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Finding common ground at a fiddlers' festival in Idaho

Dwindling numbers and stylistic differences are threatening the future of a beloved fiddlers' festival in Idaho. The solution may lie in something musicians intrinsically know: Simply listening can bridge divides. 

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Vi Wickam and Vivian Williams warm up in the Weiser High School cafeteria in preparation for the 2018 National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho. Ms. Williams won the Senior Senior Division trophy, for fiddlers age 70 and older, in 2017. Williams turned 80 on May 27.

Dean Paton

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Every June, Vi Wickam packs his fiddle and drives from his home in Loveland, Colo., to this small Idaho town. “I think it’s my twelfth year,” he says. “I came every year when I was in high school. Then I stopped for about ten years.”

Mr. Wickam, a champion fiddler, sits in the cafeteria of Weiser High School, smiling and trading good-natured “little pokes” with friends he’s not seen for 51 weeks. 

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“When I was a kid,” he says, “I just came for the contest.”

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“That’s because you didn’t know any better,” quips Vivian Williams, now 80, herself a fiddler and a seven-time contest winner in various divisions.

“Yeah,” Wickam admits. “Now I come for the jamming, the friends, the camaraderie – and the four minutes of adrenaline when I’m competing. 

He’s one of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 musical pilgrims that journey each year to this National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest and Festival, a competition now in its 66thyear. This week, some 165 entrants, ranging in age from 6 to 87, are competing for trophies and cash prizes. The divisions include everything from Small Fry to the Senior Senior Division, where fiddlers 70 and older still garner ovations for their hoedowns.  

“I’ve been coming here for years, and I’ve never seen a fistfight, never seen an out-of-control drunk, never seen a fight over religious views or political views,” says Gary Eller, director of the Idaho Songs Project. “You put your politics aside for a week. There’s still a place in the world where people can be civil.”

“There’s something truly wonderful here that I’ve never seen at other festivals,” adds Mr. Eller. 

Not that there isn’t conflict. “The contest is just an excuse for all of us to get together,” says Ms. Williams – “and also something to argue about‘What were those judges thinking?!’ People always complain about the judging. It’s a tradition.” 

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The other discord here, not a minor quibble, is: What constitutes oldtime music?

“Oldtime is not one thing,” insists Williams, an ethnomusicologist. “It’s regional: There’s Appalachian, Missouri style, Texas style, Canadian, Northern Missourian, Metiś, and others.”

Most of those fiddle styles never win contests. The credit – or blame – falls on Texans.

Williams points to legendary Texas fiddler, Benny Thomasson: “When he was a young man, in the 1920s, he thought he was a pretty hot fiddler, and he went to a contest – and lost,” she says. “So he went back home, tail ‘tween his legs, and figured out what to do to win: Play fancy with more variations.”

She credits other legendary Texans, such as Major Franklin and Eck Robertson, with turning fiddle contests into celebrations of the Texas style.

“It’s very impressive, and fiddlers were picking it up because it was so cool, and judges were giving lots of points because it was so cool,” says Williams, who plays traditional dance tunes instead of the Texas style. “But Texas style has come to dominate the contests.”

It also drove a musical wedge between musicians here at Weiser. To understand these aesthetic differences, it helps to understand the geography of the festival. 

The official contests happen in the high-school auditorium. Beside the school is Fiddletown, the wealthier side of Weiser’s demographic. Just beyond Fiddletown is The Institute, a lush, grassy campground and the former site of a trade school which plays host to music workshops, dances, and other events.

Further out, literally and spiritually, is Stickerville, which came into existence in the 1980s when spillover musicians were exiled to a field infested with Goat Head, a low-creeping weed whose curved thorns found homes in many a mandolin player’s bare feet. The acreage, mostly free of Goat Head now, is an amalgam of tents, folding chairs, ice chests, Coleman stoves – and some of the top players of stringed instruments in the US.

Stickerville is also home to the anti-contest, anti-Texas-style musicians. Many of the 300 to 500 campers here never venture to the auditorium.

“I’m not interested in the contest,” Seattle guitarist Rich Levine says. “This here, in Stickerville, is the best music there is.”

