New York Times
Published: May 5, 2006
Contests: Battles With Bows and Strings
ANYONE who's been in a rowdy honky tonk when "The Devil Went Down
hit the jukebox knows how much fun dueling fiddlers can be. The song,
by the Charlie Daniels Band, consistently elicits whoops and hollers
from a well-lubricated barroom.
In real-life fiddle contests, the devil doesn't compete and no one
wagers his soul, as "Johnny" does in the song. But there's
still the fun of watching and hearing accomplished fiddlers battle it
out with their bows. The coming season is prime time for fiddler
competitions, with many clustered in May and June. Dozens are listed
on the Web site www.fiddlecontest.com.
The oldest fiddlers' contest in the country takes place in Union Grove
in western North Carolina, at the Ole Time Fiddler's and Bluegrass Festival,
held every year in the spring for the past 82 years. An estimated 50
to 60 fiddlers from children to fiddling veterans in their 70's
duel it out with old-time music, bluegrass standards and heritage
tunes (defined as more than 100 years old) for the title of Fiddler of
the Festival. In a pattern typical in Appalachia, many of the older
entrants have had no formal lessons and picked up their skill by
imitation and in jam sessions.
"I watch these old time guys play and I have a real appreciation
for what they do," said Jessie Cockman, one of the festival
organizers, "because I know that they've not been trained. And
the tunes that they pick and the way these 70-year-old guys can stay
up until 3, 4 o'clock in the morning that's just unreal."
The festival attracts around 3,000 people, Ms. Cockman said, and
although the music carries on at all hours, the fiddling is serious.
Alcohol is banned an unusual restriction for this kind of festival
but in line with the intention of the founders, who wanted a family
atmosphere rather than a gathering of musicians "going out with
their buddies to jam," Ms. Cockman said.
Although not as old, the Grand Lake National
Fiddle Fest in Grove, Okla., in early June, part of the American
Heritage Music Festival, also carries fiddling prestige.
Started in 1998 by the fiddler Jana Jae, who has played with Chet
Atkins, Roy Clark and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the contest draws
around 3,000 people a day to witness roughly 100 fiddlers competing
for the grand prize of $1,000. Top-billed performers who have also
taken the time to jam informally include Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent
and the late Randy Howard.
Ms. Jae said she had joined, won and judged fiddle contests for many
years before finally deciding to start her own, continuing an amateur
American tradition that has its roots in centuries-old dance music
from around the world. "They used to entertain themselves with
jam sessions and playing out in Appalachia, you know, on the back
porches," she said. "It was O.K. wherever you put your
fingers and however you put your bow, as long as you had that
But the premier contest, also in June, is the National Oldtime
Fiddlers' Contest in Weiser (pronounced "Weezer"), Idaho, which draws up to 25,000 people and around 350 competitors seeking
prizes of up to $1,400. Weiser, a town of about 5,300 people, is also
home to the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Association and the National
Fiddlers' Hall of Fame. Famous fiddlers like Mark O'Connor and Dale
Morris Jr., have taken their careers to the national level by winning
Fiddling competitions aren't limited to the South and West. The 2,000
to 3,000 fans who arrive each June at the New England Fiddle Contest
Conn., are likely to hear music mingling traditions including Celtic,
Cajun and French-Canadian as well as the more familiar sounds of
Appalachia. About 100 amateur fiddlers play, said Jim Condren, a
volunteer with Peace Train Foundation, the contest organizer. They
compete for prizes of up to $500, and the scene is one of fun, dancing
and a healthy dose of abandon.
"The music is kind of like acoustic punk rock," Mr. Condren
said. "It's not about virtuosity. It's about making your own
music and about community."