"You get extra points if you don't spill your beer!" At 2 a.m. on June 19, Weiser was two days into its National Oldtime Fiddle Festival and, if the collection of beer cans and plastic cups was any indication, everyone who was still awake in Fiddletown was well over the recommended blood-alcohol level.
Thus started the inaugural Weiser Long-Jumping Championship—sponsored by Smirnoff, Tito's and Jack Daniels, and organized by a group of about 30 good-natured, tripping, laughing musicians. The jumps were judged on distance, form, style and musicality. Everyone who jumped had to sing a fiddle tune as they ran to the sand pit.
Carl Hopkins belted, "I gave it all away!" as he jumped, but his style wasn't enough to beat John Hartz's superior distance.
This close family of fiddlers and old-time musicians are brought together from all over the country. The National Oldtime Fiddle Festival started in 1953 and has grown to draw more than 300 competing fiddlers plus bluegrass bands, vendors, family, friends, music lovers and professionals. One long-jumper said, "There are people here from Oklahoma, Idaho, Texas, Washington, Texas, Tennessee, Texas, Texas ..."
Many of these people attend several competitions a year, but Weiser is the Big Kahuna. Ed Carnes, a fiddler from Franklin, Tenn., compared Weiser to the Masters competition of golf: There are other tournaments, but this is about as good as it gets.
Great accompanists are key for some of the youngest fiddlers. Many fiddlers at the festival have been playing since they had their baby teeth. Katrina Pearce entered her first contest before she was 3 years old. "At 16 months, I was playing rhythms and by 18 months I was playing songs by ear," said Pearce, a Top 10 festival finalist from Boise.
Rod Anderson from Spokane, Wash., has been coming to Weiser for the fiddle festival for more than 20 years. This year he accompanied many of the competitors from the Small Fry to the Grand Champion division, playing 194 performances in the week of the competition, more than any other accompanist.
"Hang around and they just ask you," Anderson said. "You either know the songs they're playing or you learn them in a hurry." Anderson has been playing old-time music for so long there are few tunes he doesn't know. The key to accompaniment is rhythm; the accompanist acts like a human metronome while the fiddler plays.
"Rod has the ability to make the youngest kids feel so at ease," said Greg Lehman, who has been filming a documentary about the fiddle festival for the last three years with his company Weiser Films.
"You look at the spectacular sky and landscape, look at how they come together under the love of music ... Weiser is Christmas and New Year's put together," Lehman said.
Indeed, it was spectacular. Long past midnight, Fiddletown—the campground behind the high school—was alive with a symphony of fiddles, banjos, guitars, washtubs, harmonicas and mandolins. Everyone seemed to know every tune. Many of those people didn't go anywhere near the contest hall all week. They just came to jam.
Scattered song lyrics like "hop toad hop" or "corn bread and beans and good old collard greens/skillet good and greasy all the time" create the atmosphere that not much has changed since the turn of the 20th century when the songs were written.
A large circle of listeners gathered around Monte Gaylord, one of the Top 10 finalists, 15-time Oklahoma State Champion and full-time musician. As he played, he stomped his feet, bobbled his head and worked his face as hard as he worked his bow. Gaylord practically danced out of his chair, and the crowd around him whooped and hollered as the frantic hoe-down reached unbelievable speeds.
Like many of the fiddlers competing at the Weiser festival, Gaylord started early, learning guitar chords at the age of 4, growing up in Oolagah, Okla. Now, 40 years later, he has played with Clint Black and Brooks and Dunn, traveled to Japan and Ecuador and has fiddle students of his own.
His fiddling sounds more like a human voice than an instrument. His music progresses much like his conversations—cheerful, upbeat and enthusiastic.
"I play from my heart," he said. But he had to tweak his style for the competition. "I have to pull back a little because I can get excited and I don't want to get carried away onstage."
What can be a 20-minute song at a midnight jam is compacted onstage into a few short minutes. Each competitor plays three songs: a hoe-down, a waltz and the song of their choice. "I never know what I'm going to play," Gaylord said. "There's a certain structure to the tune but there's flexibility inside that."
Seth Mattison, a 20-year-old Albertson College student and native of Nampa, has a similar philosophy for competing. "I get the song in my mind before I go onstage and I come up with my own versions. I don't memorize sheet music."
This is true to the roots of a festival whose music hearkens back to the great oral traditions when everything was passed on from generation to generation. Great fiddling songs were seldom written down. Many of the songs used in competition have been played around hundreds of campfires before they reach Weiser.
For over half a century, the festival in Weiser has helped preserve the rich history behind the old-time music. And according to Weiser native Alan Gross, for most of that time, the festival's focal point was the Washington Hotel, which stood in the middle of town. When the hotel burned down in the '70s, the festival took a hit. The competition had always been held in the hotel and all the musicians stayed there. Gross stopped attending the festival for several years because it was hard to imagine the fiddle festival without the hotel at the center of the activities.
Years later, the festival has grown beyond what one hotel could hold. Now there are shows in the bars, performances in the parks, the actual contest and plenty of Fiddletown jams. There's even a parade on the final day of the festival.
Indeed, the most diverse and unpredictable party in the state was in Weiser: bikers and 5-year-old fiddlers, gospel bands and bluegrass players, clean-cut students and scruffy old men. Music was the great unifier in a culture that otherwise seems to maximize human differences rather than similarities.
After taking a hefty swig of whiskey, one man said, "We had dinner with a preacher and his family last night. We all get along."
Ultimately, the fiddle festival is a competition for the Olympic athletes of fiddling, but it is so much more. "You can't get the spirit of this in a competition," said Bruce Alkire, clutching his banjo. Weiser is about coming together under the common culture of the music.
For information and updates on next year's festival, visit www.fiddlecontest.com.