Though he admits there’s great music in the competition, he says “it’s more eclectic over here: old-timey, swing, Québécois, Missouri style.” He points across the Stickerville landscape: “Over there, there’s western swing. And Chuck Holloway – we call him Chainsaw Chuck – around midnight he starts texting friends, and they show up and play bluegrass till dawn.”

Claudia Anastasio, a fiddler and guitarist from Church Point, Louisiana, says, “There are some really good Appalachian oldtime players down in Stickerville, but there’s no way they would enter the contest because the judges aren’t looking for that.

“They have their own contests in Stickerville,” Ms. Anastasio says, “and if a Texas-style player goes down there, they’d lose.”

Monday night jams in Fiddletown

Around 10 o’clock on Monday night, after the judges had crowned Paul Anastasio swing-fiddle champion, Wickam, Williams, and Mr. Anastasio cluster in the lobby with friends and relatives, laughing and passing around congratulations. 

It’s still early by Weiser standards, and defending Senior Senior champion Williams is antsy. Like a dog needs to scratch, the Seattle octogenarian needs to jam. So, after a large, pink, huckleberry ice-cream cone, she gets into her friend’s red Jeep and heads out in search of music.

The most tempting tunes call her toward Fiddletown, so, lugging her black fiddle case, she trundles down a steep path, crosses a dry irrigation ditch, and follows her ears past half a dozen massive RVs. 

Old-timey music draws her to the camp of Rod Anderson, who will be one of her accompanists when she defends her Senior Senior title later that week. Situated between two RVs, six musicians sit jamming in a circle, while a few feet away sit five others gabbing, drinking homemade beer, and nibbling on gigantic apple fritters.

When the musicians recognize Williams, they insist she join the jam, and she pulls her fiddle from its case and finds a seat. These tunes are in her wheelhouse.

“You’ll never meet more happy people than here,” says Mary Cooper, a Spokane, Wash., fiddler. “I think it’s the music. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad. It’s so non-judgmental here.” 

Jeff Lincoln, a guitarist who lives near Boise, Idaho, nods and says, “A friend of mine said, ‘Weiser’s like a family reunion – if all of your relatives are smart and funny.’ ”

“So many of us have been coming here for so many years,” Mr. Anderson adds. “You come, you play guitar for these kids, and the next thing you know, you're playing guitar for their kids.”

An hour later, Wickam wanders in with fresh energy and more repertoire, so the jam heads in a new musical direction. No one thinks of sleep, only what to play next.

“What else do we almost know?” Williams asks, and the tunes keep coming: “Chief Sitting Bull,” “Red Wing,” “Silver and Gold,” “President Garfield,” Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Peter Barnes Jig.” 

Jamming continues past midnight, 1 o’clock.

At 1:50 a.m. the bass player calls it a day and the musicians pack up. “That was just what I needed,” Williams announces. 

The future of Weiser

This year’s roughly 165 contestants signal a disturbing trend: down 15 from last year. Overall contest entries are down from 289 in 2010 to 180 in 2017. Some wonder if Weiser is on the slow slide toward extinction.

“Hopefully, it can continue to exist,” says Bruce Campbell, general chairman of the event since 1980. 

Both Wickam and Williams believe the two sides – the contest aficionados and the Stickerville musicians – can help save the festival for each other.

“There really are two worlds here: the jamming world and the contest world,” Wickam says. “The jamming world would not exist without the contest world. And if it wasn’t for the contest, you wouldn’t have this extreme collection of music and musicians coming here.”

Recently, contest organizers started inviting winners of a nearby banjo competition to help kick off the festival by performing in the auditorium. Williams says she sees this as the start of a rapprochement.

“Anything that builds a bridge between those ‘nasty old hippies’ and those ‘nasty old contest people’ is great,” she says, chuckling.

Both Williams and Wickam see how much everyone has to lose: “It’s family,” Wickam says. “It’s the musical family that I see once a year, and it feels like I never left. 

“There’s a musical bond,” he goes on. “When you play music with somebody, you have to have a spirit of listening. And that is conversation. That musical conversation creates a level of connection that would take years to create with just words.”