Skip to Main Content
Couple Dancing at Walla Walla Guitar Festival

Large fun in store at the Walla Walla Guitar Festival

By Vicki Hillhouse

A fun fact about the Walla Walla Guitar Festival that takes the stage every March: Founder Robin Barrett first started it, in part, to pay back musician friends who had helped him land gigs.

From returning favors, the event has grown into an annual concert series that over three days brings the riffs, licks, wails and bending strings of about 30 national regional and local musical acts — including Barrett’s own Coyote Kings — to different venues all within a downtown Walla Walla walking distance.

Barrett has played music professionally since 1977. He created the niche festival to help draw music-lovers at a time of year that’s typically short on major events.

Here are a few other details from Barrett you may not know about the festival:

What is the event?

The Walla Walla Guitar Festival is a three-day festival, including national acts and, at this point, more than 10 venues. It’s a collection of shows over the weekend with big shows on each day and something for everybody — blues, roots, funk R&B, rock ‘n’ roll.

We have an opening concert Friday with a kickoff party afterward. Saturday there’s an acoustic showcase before the large show and then the guitar crawl. On Sunday we have a gospel brunch and then jazz in the afternoon, which to me is a really nice way to wind down the weekend. I book three venues — the VFW, the Eagles and the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center ballroom. The others are tasting rooms, restaurants and venues that book their own acts and come into the marketing. I end up booking probably 15 to 20 bands.

Coyote Kings

How did the festival get its start?

People like Randy Oxford (horn-driven R&B/Americana band Randy Oxford Band) and Billy Stoops (swamp/roots band Junkyard Jane) — those guys were established in the Northwest scene with festivals, community events and that kind of thing. They helped me get Coyote Kings (pictured here) introduced into that scene — to get booked at some of those things. I was trying to figure out a way to pay them back. There was nothing going on at that point in Walla Walla. We had plenty of wine and food, but music was not a regular thing.

So I went to the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and Visit Walla Walla. Everybody I talked to said yes. It was a one-day event with a pre-fest party that tied in with it. I figured I’d do it, and if I didn’t end up losing money, I’d do it again. That’s where it got started in 2012.

How has the Walla Walla Guitar Festival changed over the years?

The first year it was 10 bands and two venues over a day. Now it’s three days with around 10 acts in 10 venues.

What makes Walla Walla a special place to host the festival?

 Nocking Point Winery

One great thing about the venues is that people get to have different experiences in each spot and with each band. All of the venues are different from each other, but they’re all connected by just a few blocks. Mixed in with the restaurants and shops, people can see and do a lot without going very far.

What might surprise people to learn about the event?

With the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic, we never had to shut down. We had the festival in March 2020, right before things were canceled. Then the next year, we moved to October, when events were allowed again. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to hold it every single year even while other things were closing down.