The Wilders add long-lasting flavor to the Santa Fe Trails Bluegrass Festival's lineup.

Wilder at Heart 

The Wilders add long-lasting flavor to the Santa Fe Trails Bluegrass Festival's lineup.

Sure, the National Agricultural Hall of Fame is great, but the historic setting is only one part of what makes the Santa Fe Trails Bluegrass Festival in Bonner Springs so overwhelming. And though it's often outstanding, the music is just another element of the Wyandotte County sensory spectacular (who woulda thunk it?) known collectively as "Kansas City's Americana Weekend." Weather permitting, the Prairie Winds Kite Festival sends swoops of color into attendees' peripheral vision throughout the weekend. In addition to the joyful, artery-clogging smell of funnel cakes, there are wafts of wood smoke and meat from the Blue Devil Barbecue Cook-Off. The whole thing's a little surreal -- what an Oz theme park would be if it really felt like Kansas.

As you get closer, the music is what grabs you. Strands of old-time bluegrass, country and folk music pull listeners in four or five directions at once, and it's hard to resist scrambling around like a toddler, trying to find the best thing going on at any given moment.

And at any given moment, it's mathematically probable that the best thing will be coming from the Wilders, a Kansas City-based country/bluegrass band that's been hip-deep in the local festival scene for years. As singer and guitarist Ike Sheldon says, "During the summer, almost every weekend we're somewhere."

When the group's members perform, they give it their all. "When we get back to the campground or to the hotel room, we're just drenched with sweat and so tired ... we don't hold anything back," Sheldon says.

With burning-fiddle tunes such as "Rabbit up a Gum Stump" and "Give the Fiddler a Dram," old Hank Williams numbers like "You're Gonna Change (or I'm Gonna Leave)" and somber, soul-rattling hymns, the Wilders bring a former era back to life -- all while avoiding the trap of playing like living antiques.

"One of the things I like about the Wilders," says Sheldon, "is finding songs that we really like and then doing them with our own spin -- finding that fine line where it has respect for tradition but a freshness to it. If you try to do it completely crazy and different, then you lose that thing that country music has: a depth that makes you say, 'That has roots; that's standing on something, like some stone edifice.'"

The Wilders definitely have their own style, dressing Western sharp for every show. Fiddler Betse Ellis wears dresses that would be perfect for a '30s promotional glossy. Banjo, mandolin and dobro player Phil Wade runs his hat between his fingers between songs like a man who has worn snap-brims all his life, and bass player Nate Gawron, the youngster of the bunch, lets his grin do most of the style work.

"When we started doing this, we thought, 'Let's dress up like it's a privilege to be onstage,'" Sheldon explains. "You need to give people something to watch. If you're audacious enough to stand up there and say, 'Hey, everybody, check this out,' you need to have something for them to check out." Sheldon, who often dons a three-piece suit, brings an element of old-style string-band shows to the stage, engaging the crowd with continual wisecracks, apologies, playful bickering and jokes. "We got comfortable with talking onstage, and it just made more of a show," he says. "We want people to have a good time."

Watching the Wilders play as they move gracefully around a single microphone is an entertaining spectacle in itself. (For the record, the Wilders were doing the single-mic thing way before the single-mic thing was cool.) "It's the rage now," Sheldon says. "We go to festivals, and it's not weird anymore. But when we were first going to festivals, we'd say, 'We do a single microphone,' and they'd say, 'What? We have eight mics set up here --why don't you want to just stand in front of those?' We'd think, 'Because it's boring -- it's terrible to watch.' We started to use that single mic, and that completely changed our band, because we could move around. We could get into it and start bouncing around."

That microphone also pulled them that much closer as a band -- literally. "With that mic, you don't get any monitors," Sheldon says, "so if you're going to hear each other, you've got to be right on top of each other. When we're playing, [Betse's] fiddle bow is right here," he says, pointing to a spot in the air an inch or so from his eye. "I can put out my arms and touch everyone in the band.

"When we started doing that, we became 100 percent better as a band," Sheldon says emphatically. "We could hear each other so much better. We all know what each other is doing because we're right there."

Like many musicians currently immersed in classic Americana, the Wilders' members haven't always been drinking from the well of tradition. "We'd been playing music together in different bands since 1993 -- totally different music than this," Sheldon remembers. "I was in a band called the Young Johnny Carson Story; we were this completely nerdy pop trio."

That trio often shared the bill with Phil and Betse's duo. "Toward the end, when those groups were winding down, it was really serendipitous," Sheldon says. "I went to see Phil, and he said, 'Man, I've been listening to some bluegrass lately, and it's really cool.' I told him, 'I've been getting my old country records out lately and learning some of those.' Betse was getting into these old fiddle tunes. We all sort of learned as it went."

About two and a half years ago, the group found a permanent bass player. "We saw Nate playing bass with Sandoval, and he had his band Chickenhoof going at that time -- he was just a ridiculous funk-bass player, just so good. We were talking about who we might get and thought, 'We need some youthful energy with this,'" Sheldon says.

The match has worked well. "He can just totally hit our honky-tonk stuff," Sheldon raves. "He really drives that -- the walking bass lines and the swing of it."

The Wilders have a seemingly limitless repertoire. Sheldon tells stories of the group's playing the Bluegrass Inn in Nashville, Tennessee, a gig at which breaks are pretty much prohibited, for four hours nonstop, never repeating a tune and still leaving out a lot of songs it knows. It's possible to watch every Wilders show at the festival and never hear the same song twice.

Of course, the Wilders won't be the only act at the festival. This weekend's lineup features former Newgrass Revival singer John Cowan and his band, with special guest Vassar Clements, as well as other national and regional acts, such as Big Twang, Bluegrass Brigade and Marley's Ghost. Several other local acts, including cowboy stylists Bluestem, acoustic blues outfit Rain Dogs, "baby-boomer bluegrass" players Spontaneous Combustion and the more traditional Bluegrass Missourians, will keep the music going almost constantly. Sheldon himself will take his role as host of the Grand Emporium's Monday Rural Grit Happy Hour to the festival's "Rural Grit" stage, featuring Dale Frazier, Trouble in Mind, the Oxnard Twins and others from the Rural Grit stable.

Still, as Sheldon, a longtime festival veteran, notes, "Some of the best stuff you're going to hear is when you're walking around at 2:00 in the afternoon and you see some old guy leaning against a tree playing claw-hammer banjo." Those moments, when one musician passes something on to the next, are exactly what make such festivals worthwhile.

"Betse has definitely learned fiddle tunes from watching people play," Sheldon says. "She'll get up there and listen, join in, and within five or ten minutes she'll know the song." The next time the festival swings through town, that tune might very well be the first song you hear drifting over on the Wyandotte County breeze.

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