At 1:15 pm on a cold, overcast Friday afternoon, 10 groups of musicians huddle in small circles outside of the Red Lodge Veteran’s Memorial Civic Center. The fiddlers dominate, tapping their feet and playing clean, Texas-style contest licks. They are all teenagers. The collective sound of the music is harsh; the loud, fast tunes are clear, impressive, and “hot” on their own, but as the fiddlers saw away in close proximity to one another on the small lawn, their melodies clash and compete. Eighteen-year-old Preston Schmidt of Mandan, North Dakota, glances down with a questioning look as his accompanist, who looks to be about 50, fingers guitar chords. As Schmidt repeats the hard-driving B part of the hoedown “Sally Goodwin,” he shakes his head. “F sharp minor,” he corrects the accompanist firmly, not missing a beat of his well-rehearsed break. Two more boys lean against the closed doors of the gymnasium, shiny red fiddles cradled under their arms, shiny new cellular phones hanging from their waists. They assume nonchalant, disinterested poses and let out easy laughs as they size up their competition. Around the other side of the rounded old white building, a solitary elderly couple sits outside of their trailer in lawn chairs. They hunch over their instruments and pull on the strings, filling the parking lot with their squeaky tunes. The man, tall and thin with a white straw cowboy hat on his head, wears a fixed frown.
So begins the second round of the 36th annual Montana State Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest.
The Veteran’s Memorial Civic Center is a dark high school basketball gymnasium illuminated inside only by a few naked fluorescent bulbs burning on the high ceiling. One hundred folding chairs are set on the court, facing a stage that has replaced a bleacher section. About two-thirds of the chairs are occupied.
There was a time when the Montana State Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest was an event not to be missed, populated by upwards of a thousand fiddlers, pickers, and audience members. Times have changed. Missoula fiddle and mandolin player Jeff Campfield, an ex-Montana State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association (MSOTFA) member who attended the contest regularly until about six years ago, says, “Polson (the contest’s home until 2001) was a monster. The contest was also a bluegrass festival. There’d be thousands of people, picking all night long. But then they took away the camping, and Polson became a dead horse. Now there are more people in the contest than in the audience.”
While this summation might be a bit exaggerated, the decline in the contest’s popularity is evident. The Red Lodge Mountain Man Reunion was more heavily advertised in town than the contest. When asked about the Old-Time Fiddlers, one Red Lodge local exclaimed in a surprised voice, “the fiddle contest? I had forgotten about it. It’s still here?” Newly appointed MSOTFA President Jill Flikkema admits, “we used to sell out, and there’d be 15 to 20 players in every division (there are between five and 10 now). It’s gotten smaller every year since we moved to Red Lodge. I wish I knew why, so I could fix the problem.” Ex-presidents Fred and Jeannie Buckley are hesitant to acknowledge such a drop-off in interest. Mr. Buckley says, “the crowds have been the same every year since we’ve been here. I mean, the fiddle contest hasn’t made money for 15 years, but it’s something that we all need.” He quickly adds, “there will be more people here tonight.”
There was a time when the proud elderly fiddlers were treated with reverence. This year the Senior Division competes first, at nine in the morning. There are two people under the age of 30 in the crowd—teens lingering in the rear of the gymnasium, chatting. Apparently most of the young fiddlers have opted to sleep late in preparation for their rounds. When the Senior Division contestants finish up, the elderly spectators clap quietly and politely. This will change in about an hour, when the teenagers start to compete: The young fiddlers, many of whom are friends, whoop and holler for each other, to the dismay of the older crowd. The highlight of this year’s competition comes when Schmidt and 22-year-old Taylor Buckley (Fred and Jeannie’s eldest son, who will go on to win the Montana State Championship Division crown) score a tie and have a fiddle-off for the Championship Open Division title. Schmidt wins, and the teens let out raucous cheers.
The stylistic rift between young and old players has long been a source of divisiveness within the association; there is a noticeable lack of middle-aged fiddlers to bridge the gap. Says Campfield, “the old timers hate the progressive stuff (bluegrass and Texas-style fiddling). They can’t do it and they don’t want to, so they axe it out. That’s why I stopped going.” Says Schmidt, who started playing classical music at the age of 3, “The old guys, sometimes they’ll just turn their heads when you play. But I’ll listen to them—some of their songs are cool. If [the tunes] were played better, they’d be really cool. You know what I mean.”
Everyone at the contest knows what Schmidt means. The older players’ tone falters and their intonation is suspect. They don’t play their breakdowns with a droned double stop, which makes the young fiddlers’ tunes sound full and driving. Seventy-seven year old Charles Guyer of Ekalaka says of the Texas fiddling, “this here is kind of like rock. It all comes from the same place, the Texas swing. But this don’t have no history to it. They may put a few more licks in, and it takes more to do it. But you can’t hear the song behind it.” Guyer refers to the roots of fiddle music: The tunes all stem from simple old country songs. He is the only fiddler at the contest who cradles his instrument in the crook of his elbow, like old-time Irish and Appalachian fiddlers, where, as he says, “I can see what’s going on down there.” While he is clearly irked by the changes that have come to MSOTFA, he is quick to add, “Still, the youngsters are good. We’ve got to keep the music alive.”
Texas fiddling is flashy, a “go for broke, can you top this” style, according to Mr. Buckley. The easy availability of good instruction from teachers like Dick Barrett and Nancy Padilla has grabbed the interest of young players across the state. MSOTFA judges are supposed to evaluate each player’s hoedown, waltz and tune of choice based on three criteria: old-time style, tone, and intonation. But, Flikkema says, “if you play Texas you get scored on Texas, not old-time. And if you play Texas, you score higher.”
Not everyone sees the association’s age gap as a battle: 84-year-old Randy Ness of Hamilton has attended the contest since it began in 1968, and he could not be more excited about the young blood. “The little kids are just terrific,” he says. “They’ve had teaching, and we old folks just learned by the seat of our pants. It’s a different style, but I like it all.” It’s this sort of attitude that the association needs in order to bridge the gap between young and old, and regain the prominence that it once held throughout the state.
The Buckleys are optimistic. Their fiddle camp, which takes place in the first two weeks of June, is a place where the old and the young can learn from one another. Says Mr. Buckley, “As the young fiddlers learn the old dance tunes and jigs, the songs with lilt, they start to respect the old players more, and the old folks respect them. It’s silly to write off a style or a fiddler as not ‘Montana,’ because Montana old-time fiddle music has a bit of everything in it—Texas, Canadian, Appalachian.”
After the Senior Division finishes its round, the Pee-Wees—6-, 7- and 8-year-olds who tote pint-size fiddles and idolize the older teens—are up. Kaito Irizarry of Bozeman stands by his father, applauding loudly for the blond girl in pigtails who plays before him. When asked how long he has been playing, Kaito’s face crunches up into a look of deep concentration. He tugs at the purple bandana around his neck and counts on his fingers. “Seven,” he says. When asked how old he is, he says quickly, “seven. I’m doing good.” His father gives him a nudge, and Kaito runs onstage and rips into “Soldier’s Joy,” stomping his foot and bobbing his head. People throughout the crowd, young and old, chuckle, smile, and applaud.