Excerpts from .. 10 Questions for Russell Brace .. From the Kansas Bluegrass Association Newsletter – Aug 2021

How did Stage 5 come about and how has it evolved?
It was a cold and snowy day in the winter of 1986, Russell Brace and two friends headed south from Wichita to Mulvane, Kansas to pick up his new purchase .. a 1954 Chevrolet 4100 11⁄2 ton flatbed farm truck, complete with stake sides and cattle racks.
It was an unusual sight to see this old farm truck motoring through the modern streets of Wichita, but it was Russell’s only transportation. Naturally, as September rolled around, Russell loaded up the old truck and headed south again, this time to his annual vacation site .. the National Flat-Picking Championships in Winfield, Kansas. There, Russell would meet up with campmates Bob Ennis and Steve Keen in the Pecan Grove for a week of music, fun and friends. Another campmate Sherry Merry, would arrive later in the week.

While sitting around the campfire, Russell mentioned to Bob and Steve that “We should build a stage on the back of the old truck”. After some discussion, a plan was made, along with a list of needed supplies. The boys headed off to the local Winfield lumber yard and upon arriving realized they had forgotten the supply list. They quickly recreated the list, purchased the supplies and headed back to the Pecan Grove to begin work on the stage. After two days of labor intensive construction, a few hundred feet of rope, an old tarp and a cobbled together set of steps .. the stage was complete .. except for one thing .. naming the creation. Since the Walnut Valley Festival boasted four stages, Russell sat down with an old piece of plywood, a can of paint and brushed these words .. “Stage V”.

The boys were just putting the finishing touches on the stage when Sherry arrived at camp. Sherry had provided a banner to hang so she could find the camp when she arrived. The banner, which read “Hopelessly Lost At C” was hung prominently above the stage. The new stage was oriented among the tents and faced north towards 14th Street. Stage 5 and her first crew were born.

It became clear that just building a stage would not guarantee performers. It was a new concept that caught musicians off guard. A stage for amateur musicians to preform on at the Winfield festival was unheard of. The Stage 5 crew even resorted to bribing bands with homemade peach cobbler and hand churned ice cream for a few songs on the stage. By festivals end though it was obvious that Stage 5 was a hit. The Stage 5 Camp was honored in 1987 and 1988 with the Best Campsite Contest award. In 1989 from Stage 1 on Saturday night Bob Redford presented the Stage 5 crew with an official festival sign that read “Stage 5”.

Stage 5’s popularity has grown exponentially every year after her inception. The “Hopelessly Lost At C” theme was developed into the look of an old sailing ship with flags, sails, an anchor and lots of other nautical regalia. During this time “unplugged” music came to prominence, so the crew added a new banner/sail that read “Stage 5 – Cut Adrift”.

In 2007, after being the “Hopelessly Lost At C” Ship for 20 years, Stage 5 became a gypsy wagon, reflecting the spirit, diversity and personality of the expanded crew. Stage 5 remained the gypsy wagon until 2010.

The Stage 5 Motel appeared in 2011, the camps 25th year, complete with retro motel key fobs, individual soap, Do not Disturb door hangers and stickers that said “Stage 5 Motel .. More than just a one mic stand.”

Over the past thirty-five years Stage 5 has evolved in so many different ways. Aside from the physical look of the stage, the way that the sound is reproduced has evolved from a totally acoustic venue to the Acoustic Instrument Megaphones (AIM) designed by Steve Keen to full blown mics and monitors and big ass stacks of speakers to the two microphone/surround sound system that is currently in use.

Other evolutions include the handling of signing up for a time slot, length of the time slot, the daily schedule, hours of operation and the construction of the stage. In retrospect, a how-to build and operate a campground stage book would have been very handy. Stage 5 has faced much uncharted water over the life of this little campground stage, and as situations dictate the evolution will continue.

One thing that has remained the same, with the exception of the first year, is Stage 5 picks. Every September Stage 5 gives away hundreds of Stage 5 guitar picks. Each year with a unique design or color scheme.

So many memorable moments, and so many wonderful people and unsurpassed musicianship, weddings, engagements, memorials, funny songs, poignant songs, stunned silence on September 11 2001 .. then in remembrance and solidarity the passing of a ginormous American flag through the Stage 5 crowd while singing God Bless America. Hearing a favorite performer, experiencing a new favorite performer, seeing friends that you only see in September at the festival. Attending a golf cart drive-in movie, learning a new tune, playing an old fiddle tune, a laugh, a cry, a hug, a sad farewell at the end of a week long gathering all make for a treasure trove of memories. These are not exclusive to Stage 5 but to every camp at Winfield. The vibe of friendship, peace and love brought together by the love of music.

Throughout the years Stage 5 has hosted hundreds of hours and many different types of acoustic music. Stage 5 has even been the fodder for original music. Professional, amateur and even beginner musicians, have graced the hallowed wood of the old wheat trucks bed, while the notes and sounds have permeated the soul of the people who come to Stage 5 to play and listen alike.

