Western Open Fiddle Championships
● By Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Eric Leslie
Old-time fiddlers are often asked to tell the difference between a violin and a fiddle. Some say a violin is carried in a case and a fiddle in a gunny sack. The organizers of this year's Western Open Fiddle Championships are saying simply, “Violins sing, but fiddles dance!”
There’s sure to be a lot of both singing and dancing at the 31st annual Western Open, to be held Oct. 24-26 at the Tehama District Fairgrounds in Red Bluff.
The performance of old-time fiddle music continues a tradition of sound that once served as the primary entertainment of men and women founding this country. Fiddles were carried across wagon trains as cherished items when space was at a premium and were pulled out for everything from campfire singing to parlor dances to barn-raising celebrations.
Today’s performers learn Irish jigs, Scottish hornpipes, English quadrilles, waltzes and schottisches handed down over multiple generations and across thousands of miles.
While there will be champion-level music performed at the contest, some visitors never make it beyond the parking lot, where free-form jams pick up spontaneously with songs that may not play well with judges, but incorporate a musician’s whimsy with jazz, Dixieland, bluegrass and Western Swing.
“There is a huge heritage of fiddling here in the North State,” says Sharon Barrett, a co-organizer of the Western Open, along with her husband, Loosely Strung bass player Tex Ash. Talk to anyone involved in the art long enough and you’ll hear reference to “the fiddle family.”
“All over Northern California, we have this fiddling community, usually centered around a teacher,” says Adrienne Jacoby, a retired music teacher and the mother of J’Anna Jacoby, who grew up in Redding as a fiddler and went on to become a professional musician in Rod Stewart’s band.
“It’s all about sharing the music,” Barrett says of the jams that have been known to incorporate musicians from age 3 to 91. “There’s no class system in fiddling. There’s just not much snobbery out there.”
There are rules, however, and at a fiddle contest, contestants must play three tunes in four minutes, including a hoe-down, a waltz and a personal choice that is neither a hoe-down nor a waltz. Eight fiddle divisions include seven age groups and an open category. Two twin fiddle divisions showcase melody and harmony played together. Two picking divisions feature talents on guitar, banjo or mandolin.
Finally, the juke box division is considered a chance to show off with tunes from the juke box era. Contestants often don costumes and perform with stage decorations. In this division, “the whole idea is to entertain,” says Barrett.
The North State’s fiddle family has raised many kids who have become professional musicians, including members of Crooked Still and bands supporting such performers as Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam and Pam Tillis.
They also grow up to be teachers continuing the tradition of fiddle music, like Abbie Ehorn at Evergreen School in Cottonwood and Martha Boyle, who runs Cottonwood Performing Arts Center with a
full fiddle program for people of all ages.
Boyle competed in her first Western Open in 1992 at age 12 and became a board member when she was 19. Her three daughters, Clara, Caite and Cora, ages 5-8, have all competed in the Western Open. “It’s a second language,” says Boyle. “You speak through your instrument.”
A highlight of this year’s Western Open will be the much-anticipated appearance of Calvin Volrath, considered the godfather of Canadian fiddling. “He’s been trying to get here for 25 years,” says Ash. Calvin will be a judge Friday and Saturday and will give his own performance at 8:30 Friday night.
“There’s a lilt to it,” Barrett says of the nuances of Canadian fiddling.
Also much anticipated is the repeat appearance of Billy and the Hillbillies, regular performers at Disneyland, known as much for their comedy as their musicianship. “They like our crowd and they love Red Bluff,” says Ash.
Fiddle music is acoustic and is not amplified. A partnership with Tehama County’s Sun Country Quilters brings in quilts that not only create an ambiance in the concert hall, but help with sound quality.
From quilts to mentorship to spontaneous jams, there always seems to be something happening to elevate the sound and carry on the tradition. Whether in the parking lot or at the stage, tunes of yesteryear will waft through the fairgrounds in Red Bluff this month. Toe tapping welcome. Dancing encouraged. •
Western Open Fiddle Championships Oct. 24-26 Tehama District Fairgrounds www.westernopenfiddle.com