For nearly six decades the National Oldtime Fiddlers Competition and Festival has called Weiser, Idaho home. It's a small town that expands dramatically during one week in June.
Defending Grand National Champion Danita Hartz from Meridian, Idaho sends out a playful warning to anyone thinking of heading out to the festival. "Well, it's 24/7 fiddle music. Get ready for a lot of fiddle music and you'll probably leave ready to not hear fiddle music for awhile."
It's true that the music is everywhere. Our Outdoor Idaho crew found sleep was something rare, thwarted nightly by impromptu jam sessions lasting deep into the wee small hours. "Behind the scenes"
But the music is why people come. To listen and to compete. "We will deal with over 300 contestants," says Layna Hafer, director of the festival. "This year we have 330 and we divide them up by ages, we have 8 divisions, each age division is geared to where we feel that the level of competition is fair."
Fiddle players from 37 states have come to play against the best of the best. According to Hafer, all those fiddlers mean the five judges have their work cut out for them, "There is no job, no judging job harder in the fiddling arena than what they do here in Weiser because the caliber that they listen to is so phenomenal that for just one round, to actually take 70 contestants and cut it down to the top five…there aren't many fiddlers that actually want that job."
Each fiddler has four minutes to play three songs. Each must start with a hoe-down, followed by a waltz and finally they play their tune of choice, something they feel displays the best of their abilities. They cannot repeat a song they have played during the contest. Judges are kept away from the performance stage so as not to be swayed by stage presence or audience support. It's a blind judging as well. As soon as a competitor hits his or her first note a switch is flipped which sends the music electronically to the room where the judges listen. The judges have no idea who is playing. All they know is the number of the contestant. As soon as the last note of the third song is played, the switch is again flipped and no applause or audience reaction is heard by the judges.
The key for any player is to move the judges, to make them feel the music. You can see when that happens. Judges begin tapping their feet, keeping beat. "I did it more on some than others," says judge Daniel Carwile from Athens, Alabama. "I guess it has to do with the groove, you know, if they find the pocket. It does, it really does matter in the judging."
Layna Hafer agrees, "That's what a fiddler wants to have happen, and if it's happening out there on stage and it's happening in the judges room then you know it's good music and that's what they're judging for too."
Outdoor Idaho focused on three competitors throughout the competition. Alex Duncan is 8 years old and last year's winner of the Small Fry division. He moved up in 2001 because after three wins you either have to move up, or become a judge. Alex set aside his small fiddle and started playing an adult-sized fiddle. Along with that change, he's going up against players who are 5 years older than he is.
Haden Duncan is Alex's brother and at 5 years old one of the youngest fiddlers at Weiser. When a fiddlers takes the stage the microphone is lowered from the ceiling so it hovers above the fiddle. Haden is so small he has to stand on a box to get close to the mic which hangs as low is it will go. This brings chuckles and a chorus of , "Awwwwwws," from the crowd. The moment Haden starts to play that reaction turns to stunned silence, mouths agape. His playing is astonishing. It's not cute, not adorable anymore, it's solid. It's clear when he's playing that this young fiddler can hang with most folks.
Danita Hartz has racked up a slew of awards in her career. At 30 she's won in just about every major competition out there. She is this year's defending champion and, along with her husband Matt, teaches Haden and Alex. Hartz Music School is where many local players learn their chops. About Alex and Haden she says, ""To me they've just changed the standard. I was teaching many years before I started them and to me it's. I would give them songs thinking, they won't be able to do this...you want something harder? Here you go…and they were able to do it. It's just changed the standards."
The week of the fiddle contest is about more than just fiddling. There is a high octane fair with rides and all the bar-b-que and deep fried food you could ever want. It nearly takes over the entire downtown area and is a big favorite with the kids and adults looking for more than music.
But music is everywhere. The campgrounds near the high school where the contest is held turn into one giant jam session. Walking around in the evenings you hear all kinds of music. Everything from Jimi Hendrix to the Orange Blossom Special soars though the soft summer air.
Another spot brimming with song is an area called Stickerville. "This is another area of the contest," says Rae Anne Odoms of the Historical Society. "This is where if you want to carry your chair and walk up on a group of people that are playing and singing you can sit down, you can bring your instrument, you can join in, you can listen and nobody cares. You can just have a good time and that's part of what this is all about, having the time of your life."
Stickerville was in danger of being lost to development. The folks who call the patch of acreage home for one week each year gathered some funds and bought the land. So now there's no danger of it going anywhere. It will be Stickerville, always.
In the end, it is a contest. That means some win, some lose. Tune in to Outdoor Idaho and hear the music. Watch them compete for first place. Find out who wins and who loses.
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