Who does the set design?
Stage 5 has been through 3 major design changes:
The Sailing Ship: The original banner designed by Sherry Merry (now Sherry Brace) was emblazoned with “Hopelessly Lost At C” and it sported a piano keyboard that if you looked closely had two middle C’s. The banner supported the ship and sailing theme well and it was easy to add other nautical themed items to the design. A life ring that said “Hopelessly Lost At C”, an anchor with a statically placed G-clef, A large spinnaker shaped banner with the anchor logo on it, Several historic US navy flags, a ship steering wheel, and a set of naval alphabet flags that spelled out “STAGE 5” hand made by Sherry. ( I had great design ideas but I didn’t know how to sew.) Later we added a small triangle banner to the aft end of the ship that had a WVF Feisty logo and “Stage 5” painted on it. It was a sight from top to bottom nearly 20 feet tall.

The Gypsy Wagon: After 19 years of the sailing ship, my wife and I were ready for a change. The sailing ship was looking a bit tattered and torn and it was just time. Together we decided to make the change. I think I came upon with the original idea of the gypsy wagon., but the actual design and procurement of needed items was a team effort. We visited every Goodwill, DAV and second hand store in the Wichita area and found all of the cloth and materials that would make up the “interior” of the wagon. We were living in Goddard, KS at the time and had access to an old horse arena where we completed most of the trial and error designing. When we were mostly finished with the design and construction, we called a Stage 5 crew meeting (jam) for the weekend. When the crew was all in attendance we shuttled them to the horse barn for the grand unveiling of the Stage 5 Gypsy Wagon. It was all put together and we told them that their mission was to disassemble it so they would know how to construct it in the Pecan Grove in September. There were a few things that needed to be completed and the entire crew helped get the wagon ready to go.

Stage 5 Motel: 2011 ushered in the third iteration of Stage 5. In my youth I can remember vividly traveling by car and staying in motels along the way built with pale green painted cinder blocks, pinkish mauve doors and tons of red neon light lining the walkways outside the doors. We took this idea and superimposed it onto the Stage 5 truck .. and the Stage 5 Motel was born. What we found was that the motel idea leant itself to tons on ideas for generating swag and providing souvenirs for “guests” at the motel. We had small individually wrapped soaps, postcards that said “Greetings from the Pecan Grove, reversible Do Not Disturb door hangers that read “Do Not Disturb .. just got back from Stage 5 Motel” on one side and “I Can’t .. meet me at Stage 5 Motel”, stickers, Matchbooks with the Stage 5 Motel logo, and retro motel room key tags for room #5 .. of course. In the window of the motel room there is a guitar player (Craig Barber) and a fiddle player (Jordan Chavez). The motel comes complete with a white picket fence and sports a swimming pool from time to time. To the north of the Stage 5 Motel is the “Motel Office”, this is where we relax and eat.
If there is a short answer to the question I guess it would be that the entire crew is in on brainstorming, conceptualizing and construction of the sets and backdrops.

How do you sign up to play on Stage 5?
On Wednesday before the festival we have a sing-up for all three days (Thursday – Saturday). As band representatives assemble Wednesday morning we give them a number. And then do a lottery style drawing. We put numbers into a hopper and whichever number we pull out first gets to sign up first. We do reserve Saturday evening/night for selected bands/musicians. We call this “Stage 5 Picks” and the crew selects the bands for this time block. We do take CD or digital/internet submissions for the Stage 5 Picks .. just contact us via the Facebook page or the webpage and we can chat about the songs you want us to listen to. We also encounter bands throughout the year and invite them to come and play on Saturday night. Other than the Stage 5 Picks we only reserve spaces for our camp bands (there have been years we didn’t get a spot) and a few other bands that have been around since the beginning of Stage 5.

How many people does it take to run Stage 5?
In the early days it was 4 .. Bob Ennis, Steve Keen, Sherry Merry, and Russell Brace (this was the original crew). As the popularity of the stage grew we found that we needed more help to make things run efficiently. So now that number is 15. (The 2021 crew is: Russell, Sherry, Craig, Gwen, Curt, Dee, Kirby, Dulcie, Kenny, Christy, Dave S., Dave C, Little Jerry, A.J., Ben)

Have there been performances that stand out in your mind?
There have been so many great performances over the 33 years of Stage 5 but these few come to mind.

First and foremost, and above all else. Our gratitude to … every camp band, amateur band, kids spoon band that have ever graced the boards of Stage 5. These are the musicians that Stage 5 was created for. So they would have an outlet for their music and their talent. So that they could take the stage at the festival. These beginners and amateurs are the backbone of Stage 5. We love them and we are so happy that they are a part of our camp every year.

