Local music store owner named National Mandolin Champion

By Jamie O'Toole I Contributor

DeKALB — Wesley Carr looped in and out of Ax in Hand’s acoustic guitar room, chasing his two year-old daughter around the store while juggling the arrangement of guitars and the placement of his two mandolins. After putting her in her playpen in a back room of the store, he proceeded to give his mandolin a “haircut” and trim the excess string. 

Carr and the mandolin have always had an intimate relationship. Growing up he remembers staying up late one night at 10 years old with his older brother, watching TV at maybe 2 a.m. The TV illuminated their restless, young faces. They watched many music videos throughout the night, but the video for “This Side” by Nickel Creek stood out. One of the band members strummed a mandolin, introducing Carr to the instrument for the first time and catching his eye. 

“It was the coolest looking instrument I’d ever seen,” Carr said with a grin and a slightly raised eyebrow as he recalled the fond memory

His first encounter with the mandolin stuck with him for three more years until he finally decided to pick one up and learn at the age of 13. Other instruments Carr can play include the fiddle, banjo, resinator, bass guitar and ukulele; however, if he had to choose a favorite to perform it would, without a doubt, be the mandolin, as he is most comfortable playing it

Getting up on stage in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people who came to watch him play, he’s going to choose his best form of communication. The mandolin is his first language. At home, messing around, Carr opts for the fiddle, because he knows he’s not as skilled, and he doesn’t have to be hard on himself. In the confines of his home, he’s free to “fiddle around” and mess up without the expectation of performing perfectly as a national mandolin champion.

Hunched over in a small wooden chair, four walls surround Carr; two of which are covered in acoustic guitars, ranging in prices, and ukeles painted in vibrant colors. Carr crossed his feet and put his mandolin on his lap to begin strumming St. Anne’s Reel, one of the songs he chose to play for his 2019 competition. Along with St. Anne’s Reel he also played Mr. Sandman, Blue Skies, and Tarantella at the competition. 


His entire body stayed still as he moved his mandolin pick through the strings, gently moving his other hand across the neck. As the music left the instrument, Carr bobbed his head to the tunes and did not look at the cameras in front of him or the small circle of people watching his every move, also enjoying the music with him. In that moment it was him and his mandolin, and no one else.

The competition is formally known as the Walnut Valley Festival, held in Winfield, Kansas. Contestants are not required to write their own songs, but certainly can. The musician can even choose a traditional 300 year old song, but must give the song their own creative spin, making it new and in a way judges have not heard before.

Like the Super Bowl for football players, the West Valley Festival Championship is a big deal in the bluegrass string community, Carr said.

The festival hosts the annual competition for International Autoharp, National Mandolin, National Mountain Dulcimer, National Hammered Dulcimer, National Bluegrass Banjo and Walnut Valley Old Time Fiddle Championships, according to the Walnut Valley Festival website. Over the course of years, contests have attracted more than 3,000 contestants from all 50 states as well as many foreign countries including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, England, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Caledonia, Switzerland and Wales.

For each bluegrass contest, the limit is 40 contestants. The score is split four ways into 100 points, those being 40 points per arrangement. Difficulty and originality are considered, according to the festival’s website. There’s 40 points for execution and tuning; 10 points for show value, which looks at how the musician breathes life into the audience with their performance. Lastly, the competition considers the overall impression which is worth 10 points.

Carr noticed, after three years of competing, that competitors often focus their energy on playing quickly, overlooking elements such as groove, tone, dynamics and articulation

“You can do very well if you’re not focusing on just the gymnastics of music as much as just making really good music,” Carr said.

Being named the 2019 Mandolin Champion came unexpectedly because winning was not on Carr’s radar this year. Truth be told, Carr didn’t believe he could make it to the finals because for every other competition prior, he’d never made it that far. 

Before the 2019 competition, Carr took two years away from mandolin competitions and instead competed with the guitar. Last year he did not compete at all, despite having guitar tunes picked out, because of his daughter’s illness. 

Deciding to make an appearance in 2019, Carr prepped tunes on the mandolin instead, so when he made it to the finals he felt contentment and pride. This took a lot of the pressure off for the rest of the competition, he said. 

