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Julie Wilson

National Old Time Fiddle Contest, in Weiser, Idaho

June 23, 2012 at 12:59 AM

For the very first time, I went to a fiddle contest. I am an adult beginner taking classical lessons, but I have some relations that are rather well known in the bluegrass and fiddle scene, so there's a pretty powerful 'pull' in that direction for me.

I have attended the Northwest Regional competition in Spokane Washington recently, but a very dear friend of mine (Frank Wagner) absolutely INSISTED I compete at the national competition held every June at Weiser ID.

Frank is a wonderful older gentleman. He has offered a free workshop for the past 35 years teaching anyone and everyone interested how to play fiddle and guitar. There have been a number of notable national champions that started in his workshop, so he has done quite a lot to perpetuate old time and bluegrass music and keep it alive and well.

Now Frank has a way of ‘pushing’ folk to do things they don’t think they are ready to do, and he most certainly did that with me. I have a good friend named Linda for instance. He told me that Linda ALWAYS plays at Weiser and it’s just a cakewalk. If Linda does it, I should do it too, and since he’s being inducted into the NOTFA (National Old Time Fiddlers Association) Hall of Fame this year he REALLY wants to be my guitar accompanist onstage this year. How do you say no to that?

So, I sent in my application to compete. Then I made the mistake of Googling the contest. I immediately had a case of the vapors after seeing the level of experience plying their trade at the contest. I did NOT belong up there, I was sure of it! I nearly backed out, but Frank and my classical teacher both said to just relax and go for it – my teacher said not to worry, it’s not like I’d be competing against my famous cousins, right?

So after a few sleepless nights and weeks of preparation I did finally agree to follow through with my obligation and compete at the national competition. The night before my round, I was awakened at 2am by the din of fiddles and banjos across the field we were camped in…something you need to know about Weiser is that the music NEVER stops. Ever. You either participate or attempt to sleep through the jam session.

At 8:05 AM, I walked though the stage door for my round under the microphone. The judges are sequestered in a separate room and have no idea who you are apart from your number, so I was just Fiddler #2 to them. I did recognize the irony of competing in a national contest with a classically set up instrument – I have a classical bridge, only one fine tuner on the E string instead of all 4 fine tunes, and I also tend to play on Evah Pirazzi strings. I held my breath and Frank and I played Cincinnati Hornpipe, Tennessee Waltz and Red Wing for the crowd, who shockingly applauded my performance…that felt good! And it was such an honor to be up there on the stage with Frank.

Part of my horror at agreeing to participate was the fear of competing in any way with my cousins, to whom I feel immensely inferior. I inherited an ear for music and an inclination for it as well as love of violin, but my cousins have been playing since they were children and I did not have the opportunity. My teacher assured me I would NOT be in the same division as my cousin but she was sadly mistaken. Well, maybe not so sadly…due to the fact that I just had my birthday I did end up competing directly with my cousins, but I was so delighted by the experience of being onstage and then watching their performance I truly was not rattled in the end. My gifted relative took second place in the Adult division and it was such a joy to watch her perform that any misgivings I had were promptly erased.

The rest of Weiser was a blur….it is just a joyous experience of nonstop MUSIC. There’s bass players, banjos, auto harps, mandolins, and I swear a thousand fiddles. I read once that when Mary Queen of Scots was crowned she moved to the far side of the castle to try and get away from the din of fiddles and bagpipes playing in her honor…I can now see why! One has difficulty sleeping through the cacophony of noise, but it is so very beautiful.
There’s a place called Stickerville where some old (ex) hippies camp. They proudly refuse to participate in or view the contest, but they come every year to camp and they bring the most stunning, haunting cross-tuned old time tunes with them. I wanted to stay forever. The music is positively entrancing and melodic. My cousin calls it walking in the Dark Side when entering Stickerville, and I can see why…at night it’s a window into a lost world of sound not often heard.

Another joy of Weiser is watching someone struggle to haul (on wheels) a large bass AND a banjo across a field under the stars – AT MIDNIGHT! Weiser is roaming around looking for jams, the best in the country migrate here the third week of June and it is the most amazing musical opportunity every! My favorite memory is watching my friends Jim Schamp and Dave Whitehurst (both bass players) walk past a jam session with their bass instruments, pause slack-jawed while their eyes glazed over, and then slowly move in to the most incredible session comprised of musicians from Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The look on their face and the mesmerized look in their eyes says it all. Only another musician could understand the allure of falling under the spell of inadvertently stumbling across some of the best musicians in the country and actually having the option to PLAY with them.
Another part of Weiser is playing all over town. We played in an ice cream parlor with a cowboy with a rocking piano. Yes, it actually had springs! We played in nursing homes, senior centers, and at the local Elks club. We played for joy and we played for our breakfast. I also played Dreamer’s Waltz as the writer of the song came in the door…I nearly died when I found out, but fortunately he approved of my rendition. We visited the museum and I got to see my family on the wall, and I just cannot describe the experience other than it was fantastical and I hope to go again next year.

I truly love classical music, but the heart and feeling of fiddle music is so deep and reaching I would strongly encourage anyone who has not walked on the ‘dark side’ to do so from time to time with their instrument – there’s a wildness there that only enriches the bond with your instrument.


From David Rowland
Posted on June 24, 2012 at 1:37 AM
Nice blog! I agree, I think we all could benefit from a bit of the 'dark side.'

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