The first time Steve Kaufman went to the National Flatpicking Championships at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., in 1975, he was 17. He’d been playing guitar for eight years, off and on, but had only been flatpicking—essentially, playing an acoustic guitar with a pick, rather than your fingers—since hearing a Flatt and Scruggs album his brother had brought home a few years before. He’d been practicing up to eight hours a day in preparation and sharpening his skills at festivals, jam sessions, and contests.
“It’s scary as hell. It’s four minutes of eight months of work,” Kaufman says. September weather in the flatlands of Kansas can be unpredictable at best and often intolerable, and the flatpicking contest, like the rest of the Walnut Valley Festival, is outdoors. It was then, anyway. “You were on stage in front of a horse-track grandstand. It’s different now, but back then you were out in the elements. The judges were in some kind of trailer 90 feet away. The music’s piped in—it’s blind judging, so all they know is a number....I’d been in some regional contests in Connecticut and Virginia and went after the big one. I thought I’d do well, but all kids think that. I’d never seen other talent like was out there that first time.”
It was a fallow era for acoustic music. The folk revival of the late ’50s and ’60s that had presented Doc Watson, Leadbelly, and Clarence Ashley to college audiences had faded, but the progressive movement that would propel Alison Krauss, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Bela Fleck to stardom in the 1990s was still in its infancy. Walnut
Valley was one of the places where that scene was born. O’Connor, who would go on to a spectacular and prolific career as a fiddler, was the eventual winner that first year Kaufman competed. Krauss, Tony Furtado, Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, Bill Mize, and Ed Gerhard have all won in various categories.
Coming out of nowhere, Kaufman finished in the top 10. Two years later, he finished second. By 1986, he’d won the contest three times, and he’s still the only flatpicker to win that many championships. He’s among the best guitarists anywhere, in any style, and for almost 30 years he’s been passing his proficiency on. His grueling travel schedule takes him to workshops and concerts all over the world, and he’s racked up a vast archive of books and instructional DVDs. His summer camps bring more than 500 eager pickers to Blount County every summer. He’s become known as the World’s Guitar Teacher.
Kaufman was born in Connecticut in 1957. By the time he started going to the Walnut Valley Festival, he was, during the summers, at least, a semiprofessional itinerant guitar player. He hitchhiked from one festival to another, using the prize money from one weekend to live on until the next festival. In 1976, Kaufman met a guy from Maryville at a festival in Virginia. He asked Kaufman to come to East Tennessee to teach with him. Getting off the festival circuit and into the classroom was an easy decision back then, he says.
“I was an out-of-work guitar player. That’s what you do.”
That partnership lasted about a year, but by the time they split Kaufman was settled in Blount County—and on his way to becoming one of the most prolific and acclaimed guitar instructors in the country.
In 1977, the year he finished second to O’Connor in the flatpicking championships, he hooked up in Maryville with Tommy Covington, a veteran of the Midday Merry-Go-Round. “He taught me how to teach,” Kaufman says. “He told me, ‘You can teach any instrument as long as you understand it and can hear it.’ Pretty soon I was teaching guitar and mandolin, then banjo and bass. I even had some fiddle students.”
Three decades later, Kaufman has created his own flatpicking industry of workshops, instructional camps, books, DVDs, concerts, and the restored Palace Theater in downtown Maryville. It’s a modest empire—nobody gets rich from teaching acoustic guitar—but one of enormous reach and significance inside the guitar community. Kaufman has written dozens of instruction manuals and starred in nearly as many DVDs, recorded a dozen or so solo CDs and cassettes, traveled all across the country and to Europe and Japan for concerts and workshops, and has hosted the award-winning Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamps every June since 1995. (Last year the two weeks of camps—for guitar, dobro, bass, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin—had more than 700 students and won a gold medal from readers of Acoustic Guitar magazine. There will be fewer this year, because of construction at the performing arts center at Maryville College.) His students have included Mike Whitehead and Cody Kilby, both national champions themselves, and Tom Paxton, one of the founders of the Greenwich Village folk scene. During his seasons—most years it’s January, March through May, and August through November—Kaufman is on the road every weekend. He teaches workshops on Friday and Saturday afternoons and performs on Sundays.
His business is defined by a cornball humor. His newsletter is called Steve Kaufman’s Flatpicking Hotline: A Misleading Publication; he wears a cowboy hat in his bluegrass videos; on the cover of his CD The Arkansas Traveler, he’s standing next to an open guitar case with his thumb out and a hand-lettered sign that reads, “Fort Smith.” His website has several pages of banjo jokes: “A man enters the bank carrying his banjo, walks up to the teller, and says, ‘Give me all the money, or I’ll start playing!”
His status as the so-called World’s Guitar Teacher has overshadowed his own performances in the last decade, but he’s a fleet and deft picker. He’s not a songwriter, and his interpretations are more impressive for their technical expertise than their originality or artistic vision. But there’s no denying his prowess. Doc Watson, the giant of American flatpicking, has said, “The boy can pick.”
Until the early 20th century, the guitar was primarily a rhythm instrument. When its role was expanded to a lead instrument, two distinct styles emerged—fingerstyle, using only the fingers, as Chet Atkins and Merle Travis did, and flatpicking, which has become identified particularly with bluegrass.
“It’s obvious right there in the name,” Kaufman says. “If you’re flatpicking, you’re probably playing acoustic roots music, probably doing solos, but not necessarily. You’ve heard them call a guitar a flat-top box? If you call it that, that makes you a bluegrass guitar player.”
But Kaufman is hardly limited to bluegrass. His repertoire includes pop songs, classical music, folk songs, and just about anything else he can transcribe for flatpick guitar.
“My set list includes ‘Classical Gas’ and ‘Black Mountain Rag’—those are both on the new CD, Mystique,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll do a couple of Beatles tunes, a couple of polkas. Those are pretty demanding. Ry Cooder’s ‘Fishing,’ a couple of novelty songs to keep the families happy and laughing....I’m not limited by flatpicking,” he says. “I can play with the speed of flamenco or do some blues stuff. I may not have the imagination to do anything, but I’m not limited by using a plectrum. [Flatpicking] is the hardest style to get down. I didn’t look at it that way when I was growing up, but I see it now.”
In 1999, Kaufman and his wife, Donna, bought the old Palace Theater on Broadway in Maryville. They painstakingly restored the building, which was built in 1868 and had served as a theater, a drug store, and a carpet store. In 2001, with a new facade and a coffee shop in the lobby, the new Palace Theater opened as a venue for live acoustic music. Kaufman has lined up the Irish violinist Jamie Laval and mandolin player Ashley Broder for Saturday, March 1, and Appalachian songwriter Michael Reno Harrell on Saturday, March 15. Kaufman will perform at the Palace on Saturday, Feb. 16.
“We try to produce two shows a month,” Kaufman says. “You don’t make money in this business, particularly the way we do it. It’s our hobby. I’m happy with two shows a month.”