National Oldtime Fiddlers Festival
By Jim Peck-Producer
"You're not going to believe it!"
These are just some of the things people shouted at me when I told them I was heading out to Weiser, Idaho to do an Outdoor Idaho program on the fiddling contest. I thought it was funny that everyone insisted on shouting at me. Was it, perhaps, the result of their having been to the fiddle fest and losing a bit of their hearing? Perhaps it was that they were just so excited that a mere speaking voice was out of the question. At any rate, the yelling went on until I left town.
The first thing you notice is that the town wears its title of "Fiddling Capitol of the World" proudly. Driving in you pass Fiddler's Restaurant and start seeing fiddle inspired signs all over.
The actual contest is held at Weiser High School, but the whole town hosts the festival. There's a carnival and parade taking up most of the downtown area. Open land near the high school is covered with every version of RV and motor home. Tents dot the landscape like colorful mushrooms after rain.
It was hot when photographer Alan Austin and I pulled into the spot where he was parking his 37-foot motor home. He would stay in the middle of the action, "Don't plan on getting any sleep if you stay out in the campgrounds!" Layna Hafer, director of the contest warned us. I chickened out and booked a room at a motel.
Sleep was not to be something either of us knew much about that week. Alan was kept from slumber by non-stop fiddling and, "Some poor kid who keeps running through the scales OUT OF TUNE!" Alan's a musician and kept a careful balance between wanting to show the kid how to hit the right notes and wanting to strangle him. In the end he chose neither and endured the screeching fiddle night after night.
I thought I would be immune by staying at the motel. Little did I know that my small room was between rooms hosting impromptu jam sessions nightly. And by nightly I mean EVERY NIGHT and not ending until about 2:00a.m. the next morning.
The contest itself kicks off each morning at 8:00a.m. and runs until 10:00p.m.. At least it's supposed to. In fact the competition ran until nearly midnight, every night.
"You're not going to want it to end!"
Not so sure about that.
Our goal was to cover the contest and tell the story of it through the eyes of the competitors. We chose three likely candidates in Danita Hartz, perennial favorite for 20 years and last year's Grand National Champion, and Alex and Haden Duncan who won the Junior and Small Fry divisions, respectively, last year. Alex is 8 and Haden is 5.
Danita is Alex and Haden's fiddling instructor. She was described as stoic, precise, nitpicky and a perfectionist. She admits to being a perfectionist, "Definitely. And that's the reason I will never be happy with where I'm at with my instrument, because you're always striving for better." I think she comes across as warm and quite likable. I'm not sure I would use the word "stoic." I think she is an intense competitor who will not settle for less than perfection.
Kala Duncan, the boys' mother, says her sons think she's nitpicky, "She can find anything that's wrong, but that's what you want a teacher to do."
While they are young virtuosos of the fiddle, Alex and Haden still manage to just be boys. They attack fiddle playing with the same enthusiasm they attack a hot grounder on the baseball diamond. Alan and I got the chance to hang out with them while they played baseball, video games and, of course, the fiddle. Their father, Dale, told us they get to be kids 23 hours a day. It's just one hour that's devoted to fiddling. "Other kids, say out on a farm, they have chores and they spend two hours doing things like that. Maybe another kid practices only a half hour, three or four times a week. That's not what it takes. You know, we're a competitive family, they put in the time, and that's what it takes."
Seeing each of these three musicians take the stage you just know the competitive spirit burns deep inside each of them.
I won't give away the ending by telling you how these three did, you'll just have to watch the show July 26th. But I will say this year's contest had everyone on the edge of their seats.
The week of the festival is truly about the music. It is impossible to find a moment that is not supported by fiddling. It was a little like being in a movie where a soundtrack accompanies your every move. I brushed my teeth to the quick pace of "Tom and Jerry." I ate lunch to "Sally Johnson." I tried to sleep to a medley of fiddle tunes whose titles I will never know.
I dreamed of fiddles.
A lot of folks came up and asked us if this show would be on in their state. If you would like to see this program where you live, call the programming department of your local PBS station and tell them you want to watch it. To enjoy it over and over, you can purchase a copy of the program from our website, or by calling our toll free number 1-800-543-6868.