Goin' to Weiser?
The National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest, Weiser, Idaho, by Paul
FIDDLER MAGAZINE: Spring 2002 Issue
They call it the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest,
but here in the Pacific Northwest everybody just calls it Weiser. Around
May in fiddling circles you'll start hearing the question "Goin' to
Weiser this year? Where you gonna stay? Stickerville? Tintown? Hippieville?"
The lingo's a little mystifying, but read on -- I'll explain everything.
First, some background. The fiddling tradition in this
little town on the Idaho-Oregon border goes all the way back to Civil War
times. In 1863 a group of settlers by the name of Logan established a way
station where people traveling west could stop for rest and recreation.
Newspaper accounts speak of fiddling contests being held at at Logan's way
station as far back as 1914. The contest as we know it, however, was
started in 1953, when Weiser Chamber of Commerce secretary Blaine
Stubblefield successfully hounded the directors of the Chamber for $175 to
bankroll a fiddle contest. Dad Roberts of Harpster, Idaho, resplendent in
a bushy graying beard, walked off with the top prize that first year, and
by all accounts the contest was a huge success.
While the earlier contest winners played in a
Northwestern style, in 1965 a young man by the name of Byron Berline blew
into town and won all the marbles playing in the Texas regional style
developed by Eck Robertson, Major Franklin, Orville Burns and Benny
Thomasson, among others. Soon the crème de la crème of Texas-style players
-- Dick Barrett, Herman Johnson, Benny Thomasson and Byron Berline -- came
to dominate the contest, with one of the four taking first place each year
from 1968 to 1978.
In 1979, a young Benny Thomasson protégé, Mark
O'Connor, captured the top spot. This ushered in a new era at Weiser, and
since that time, big-money division of the contest has been dominated by
younger players. In recent years several talented young women have come
away from the contest with a good chunk of change. In fact in 1998, young
women captured first, second and third prizes in the Championship
Division. Their average age -- just over twenty. This year, it is
projected that close to 350 contestants in eight divisions will be "duking
it out" for over $11,000 in prize money.
Of course, as is often the case with fiddle contests,
the contest itself is only a small part of the action. Nowhere is this
more true than in Weiser, where much of the music, and a whole lot of the
fun, can be found away from the contest site. Let me take you on an
imaginary walk and I'll introduce you to the wide variety of fine music
that awaits you within just a few blocks of the contest site. First we'll
walk out behind the high school, where folks like Dick Barrett, J.C.
Broughton and E.J. Hopkins are liable to be jamming on swing, western
swing and old-style Texas fiddle rags and breakdowns.
On the football field ("Tintown," so named for the rows
of large motor homes that sprout here each June) we find the teen hotshot
fiddlers honing their rounds, each one convinced that when the dust
settles on Saturday night he or she will be the big winner. As we work our
way through "Tintown" we might catch the lonesome wail of a grizzled
dancehall veteran, amplifier plugged into his Winnebago, crooning his
favorite Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell tunes.
Now we cross the street, leaving "Tintown" and heading
for "Turner's Corner." Here, by their big green tent, we might catch Phil
and Vivian Williams rehearsing some of the traditional Canadian and
original tunes that won Vivian the senior championship a few years back.
Farther along, we could be lucky enough to hear the strains of western
swingsters Gene Gimble (Johnny's claim to fame is being his brother, Gene
likes to say), a gang of folks from the Sacramento Western Swing Society
and the great Bill Dessens, who just blew in from Texas, swingin' out on
Cliff Bruner and Bob Wills favorites.
Next stop -- "Hippieville." Years ago, this camping
site was the favorite of long-haired, countercultural types, but these
days we are more likely to encounter a couple of Microsoft computer
programmers camped by their SUV than a true hippie crashing in his VW bus.
The music's the same, though, as we enjoy hearing a big gang of
bluegrassers crankin' out 1950s Stanley Brothers favorites. Hot stuff!
Wandering deeper into "Hippieville," the Lester Flatt-style bluegrass runs
fade into Lester Young-style swing riffs. We could well encounter Tony
Marcus and Kevin Wimmer riffing out on some old Benny Goodman Sextet
Still farther back, out behind the old Intermountain
Institute school buildings, we find ourselves in yet another famous Weiser
music area -- "Stickerville." How'd it get the name? Take your shoes off
and you'll find out. We opt not to, and our journey is rewarded with the
strains of Southern old-time fiddle and banjo music. The denizens of "Stickerville,"
who recently bought this prickly piece of property to keep it from being
developed, scour Weiser garage sales each year to find just the perfect
couch for their campsite. As fiddle and banjo launch into "Granny, Does
Your Dog Bite?" we are offered a margarita. What luck! We've arrived just
in time for the afternoon cocktail party, another "Stickerville"
tradition. Fortunately for us formal dress isn't required, only suggested.
After all this great music, our imaginary walk comes to
an end, as someone says, out of the blue, "Hey! We'd better head back to
the high school. After all, isn't there supposed to be some sort of
contest going on?"
If you do decide to join the fun in Weiser, try not to
miss any of these highlights: Chiles rellenos at La Tejanita or Tex-Mex
food at St. Agnes Catholic Churchthe colorfully painted windows of the
downtown storeshomemade cherry pie, fiddling and dancing at the Senior
Centerthe photo gallery at the Fiddlers' Hospitality Centermaking the
rounds of yard sales and junk storesQueen Anne and Bing cherries fresh out
of the orchards, and the Saturday parade, with beautiful cowgirls on
horses and fiddling floats. Most of all, if you're like me, you'll love
just enjoying the ambiance of an old-fashioned small town that, once a
year, goes all out to make fiddlers and fiddle fans feel truly welcome.
Thanks, Weiser! See you in June!