The Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield has been a destination and melting pot for musicians, fans, and vendors since it began in 1972.
Among other events, musicians compete on various instruments in different categories. Winners receive prizes specific to their category.
For the past two years, one Marion local has donated violins of his own creation to serve as prizes to one of the top three fiddlers at Winfield.
Mark Wilcox explained that the first place player gets a choice out of three violins. The second place player gets their choice of the reming two, and the third place finisher gets the remaining violin.
“The violin I contributed last year was chosen by the player that got second place,” Wilcox said. “This year the same guy got second place out of 25 players and the same guy picked my violin again.”
That violinist’s name was Roger Netherton. He is a 17-year-old violin player that attends college at the University of Missouri. His mother and agent, Robin Netherton, said that Roger has plans to use one of the Wilcox violins for performance.
“Last year Roger chose the fiddle because he wanted an American-made fiddle,” Netherton said. “When he got home and played it, he knew that it was of such a good quality that he would pick it again if he got the chance.”
When she and Roger took Wilcox’s violin to a top lutheir —a violin maker — in St. Louis to have its value appraised, Netherton said the luthier informed them that Wilcox’s violin was clearly a high quality instrument, maybe even better than the violin Roger was playing at the time.
When one hears the degree of care and attention to detail Wilcox puts into each instrument, it becomes apparent that Roger’s choice is a wise one.
Wilcox has been both a carpenter and a violinist for a good portion of his life. He constructed a variety of cabinets, tables, and other furniture for about 20 years, and all the while, kept up with his fiddling skills.
In the past 10 years, he decided to marry his two major pastimes and become a violin luthier.
“I’m on my 40th violin,” Wilcox said. “They begin to stack up.”
Wilcox became familiar with wood while working with furniture but said he had to learn a lot of little moves like marking the scrolls — the spiraling portion of the head of the violin — and bending 1-mm-thick ribs along the way.
To further his understanding of the craft, Wilcox said he has attended countless workshops, where he received constructive criticism about his violins from musicians and other luthiers.
“You know what they say,” Wicox said. “A good carpenter can repair anything.”
He usually starts with a design patterned after either a 1734 Guarneri or a 1704 Stradivari. He selects both attractive and well-seasoned woods; his favorite is Engelmann spruce.
Wilcox said he pays close attention to the arching and the thickness of the wood.
“You want the wood thin but not flabby,” he said.
He tries to produce a violin that has evenness across all four strings and a pleasing, complex sound. He also likes his instruments to project well.
He spends about 180 to 200 hours constructing each violin and usually makes two at a time.
“I take about 15 pages of meticulously written notes on each violin,” Wilcox said. “It really helps when I want to go back and see the process I used to get a particular color I liked or found a tuning frequency.”
Wilcox has sold several violins since he started crafting them. One he sold on consignment out of a shop in New Braunfels, Texas to a player who gigs regularly in Dallas. Another he sold to Charlie Laughridge, a violinist who performs with Tallgrass Express — a bluegrass band that performs locally.
“I’ve played a bunch of different violins,” Laughridge said. “I’m just an average player, but I’ve played violins for 30 years. I wanted a violin that sounded good in the upper register. Wilcox’s sounded great to me.”
Wilcox plans to trade another violin for exposure at Winfield next year, he said. In the meantime, he plans to attend more workshops, conventions, and contests in order to hone his craft and get his instruments out to players who might like what they hear when they play a Wilcox.