Once, a town’s fiddler was more important than its cable provider is today. When he put his bow to the strings, neighbors set aside differences and passed the cider jug, and young people fell in love dancing in time with his tapping boot.
Few today remember a time when music was glue to bind a community. But during the third full week of June each year, a small Idaho town recalls the old fiddle songs, the old styles of playing—and it remembers what music once did for us all.
Weiser, Idaho, a farming community of about 5,000, has hosted the annual National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest since 1963. The event lasts a week and draws more than 10,000 visitors. Organizers say it’s the nation’s biggest old-time fiddle contest.
An old-time fiddler is someone who plays the danceable folk tunes of this nation’s rural youth, songs such as Sally Goodin and Dusty Miller, in the old style. Ask 20 fiddlers what old style is and get 20 answers, but to the uninitiated it’s simple: It’s music to send you swinging and stomping across a scarred plank floor.
Surprisingly, Weiser’s 2003 grand champion was not a crusty old-timer in felt hat and baggy overalls as you might imagine, but a 16-year-old boy. Tristan Clarridge trained as a classical violinist. He favors black jeans, has an uncomfortable grin and a stiff stance that relaxed only slightly when he played. Clarridge performs professionally with his 21-year-old sister, Tashina. She took second place at Weiser last year. Another final round contestant was a boy named Luke Price, who if he lost the gelled hair and low-riding jeans, could impersonate Harry Potter.
But if these and most of the other 302 musicians who participated in last year’s competition aren’t what you picture as “old-time fiddlers,” that’s in keeping with tradition, for nothing at Weiser is quite as you’d expect.
For instance, it takes a stretch of imagination to say the contestants perform, since the word implies that audience enjoyment is the point. At Weiser, the audience is very welcome—and quite irrelevant.
That becomes clear the first time a contestant and his two or three accompanists climb onto the small stage in Weiser’s high school gymnasium. A large, capsule-shaped microphone is adjusted over his strings. When the contestant is happy with its position, he begins. Through his entire three-song performance, the fiddler’s focus is on the mike, which carries his notes to the judges, seated out of sight in the school’s library, so they can judge the music, not the player. Contestants never speak and seldom turn to the audience.
A familiar song
The music is fun and nearly flawless, as might be expected of high-caliber competition. But to the newcomer, it may sound repetitious, as though the same song is being played again and again. And it is. In 2003, a spectator who attended the whole competition could have listened to Cottonpatch Rag 32 times. I Don’t Love Nobody was performed 39 times.
The repetition may not be exciting for the audience, but for a devotee of this music that’s not important: what happens at Weiser amounts to a living library. Each song must be memorized, because no sheet music is allowed on stage. So despite the repetition of popular favorites, 421 old-time fiddle tunes were committed to memory and performed at Weiser last year.
This is important to advocates, who say sheet music can’t capture the life in these tunes, a fiddler’s fancy licks or their “attitude.”
But to see music do what it did when those old songs were young, it’s best to leave the gym. Living library or no, that stage is not where music weaves real magic.
That happens on the football field, full on contest week of RVs and pop-up trailers. Campground rules require generators to be turned off at midnight, but nobody ever makes the fiddlers stop playing.
And they don’t. In groups of two or 10, players find their way into, around, and back out of tunes together. The songs shared by the players over the years have forged a musical community and turned Weiser into a down-home family reunion.
“Weiser is Christmas in June,” says Tony Ludiker, five-time winner of the contest whose daughter, Kimber, also competes. Ludiker has attended for decades and says when he dies he wants his ashes scattered on the football field where contestants camp. It’s hard to tell if he’s kidding.
The magic happens across the road, too, in a camping area full of musicians who won’t set foot on the contest stage. Some are fiddlers, but the air also is laced with the sounds of dobro, accordian, spoons and mandolin.
As at the gym, performing isn’t the point. It’s not even about winning. These players come by the hundreds, from across the country, to jam and to learn from each other. Some wander from group to group. Others gather under a shade tarp for the afternoon. Here and there stand spectators, many of them non-musicians. These small audiences seldom clap, but they’re not being impolite: They understand it would only cut into playing time.
Not every musician at Weiser wants to jam. The afternoon before her bid for grand champion, Tashina Clarridge practices alone outside a locked entryway to the school. She wears a red velvet skirt, a battery-powered metronome on a cord around her neck, and a calm, but serious look on her face, like that of a concert violinist.
“This place is so full of music,” she says. “I get into bed at night with 20 versions of Hotfoot in my head.”
Three couples wander up. They have tickets to the contest. They’re looking for the school’s main entrance.
“You’re going to practice? Can we listen?” a woman says.
“As long as you don’t play,” Tashina replies.
“All I play is the radio,” a man says.
Everyone laughs and then Tashina draws her bow across the strings and they stop. The girl closes her eyes, her bow arm swoops downward, and she begins playing in earnest. Fast notes bounce like Ping-Pong balls off walkway, ceiling, and walls, filling the space around her with sound.
“This,” she says, stopping to gesture at the walls with her bow, “makes me sound better than I am.” Nobody laughs. They just wait for her to play again, which after a moment she does.
And that’s the best thing Weiser offers non-players: the chance to take beautiful songs, like ripe fruit, straight from the hands of first-rate musicians, to join in some small way the community that music has made here. Just like old times.