Musicians young and old weren’t fiddling around Sunday afternoon as they gathered in small groups playing together before the opening of the Missouri Fiddle Championships hosted at the Touchstone Energy Stage at the Missouri State Fair.
MSF Fiddle Contest Superintendent Allen Wyatt, of Independence, said the event has been taking place for 25 years.
“It started in the late 1980s,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 10 years. Bill Shull did it before I did. And he’s going to be taking it back over after this year.”
The competition brought in about 10 participants in the Junior Division ages 16 and under, three in the Senior Division ages 60 and older, and seven in the Open Division.
“The open is any age,” Wyatt said. “So, usually it’s the people older than the juniors and younger than the seniors, but sometimes seniors and juniors will enter it too. It’s usually the one where the most competition is. Although the junior division is growing, and it has over the years. It’s as large as any other division, and we have a lot of kids that like to compete.”
A “fiddle” is a violin but you won’t hear that word used at this competition. A fiddle is more composite of bluegrass and down-home rural roots than the more classical term, “violin.”
“You may hear more people in bluegrass and old time fiddling refer to their instrument as a fiddle,” said Wyatt, who owns Wyatt Violin Shop in Independence.
Contestants weren’t timed but were required to play three songs during the competition: a hoedown, a waltz and a tune of their choice. Fiddle players could chose to have three back up instruments and many of them had acoustic guitar and bass fiddle musicians playing with them. Contestants also had to be a Missouri resident, Wyatt added.
Ribbons are given up to 10th place, plus plaques for first. A Fiddle Champion is chosen from the first place winner in the open division. Judging the competition were Charlie Walden, of Evanston, Ill., Bill Shull, of Warrensburg, and Howard Marshall, of Millersburg.
“Whoever wins, will be the state champion,” Wyatt said. “It’s officially sanctioned by the governor of Missouri as the Official Missouri State Fiddle Championship.”
Wyatt added that the competition was a good way to introduce youth to performing.
“We have a lot of orchestra students, youngsters, they’ll play orchestra and they’ll also do it on the side,” he added.
Before the event, several small groups had formed, practicing their music while filling the air with bluegrass, swing and other fiddle melodies.
Wyatt pointed out Travis Inman, of Cole Camp, as an accomplished, award-winning fiddle player.
“He’s won the Missouri State Championship more than anybody else,” he said. “I was talking with him (Sunday) and he’s won like 15 times and 12 of those were first place.”
Inman said he’d been winning since age 12 and has more than 200 fiddle playing trophies.
On Sunday, before the competition, he was practicing with Anthony Wilson, of Rocheport, who played Texas-style acoustic guitar, and Kathy Gordon, of Columbia, who played the bass. The group was playing “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Inman, 51, said he’d purchased his Italian-made instrument at a fiddle competition in Branson for $1,000.
“But I wouldn’t sell it for $5,000,” he added. “It has a rich tone.”
Inman, who teaches “fiddle” at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said he is a regular at the competition.
“I’ve won the Missouri State Fiddle Championship 11 times,” he added. “I go through the Missouri Folk Arts program to teach students fiddle every year.”
He said he had an uncle who taught him fiddle, Othello Smith.
“He was an old square dance fiddle player,” he said. “He got me started. And then I started hanging around fiddle contests and started traveling around to different states playing fiddle. And I just got better and better. My goal in playing fiddle was to win one trophy.”
Inman said he enjoys playing old time fiddle, plus swing and jazz.
Before the event, Lynn Wells, of Boonesboro, was busy playing his fiddle also with Wilson accompanying him.
“It always turns out to be quite a contest,” said Toni Wells, Lynn’s wife. “I’m just the wife, I play spoons, that’s all.”
She said Lynn has been playing for more than 30 years.
Lynn has a good answer as to why the instrument is called a fiddle.
“It’s in how it’s played,” he said. “Well, violin is mostly by note, but fiddling is mostly by ear. It’s in how you hear it.”
He plays bluegrass and he added “the next one I learn” is his favorite.
“They’re all fine,” he said smiling. “I like ‘Sally Goodin.’ We call it the Boonesboro anthem. We live in Boonesboro — there’s only four people there and they all know me.”
Anna Belle Wakeland, 9, of Hillsboro, was practicing with her father, Randy Wakeland, and her aunt, Pam Schaefer, of Rich Fountain, before the competition.
Anna Belle, who loves Charlie Daniels’ music, is fairly new to fiddle playing.
“I’m going on two and half years,” she said.
“She also plays in the symphony,” Schaefer said. “In the symphony she also plays the cello.”
“We were here last year,” her father said. “There’s some phenomenal talent.”
Anna Belle said she loves the sound of the fiddle.
“When it blends all together it’s amazing,” she added.
At 83, Charles “Bud” Wyatt Jr., of Centralia, is a seasoned fiddle veteran. He was busy playing his fiddle outside the tent before the event. Wyatt, father of Allen Wyatt, loves playing bluegrass, hoedowns and waltzes.
He’s been attending the fiddle championships since it began, but he doesn’t come to play, only to listen. Although he always brings his personalized fiddle, complete with his likeness and name inscribed on the back.
Shull, who will assume the superintendent’s position for the 2015 Missouri Fiddle Championships, said MSF officials have always been helpful in making the contest amenable to contestants.
“The fair’s been very accommodating to all the needs of the people,” he said. “There’s a million little things that have to be taken care of to actually make this happen. They have been wonderful, they’ve really supported us.”