Choteau on Sept. 29 and 30 will welcome back the Montana State Old Time Fiddlers Association’s yearly Old Time Fiddle contest where fiddlers from children to senior citizens will perform songs for judges, vying for top honors in the state and cash awards.
This is the seventh year the association has held its contest in Choteau, where 35 or more contestants are expected to take part in this year’s event.
“It’s good music, played by musicians who do this for the most part as a hobby rather than as a business. It’s a family-oriented event,” MSOTFA President James McMillan said. “It’s just a toe-tapping experience.”
Members of the group who come into town before the contest hope to be able to play at some businesses on Friday morning and at Choteau’s nursing home and assisted living center Friday afternoon.
Choteau High School is celebrating Homecoming this weekend and the fiddlers are going to take part in the CHS Homecoming parade at about 4 p.m. on Friday. Reg Wearley, an MSOTFA member and fiddler, and his son CHS FFA adviser Milford Wearley have worked together so that several old-time fiddlers and accompanists will ride the Choteau FFA chapter’s Homecoming float and perform during the parade. Watson Snyder, president of the Choteau FFA chapter, is also a fiddle player, McMillan said.
The contest weekend starts Friday with a free “street dance” at the Choteau Pavilion. The program will open at 5:30 p.m. with entertainment by junior fiddlers. The first round of the dance fiddle, twin fiddling and anything goes fiddling contests starts at 6 p.m. At 7:30 p.m. the judges, Tobi Magruder and Jesse Maw, will entertain from 7:30 to 8 p.m. and then at 8 p.m. the second round of twin fiddling will be held. The evening will wrap up with awards at 8:45 p.m.
Bynum residents Neal and Diane Collins are serving as this year’s dance fiddle contest judges. They will be listening to see which of the fiddlers does the best job of performing dance-friendly music for those attending the “street dance.”
The event is still free and open to the public, he said, and encouraged Choteau and area residents to attend. They will get to hear some of the best dance fiddle music around. After the dance fiddle contest, McMillan said a number of fiddlers and accompanists are planning to continue to play and jam at the Choteau Stage Stop Inn.
The MSOTFA is a statewide organization made up of some 400-plus fiddle players who keep this traditional form of community music alive through regional jam sessions, a two-week summer Fiddle Camp at Monarch, a youth contest in Dillon, an annual convention and the state championship contest.
McMillan, a former dean of the Montana State University College of Arts and Sciences and a microbiology professor, is in his second term as president for the organization.
Montana’s contest is open to all fiddlers, regardless of state of residence or membership in the association. In the competition, contestants play three prepared pieces (a hoedown, a waltz and a tune of their choice).
Judges this year are both veteran fiddle players who have won numerous top awards. Magruder has been fiddling for 35 years. She grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, and started competing when she was 12. Fiddle players Dick and Lisa Barrett most influenced her playing as she spent many weeks at their house in Rapelje during her teen years.
Among her most notable contest successes, she won the National Adult Championship in Weiser, Idaho, in both 2008 and 2012. After teaching fiddle lessons for years out of her home, she now works in the IT Department as a business analyst at Benefis Health System in Great Falls.
Magruder has judged many fiddle contests including the Montana State Contest, Northwest Regionals, and the National Fiddle Contest. She enjoys jamming with friends, but her current favorite is playing music with her son, Levi. When judging a fiddle contest, Magruder is looking for a nice groove, intonation and danceability above difficulty.
Maw is a native of the Flathead Valley, where he has studied music since age 5. He started with contest fiddle music, becoming proficient in the Texas-style fiddle tradition. He went on to win multiple National Oldtime Fiddle Championships in Weiser along with many more competitions. Maw expanded his musical horizons, becoming proficient in many musical styles, including country, fusion and bebop. He has studied under some of the world’s most prominent musicians including fiddlers Mark O’Connor, Billy Contreras and Jimmie Don Bates; jazz violinists Christian Howes and Didier Lockwood; and legendary musical tuning expert, Siemen Terpstra.
Maw has taught or performed at workshops and festivals across the United States, including the Shasta Music Summit, the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival and Djangofest Northwest. He also gives private instruction in his spare time. Along with the violin, he plays and enjoys the mandolin, guitar, tenor guitar and tenor banjo.
McMillan said the major criteria that the judges base their scores on are intonation, timing, danceability and old-time feel.
On Saturday, the competition will resume at the Pavilion, where judges will adjudicate performances in six classes — Small Fry, 8 and under; Junior-Junior, 9-12; Junior, 13-17; Adult, 18-59; Senior, 60 and older; and the Novice category for anyone 18 or older who has never competed before; and the Championship category.
Admission to the contest is $5 per person with children 10 and younger admitted for free. Tickets will be sold at the door.
The first round of competition starts at 9 a.m. and goes until a lunch break at 12:15 p.m. The next round begins at 1:30 p.m. These rounds are open to all contestants, who earn points for their performances in both rounds. The top point getters in each class receive championship trophies. The top placers also win cash awards.
There will be a dinner break at about 5 p.m. and the contest will resume at 6:30 p.m. with the final championship round at 8:40 p.m. The contest judges are scheduled to perform again at 9:10 p.m. and the final awards will be given at 9:45 p.m.
“They’re not going to see any better fiddling in Montana for the rest of the year for sure,” McMillan said of audience members attending the Saturday contest.
Orville Grasdock, an old-time fiddler from Fairfield, is once again making and donating all the trophies for the winners in the different events.
McMillan said the community has shown great support for the contest. “The sponsors in Choteau and Augusta are certainly digging deep to help us out, and we really appreciate that,” he said. “We are really pleased with the reception we’ve had from Choteau and we’re hoping that it continues to grow into a stronger symbiosis.”
In the future, McMillan said, the MSOTFA hopes to contact the Teton Antique Steam and Gas Association and see whether the fiddle contest and the organization’s Threshing Bee could work together on one big old-time event in Choteau in mid-September.
McMillan said the two events — old-time fiddling and the threshing bee — would likely compliment each other and his group hopes at least to explore the possibility of a mutually beneficial arrangement.