Carr recalls being the person who took it the least seriously, cracking jokes with other competitors in the back, anxiously awaiting their last performance. After Carr’s win, thousands of people wanted to hear him strum, take pictures and do interviews. Just 30 minutes before finding out he won, he was walking through the festival unrecognizable and a complete nobody. 

Before becoming a National Mandolin Champion, Carr’s journey started in the heart of Dekalb, at Ax in Hand. When he was just 13 years old, the same age he began playing mandolin, Carr began venturing to the guitar store to browse and play some tunes. Once he got his driver’s license, his visits became more frequent and then daily while he attended NIU from 2009 to 2013. 

Eventually, the owner at the time asked Carr to start teaching kids how to play guitar so that his time spent there would be used wisely.

In 1964, Larry Henrickson originally opened Ax in Hand at 817 W Lincoln Hwy # B to give children and teenagers music lessons, Carr explained. It doubled as a place to purchase guitars when Henrikson thought it’d be a good idea to ask some of his students, who had stopped taking lessons, if they would like to sell their guitars. His collection of old guitars eventually grew so large that it was possible to start a store. His store would soon fall into the vintage guitar market. 

For a while, Ax in Hand was one of the premier vintage guitar stores in Illinois, Carr said. After Henrickson passed, Carr muttered while glancing at the floor, his three sons took it over. 

The people who worked at Ax in Hand acted as mentors to Carr throughout the beginning of his music journey. He attributes his passion for teaching others to those people, and Carr finds it extremely important to pass down the driven feelings his mentors fueled inside of him to others. 

Carr’s high school youth pastor, who also played guitar, encouraged him to follow his dreams of pursuing bluegrass music, and countless college professors did as well. For a semester, Carr took lessons with Lee Bidgood, a mandolin professor, who hosted mandolin orchestras. Bidgood showed Carr the many possibilities, genres and expressions the mandolin could perform in.

For his competition, Carr played a traditional bluegrass tune, two jazz tunes and a classical piece. If it weren’t for Bidgood, Carr said, he most likely wouldn’t have felt inclined to explore those routes, and one day perform them confidently and comfortably.

After many years at Ax in Hand, discovering himself as a musician while simultaneously building strong bonds, he ventured off to East Tennessee State University in 2014 to finish his education where he gained a degree in Bluegrass, Country, and Old-Time Music by 2016. 

Carr returned to DeKalb shortly after graduation in 2016, landing back at Ax in Hand. Him and his wife Cristal Carr started running the store in January of 2019, and business has been great ever since, Carr said. Along with guitar lessons, the store repairs guitars, does adjustments and organizes workshops and recitals for young musicians in the area. 

Being a kid who found rescue in the tunes he heard and comfort in moving his fingers along the neck of the guitar as he strummed along, Carr said he finds it extremely important to be as involved in the community as possible. Music had such a big impact on his life and helped get him through difficult obstacles, so he wants to create a nurturing environment surrounded by music for kids in DeKalb and surrounding areas. 

When Carr was a kid, his family could not afford the newest videogames or technologies for him and his siblings, so he found himself spending the majority of his time reading books and learning how to play guitar to keep himself distracted. Eventually over time, he developed a talent and deep passion for playing bluegrass instruments. Practice made perfect. 

Since becoming the 2019 Mandolin Champion, Carr is currently working on putting together various shows. In March 2020, he’s incorporating Eli Gilbert, his friend from college who is a banjo player, and Aaron Dorfman, a former guitar player for the Penthouse Prowlers into his band to perform shows in Chicago. 

“We’re going to do a couple of weeks of my dream shows,” Carr said. 

This competition opened up a new tier of venues for the mandolin player. When artists start out, the majority of their shows take place in bars where no one listens, but Carr has found himself playing shows people attend to actually listen and enjoy his music. His music is no longer a way to fill the room with noise. 

Above success, trophies, and titles, Wesley Carr is dedicated, his wife Cristal Carr said. It took her husband seven years to get to this point, because he never gave up. He kept persevering over and over again.

“He always accomplishes any goal in front of him,” Cristal said, “And that says something about him.”