508 Park Fiddle Contest picks up long tradition

Published in The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 8, 2015

More than 30 musicians competed Saturday in the first 508 Park Fiddle Contest and Concert Series.

“I can’t even guess how much money is here right now, from the old Gibson guitars of the accompanists to the fiddles themselves,” said Ed Carnes, a board member of The Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association.

TOTFA helped organize the first Dallas fiddle contest in 50 years. Bluegrass Heritage Foundation founder and president Alan Tompkins was master of ceremonies for the first of a music series put on by the Museum of Street Culture.

Carnes, who placed second in the Adult Fiddle category for ages 40 to 64, hoped the event would preserve the art of Texas fiddling.

“More than 20 years ago, there were at least 50 fiddling contests in the state and people were passionate about it,” he said. “They grew up listening to that music. When those people aged and couldn’t play anymore or passed along, some of the contests stopped happening.”

So, this competition tried to attract a younger crowd with $4,000 in cash prizes.

Brayden Baird, 8, was the only contestant in the Small Fry category for ages 8 and younger.

“I’ve been playing for a year,” he said, proudly pointing out that his favorite radio station is Bluegrass Junction. “I don’t get nervous. It’s my third time performing in a contest. I just pretend it’s me and the guitar.”

He begged for a jacket, though, the second he got offstage. The cold was the only thing that did bother him, and he wasn’t the only one.

Christianna Nugent, 12, received first in the Junior-Junior Division for ages 9 through 12. She played 49 Hats in a Rain Barrel and Lovers’ Waltz.

“I hit a few bad notes today,” she said. “If it’s too hot, my hands get sweaty and it’s hard to hit the notes. If it’s cold, my fingers get cold and it’s hard to move them.”

Her sister, Noelle Nugent, received second place in the Junior Division for ages 13 to 17. Her sisters Karissa and Faith placed third and fourth respectively in the Young Adult fiddle category, for ages 18 to 39.

Christianna said she’s happy to win, but it’s really about family and not just her biological one.

“My sisters have been in this a long time, so we’ve been to many competitions and it has definitely become like family for us here with all our friends,” she said.

Organizers introduced a category called the Roots of Western Swing to pay homage to the playing styles of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, The Light Crust Doughboys, Roy Newman and others who recorded at the 508 Park building. Music executive Don Law produced 843 recordings, including ones from those groups, between 1935 and 1939.

“Normally, in a fiddle contest, a soloist with two or three guitar accompanists plays classic Texas fiddle tunes,” Carnes said. “In this category, we’ll hear singing and other stuff as well that you don’t normally hear at contests.”

Leah Sawyer, 14, won first place in the new category and third in the Junior Division.

“I’m really proud I get to place and get to be up there with other players,” she said. “This is a place where I can see what other people think of my playing and how I can improve.”

Simon Stipp, 26, placed first in the accompanist category. He played for several performers.

“I think this contest is important because it’s in the heart of Dallas,” he said. “These contests are generally out in the country, so this adds some diversity to both our audience and the city of Dallas.”

Alan Govenar, the founding director of the Museum of Street Culture, planned the event. Govenar also produced Texas Style, a 1985 documentary on Texas fiddling that featured Jim Chancellor and Valerie Ryals, two of the judges on Saturday. The third judge was fiddler Wes Westmoreland.

Westmoreland said he looks for the use of micro-improvisation on the distinctive Texas fiddling tunes, where “the point of the song is still there but it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s version.”

“But, you don’t want to jazz up the song too much because you can’t lose the melody,” he said. “Then you lose the history.”

Westmoreland said live competitions preserve history better than recordings.

“Fiddle music is not a building you can go see,” he said. “It’s an art form you need to go play and see and hear.”

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