27 January, 2012
Fiddle contests are as much a part of my history as Bible stories and the sound of Emmylou's voice and that really annoying habit my sbilings and I have of speaking to each other in movie quotes. I'll never forget my first ever contest in Castlegar, BC. I was 7. I'm pretty sure I played Irish Washerwoman. And undoubtedly the Tennessee Waltz.
For a homeschooled kid who lived on a mountainside, and whose weekly social highlight was when Denny the UPS man dropped off a package at our house and stayed awhile to visit, fiddle contests were absolute heaven. Other kids play the fiddle too? And then after we compete we wage violent war with water guns? And practicing super hard actually gives me a little cred instead of qualifying me as a bona fide super nerd? (I'm not saying I wasn't a super nerd, I'm just saying my fiddling wasn't necessarily to blame.)
A dear friend from my contest days, Ed Carnes, recently shared some really priceless photos from his archives.
Here we are - my brother Luke, my dad, my mom, and me at the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, ID. I honestly can't remember what year this was. I think it was either 1987 or 1988. I don't think it was '87, because my mom would have been pregnant with my baby brother Jed. And then there's the fact that we're both playing something in the 3rd position, which I don't think we knew how to do yet in '87. So it was probably '88, which means it was the first in a decade-long streak of wins for my brother Luke. He was busy winning; I just figured somebody's got to come in second.
Here's Luke in 1993 at the Grand Master's Fiddle Contest in Nashville, accompanied by Dad, Rudi Booher, and Jerry Thomason. That hat was awesome - I remember it well, that George Straight hat, which we all knew was way more legit than its Clint Black counterpart.
The coolest thing about the Grand Master's was that we never knew who might show up.
Like when Mark O'Connor, "Texas" Shorty Chancellor, and the one and only John Hartford just sat around playing some tunes. In retrospect, it's probably best that I was too young to realize I should be in paralyzing awe of these people. I didn't know any better than to whip out my fiddle and start playing.
So I did.
I didn't know we were playing in the famous Gaslight theater (just spitting distance from the Grand Ole Opry stage) or that Minnie Pearl was hanging out in the wings, or that Porter Wagoner emceed the event. Really. I was just trying to impress my teacher, make my parents proud, and keep that hair of mine from wigging out in the southern summer humidity. And I was pretty stoked to be rocking that brand new herringbone-check western circle skirt.
My knees were buckling for a variety of reasons. I was standing next to Colt Tipton, the most beautiful boy I'd ever seen. (I'd never known someone to wear puka shells and Wranglers together. I bet Kenny Chesney got most of his inspiration from Colt.) I had just made the top 10 at the Grand Master's Fiddle Contest. And I was being told to play "Golden Slippers" with the rest of the finalists to accompany the Melvin Sloan cloggers - a song that apparently all fiddlers can play in their sleep, except I wasn't totally sure how it went.
But I faked my way through it. Sometime I'll tell you about how every year we had to talk my Grandmother into competing in the clogging contest, and how she never brought her clogging shoes so she tied her red flats to her feet with damp paper towels.
The magical part of contests is the way they bring people of so many ages and walks of life together, creating bonds that last a lifetime and beyond. I treasure every one of these memories. Most especially, I think of the great fiddlers and musicians and friends of fiddling who are no longer with us...Randy Howard, John Hartford, Charlie Bush, my brother Jed, and so many others...whose legacies live on every time I hear somebody play "Apple Blossom" or "Maiden's Prayer" or "Kentucky Waltz" or even "Golden Slippers".