Arts March 29, 2019

Fiddlin’ Around in Weiser

National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest offers good ole fashioned fun!

There’s some serious toe-tappin’, hootin’ and hollerin’, and show-stoppin’ fiddle playin’ going on the third week of June in Weiser, and you won’t want to miss it! During the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival, June 17-22, there’s music on every corner, and musicians of every age—from knee-high to octogenarian—coax haunting echoes of old country ballads and lightning-speed licks of Texas swing from their instruments. The whole town lights up in a glow of enthusiasm, goodwill and delight.

The Weiser contest is on any serious fiddler’s bucket list; it is on par with the Western Open in Redding, Calif., the Grand Masters in Nashville, Tenn., and the Fiddlers Frolics in Hallettsville, Texas. Celebrity fiddlers Alison Krauss and Mark O’Connor appeared on the Weiser stage as children, and in O‘Connor’s case, as a Grand Champion in 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1984. Musicians come from all over the country and Canada to compete, and the atmosphere is one of a family reunion.

“This is what sets us apart from other contests,” said Sandy Cooper, executive director. “People become family. They come to see their friends from other parts of the country. Fiddlers marry other fiddlers, and we watch the kids grow up. The kids write letters to each other—the old-fashioned way of communicating—and the camaraderie is something they never forget. It’s so much fun—and there’s wall-to-wall BBQ and beer!”

There will be competitions for old-time fiddling, swing fiddling and twin fiddling, culminating in the battle for Grand Champion on Saturday night. What’s the difference in styles? Old-time fiddling is based on traditional dance tunes such as the jig, reel, waltz and two-step that early settlers from Ireland, Scotland, England and other European countries brought with them to America.

Swing fiddling traces its roots to Texas Swing style (think Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys).  It includes a lot of improvisation and individual expression. “The musicians take a fiddle tune and there are licks in it that everybody plays, but they’ll add something they’ve developed themselves,” explained Cindy Campbell, volunteer contest director for 40 years. “It’s like scat singing in jazz. The music’s always there, but it is presented in different styles.”

Twin fiddling is the fiddler’s version of Olympic pairs skating: precision is everything! One person plays melody, one person plays harmony and, note by note, the melody and harmony match, even to the up-bow and down-bow strokes.  In both swing and twin fiddling, the judges sit by the stage so they can watch contestants as well as hear them.

Musicians in all categories play a hoedown, a waltz and a tune of choice, typically a dance tune such as a jig or reel. They play multiple rounds and are judged according to danceability, old-time style, rhythm and tone. The judges for each competition are top-notch musicians in their own right and hail from all over the country.

The highlight of the week is on Saturday night during the final round of the Grand Championship. Katrina Pierce Nicolayeff from Meridian is a four-time Grand Champion. Now 36, she studied with her mother, and at two and a half, competed in her first fiddle contest. “I actually knew how to play a song,” she laughed, “because at 18 months, my mom taught me how to use my fingers on the fingerboard!”

She won her first Small Fry division contest at 8. “I was very motivated because I’d lost the year before to a girl who played the same song I did,” said Nicolayeff. “My mom told me I’d played sloppy and if I wanted to win, I’d have to play clean. By the time I was 12, I was practicing three and four hours a day.” She credits her lifetime winning streak to lots of practice, enjoying the moment, and having a good attitude.

The big parade through downtown starts at noon on Saturday. Be sure to check out the entertainment stage, beer garden, carnival rides, and a host of food and crafts vendors at Memorial Park throughout the week. In addition, there will be a 25-cent Kids Day downtown, yard sales galore and literally jams on every corner. But before you whip out your fiddle and join in, check out the Jam Etiquette workshop (yes, really!), one of many workshops taught by pros.

And no trip to the Weiser Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival would be complete without a stop by Stickerville, a dusty, three-acre lot named for the puncture weed that rambles through it. “There are boatloads of incredible musicians there who just come to play and jam and join their friends,” said Campbell. “It’s pretty primitive and there’s not much bathing going on, but the music is terrific!” 

This article appears in the Spring 2019 Issue of Territory Magazine.