers from across the country. One gentleman I know drives from Washington state every year to be at Winstock.

A neat part of Winstock is seeing people whom one only sees once per year – at the festival. I think anyone who volunteers at Winstock probably has folks like this.

For me, the group from Verndale with whom I’ve visited every year stands out, as does Karla and the Kimball clan, Cathy and her friends, and also my security guard buddy who everyone calls “Humpy.” To this day, I’ll admit I do not know his real name, but he is one of the nicest guys one will ever meet.

People like Judy, Dick, Tom, the rest of the committee, and every single volunteer who does anything to support Winstock are really what makes the event so special. There are many festivals out there, but I am not aware of another of this magnitude that is organized by volunteers.

I came across a backstage pass that was given to me in the ‘90s that had my name on it, and labeled me as “Tom’s Shadow.” I was pretty much someone who was underfoot and in the way as much as possible, and probably wouldn’t stop bugging people, so I was finally given a backstage pass.

Even though I’ll be turning 30 next year, I still don’t consider myself grown up, and I probably am still underfoot and in the way from time to time, but I can’t help but look back on all the great memories and opportunities this festival has given me over the years.

Herald Journal has a small group of Winstock committee folks with whom the company works for Winstock – Dave Danielson, Butch Amundsen, Steve Laxen, and Bonnie Quast. Winstock also has one of the most-respected promoters in the industry in Gary Marx.

I’ve learned, and continue to learn, from this group and from Tom and LuAnn Ollig and Dick and Judy Langenfeld.

Like Chesney did with Hoffman, these people have given me a true country music college, and I will forever have a deep appreciation for that.

From, “Tom’s Shadow.”