When it comes to cultural touchstones of the Blue Ridge, nothing is more iconic than the country fiddle. Those sweet tones and energetic melodies have been heard echoing off the hills of the Shenandoah Valley for centuries. But traditional music like this doesn’t just get passed down through the generations by accident; it takes concerted effort and community support, two things you’ll find in spades at the Old Time Fiddlers Convention.
For the past five years, this weekend-long festival has been held at the Highland County Fairgrounds in Monterey, the seat of Highland County. Drawing hundreds of competitors from all over the country, it features many kinds of Appalachian arts and crafts including square dancing, hymnal choruses, and, of course, plenty of fiddle playing. Individual performers and folk bands alike come to show off their chops and take home the grand prize (almost $5,000 will be awarded in total across the many competition categories). This is a country event through and through: the songs must be traditional, the performances acoustic, and everyone is encouraged to bring their own lawn chair. We caught up with Convention President Jay Garber to see what’s in store for this year.
How did this festival get started?
I don’t know how much you know about Highland County, but when you live here, there’s not much that goes on. Highland is all rural area. It’s the size of Rockingham County and we have a population of less than 2,000 people. There are no stoplights here. The only place you can get cell phone service is right in town in Monterey, which is a town of less than 200 people.
People are always trying to think of ways to bring business and money to Highland County. We put on a fundraiser for the Historical Society and had some old time musicians playing. Typically at a fundraiser, people sit down, they eat, and they go back home. But this time, people stuck around and listened to the music, so I thought that might work here in the community.
What are your roles and responsibilities with the convention?
I’ve been the president since we started. I do the advertising and promotion, setting up the grounds and cleaning up, and help get the MCs together. My wife helps out a bit, but I just do what needs to be done. We have four members in this organization, everything else is run by volunteers. We have around 70 of them.
Where do most of the participants of the festival come from?
We’ll have maybe three or four participants from Highland County, most of them are young people that are playing fiddles and violins. They’re learning classical, but they’ll try something different and come out and compete. Most of the people who come to our festival play old time music, they come and camp. They will sit around their campsites and play music for the whole weekend. We don’t get a lot of people who come just to be spectators, most of them come to play music. We’ve brought in over 500 musicians each year, I’m hoping we’ll get 1,000 this year.
I understand there is a bit of a tour circuit for these kinds of performers?Yes, a lot of them come and camp every year, then go together to other festivals to compete. The festivals start down in North Carolina in late April or early May, and they go on about every weekend somewhere throughout the summer.
If you’re thinking of going (or competing), be sure to check out the official website for details and plan to make an overnight trip of it. The fairgrounds open at noon on Thursday, July 14 for those who want to set up camp early. The opening ceremonies kick off at 5 PM on Friday, July 15, followed by a square dance at 6 PM and the first round of band performances at 8 PM. On Saturday, July 15, individual performers compete starting at 11 AM, followed by a second night of band competitions at 8 PM. On Sunday, July 14, all in attendance are invited to participate in a group hymn sing before the park closes at 4 PM. Tickets are $10 for the fiddle competition (no charge for children under 12), but many of the ancillary events are free for all.
The Old Time Fiddlers Convention will be held from July 14–17 at the Highland County Fairgrounds (386 Myers-Moon Road, Monterey VA). For full schedule of events, visit highfiddle.com.
Photography by Brandy Somers