Split Lip Rayfield – I think 2006 was the year, it would be Kirk Rundstrom’s final performance on Stage 5. The crowd was massive the audience area was crammed full, 14th Street and the hillside were also as packed as I can remember, our neighboring camps were also overrun with people wanting to see this show … just 30 minutes and an encore that met with thunderous cheers and applause. Sadly Kirk passed in Feb. of 2007.

Beppe Gambetta – Beppe from Genoa, Italy played amazing shows year after year. But his first Stage 5 show was in 1985 which was coincidentally his first trip to Kansas. He wowed the crowd with his amazing solo guitar playing. Beppe was so pumped after he came off stage that he committed to play in every campsite that year … I think he did:)

The Byron Berline Band – The first year that Byron and the boys came to Stage 5 our friend Bart Patton from the Monkey Camp, just east of us, stopped by and said that he could talk to his uncle Byron about coming over to play a set. At the time I did not know that Byron was a master fiddler. It was an amazing show. Year after year Byron would bring friends along to share the stage. As a precaution we monitor and limit the number of people backstage in an effort to protect performers instruments and to not overwhelm them as they prepare for their set. One year Sherry was manning the gate as Byrons band was assembling and our friend and bluegrass radio host Orin Friesen approached and Sherry promptly let him backstage. Orin was followed by a gentleman that Sherry did not recognize and she politely denied him access. Orin noticed this and asked Sherry to please allow Dan Crary backstage. In Sherrys defense the lights from the Stage 2 area happened to be shining right in her eyes. Dan seemed to be a little apprehensive to even be in the Pecan Grove as he took the stage to overwhelming applause, after two songs Dan leaned to the mic and said “You all really know how to have fun out here.”

The Steel Wheels – In 2014 this band called The Steel Wheels made their first appearance on Stage 5. They had been the at the festival for two years prior and wanted to play Stage 5 but we didn’t know that information. On a whim, early in the week Stage 5’s Craig Barber made contact with them and asked if they could or wanted to play. They immediately responded YES!! They had just finished their Saturday night set on Stage 1 and ran to Stage 5. They just had time to unpack their instruments .. then took the stage. By now most of the audience was familiar with The Steel Wheels and were eagerly awaiting their set .. they knocked it out of the Pecan Grove. After their encore they were so jazzed and so full of the energy that only an appearance on Stage 5 can give, that they just hung around the camp as we all got to know each other. Sherry walked up to Trent and said “Hi I’m Sherry” and Trent responded with that dazzling smile of his “HI I’M TRENT!!”

The Wilders – they started out on Stage 5 as the Higher Strung String Band (If memory serves this was their first set ever) but they delivered every time they graced the stage. High energy, crowd engaging and raucous acoustic music.

Other sets of note: Tommy Emmanuel, Spontaneous Combustion, Live Bait, Comfortable Shoes, Kenny Cornell, Good Question, Randy Crouch, Zen Okies, Stillwater Camp, The Breakfast Sides, The DeWayn Bros … and the stellar list goes on.

What can you tell us about the truck?
The Stage 5 truck is a 1954 Chevrolet 4100 1½ ton farm truck. It was originally owned by the George Lawless family farm in Belle Plains, KS. My Army Reserve buddy Jim Nix bought it from them and drove it for a couple of years. When Jim told me that he was going to sell it I jumped at the chance. I have always been a fan of the 50’s models Chevrolets. During the time that we were negotiating the sale, my 74 Chevy Van was the victim of a rear end collision and I needed a new vehicle to drive. A price of $700.00 was agreed to and the rest as they say … is history

Can I get Stage 5 Merch?
Yes .. and no. As a general rule we do not have merchandise to sell. As we reside in the festival campgrounds, the rule about not selling merchandise applies to us too. Most of the things that we have are campground swag .. picks, stickers etc. We have offered shirts in the past and sold them by word of mouth and through our Facebook page. As our 35th year rolls around in 2022 we are considering offering some special anniversary apparel items. These will be available through our Facebook and webpages. https://www.facebook.com/Stage-5-45862622156 or www.cyberstage5.com (stage5.rocks)

Where did you get the idea for the Golf Cart Drive In?
The Stage 5 Golf Cart Drive-In Movie is the brain child of our friends at The Geezers of Anarchy Camp. Specifically, Kirby & Dulcie Guinty and Mark Scheltgen. A few years back they thought it would be a fun thing to do … they were right. Cartoons, popcorn, goodies of all types, vintage drive-in movie commercials and a full length feature presentation. There has even been talk about showing a different movie but we have not found one that fits as well with the vibe of the Pecan Grove and the festival. So until there is something else … I suppose that “O Brother Where Art Thou” will be the staple of the of the Stage 5 Golf Cart Drive-In Movie. If you haven’t been then you should come and cheer on the good guys, boo the bad guys, and sing along with all of the great songs.

Bonus Question: What can we expect for the 2021 festival?
… please stay tuned … 🙂