Wieser National Fiddle Contest


Goin' to Weiser? The National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest, Weiser, Idaho, by Paul Anastasio
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 tunes.

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!

 Where:  The 2003 National Oldtime Fiddlers'Contest will take place June 15-21. For more information about the contest and festival, see their website at www.FiddleContest.com or call (800) 437-1280. ]

 Cautions:  May be addictive.

 List:  Plan a place to stay well as this is a small town. Email Us