based on an interview by Gary Eller for the NOTF newsletter.
My History at Weiser, Idaho by Mark O’Connor Entering the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest from the Junior-Junior Division to the Grand Champion Division
1. How did you first learn about the National Old Time Fiddle Contest? It was not but a couple of weeks into my first fiddle lessons in Seattle November of 1972, when my teacher Barbara Lamb told my mother and I about a major fiddle competition in Weiser, Idaho. She quite literally began preparing me to enter the 12 and under division for that very summer. I began fiddling as an 11 year-old, but had taken both Classical and Flamenco guitar for 5 years prior to that, so I was able to progress rapidly. Within 7 months of picking up the fiddle, I was entering the little kid’s division at Weiser.
2. What years did you come to Weiser? For my complete Weiser contest history, I entered the 12 and under Juniors-Junior division in 1973, the Juniors-Juniors and Juniors in 1974, the 17 and under Junior division 1975 – 1977, and the Grand Championships in 1978 – 1981, and year break and then 1983 and 1984.
3. What were your initial impressions and how did they evolve over the years? There were just a very few kids playing fiddle in 1973, literally 3 kids in my Junior-Juniors division. To add even more curiosity to my early years, my fiddle teacher Barbara Lamb herself was just 3 years older than I. She was age 14 when she began teaching me making for quite an amazing story in itself. Barbara was entering the 17 and under Junior division when I first came to Weiser. There were only about 8 contestants in her division that first year. I came in 2nd in the Junior-Juniors which was pretty amazing since I had only played the instruments for about 7 months. I played blues for both of my tunes of choices I remember (the 3rd tune in each round). I loved that genre and style from the beginning. The winner of my division Loretta Brank, was age 12. She had won the Junior-Juniors the year before, which was the first year they introduced it to the schedule. Loretta’s father spent his own money to buy the trophies for the top 3 kids who placed. There was so little interest and so few kids playing the fiddle at the time. We soon discovered this same discrepancy around the entire country in the coming year, not very many kids playing the fiddle music. Loretta was a student of the Texas fiddle legend Benny Thomasson who had recently relocated from Texas to southern Washington state. Loretta was a kid my age I immediately looked up to. She had more experience than me in fiddling of course, knew far more tunes, and Benny Thomasson tunes at that. She had the fortune to learning from the legend. I remember her rendition of “Jack of Diamonds” that first year and really liked it. I remember being so envious that she knew how to play her own beginning version of Texas style fiddling that was carefully crafted by Thomasson. I wanted to catch up somehow and play this way. She and I became fast friends, meeting up with each other’s families often. Ultimately we became life-long friends and in touch with each other to this day. I also got to meet Benny Thomasson at Weiser myself that first year in 1973 but ever so briefly. At a subsequent fiddle contest in Oregon just a month or so later that summer, I was able to meet Benny again and this time it was memorable. I was warming up for my little kids division in the hallway of the old school. Benny walked towards me and my accompanist working through my tunes. He stopped and listened for a minute and began talking to my mother standing there. He offered to teach me, for free. He told my mother that if she could drive the me the four hours to his house in Kalamath, WA, he would teach me all day long. Within 3 or 4 months I would begin regular lessons with him. It was a mentor/protégé match made in Heaven I guess you could say. For years to come he was my principle fiddle teacher. We mainly worked on breakdowns, and a few hornpipes and rags thrown in, my lessons sometimes lasting an entire weekend. That profound relationship in my musical development would not have happened without there being the National Contest at Weiser. Within a single generation, the total of 15 children present at the initial field of 300 fiddle contestants I saw in 1973, grew to become the majority age group. The Small Fry division was introduced to handle contestants under age 9 to handle the extra demand.
4. How have the fiddle contest, campground, and Weiser community scenes evolved over the years, and how do you see them changing in the future? The early years for me at Weiser were mostly spent in the Junior High campground, as I believe it was referred to. The small camping fee was all that we could afford at that time. While some fiddlers had varying sizes of campers and trailers on the grounds, we lived in our 1950s era black Chevy station wagon. We were very poor. When I began to make more money as a young talented musician and competition winner, vying for the top prize money in the open divisions by my mid-teens, we got a hotel room for the week at Weiser in a nearby town so my mother could make sure that I got plenty of sleep before my rounds. But the jam sessions I heard in the campground that first year I attended, changed my musical trajectory. One in particular was a Texas Fiddle jam session between Thomasson from Texas, Junior Daugherty from New Mexico, and Roy Cowan and J.C. Broughton from Oklahoma. That jam was a life-changing event for me. It would be hard to name a more monumental single event that shaped my early development as a musician than that jam session I saw. It opened up my mind to all kinds of musical possibilities and I progressed even more rapidly after that. I marveled over the varying styles that each fiddler played with, but at the same time, how they were sharing the same tunes, using their own variations and their own improvisation and creativity absolutely spontaneously. The musical language was so deeply understood by the players. To be able to get beyond my set little arrangements and really create my own music on the instrument, whether it was on existing classics or my own tunes I would compose, became my paramount goal after that. Each player in that jam could do it all. They all could improvise, they all had their own variations of popular tunes, they could improvise on the spot within the jam session to the point that the other fiddlers would notice and vocally respond to it. Sometime they would yell out in approval of each other’s variations. It was the blueprint of what I thought all American fiddling was supposed to be, and what I wanted to have for myself too.
5. Do you have any interesting Weiser anecdotes (humorous or otherwise) to share? In 1974, my teacher Benny Thomasson won both the Senior division and the Grand Champion division, while I won the Junior-Juniors and the Junior divisions. Because of the two double-category wins that teacher and student achieved, nearly sweeping the entire week of competition, the rules committee banned the entry for any fiddler into more than one category. A few years later in 1977 after I had won the Junior division for the 4th year in a row, the rules committee established that a fiddler could not be allowed to win more than three times in a row in any category without taking a year off in that category. As a result of the rule change, I was allowed to move into the Grand Champion Division at age 16, make me the first person under age 18 to be allowed into the Open. Denying a kid from entering the contest seemed unfair to most, and so they truly opened up the open division. I was able to win 2nd place that year in 1978 behind one of the great Weiser champions and mentor Herman Johnson. The following year in 1979, I became the youngest National Old-Time Fiddler’s Champion at age 17. My overall winning record across three divisions I entered at Weiser culminated in three 2nd place finishes and nine 1st place finishes, arguably the most uniquely dominant record in the Weiser’s history. Two anecdotes that I will share from my years at Weiser. In 1978, the first year I was allowed into the Grand Championship division as a youngster, there was a rule change placing stricter penalties on the recently imposed time limits for the overall length of rounds. Applause between tunes was now being discouraged as fiddlers sped there way right into the next tune without nearly so much as a couple of breaths, all to avoid being penalized. In 5th round on the final night of the contest, I sped right into the beginning of my waltz without collecting my thoughts. I completely forgot what waltz I was supposed to play, because I was so concerned about the time and to begin right away. I never did regain any semblance of the tune for the entire excruciating minute and a half as I improvised my way through an invented waltz on stage. Mind you, it was complete with off-key guitar chords going every which way around me, and to no fault of their own of course. My accompanists were Rick Youngblood and Joe Sites that year. Many people who believed I had a chance of overtaking the great contest legend Herman Johnson to win it all at the unprecedented age of 16, realized I may have lost the contest to him right then and there. I actually fooled some of the judges though! The title of the waltz that I intended to play? The Howdy Forrester classic “Memory Waltz”. By the time I had won three years in a row in the Grand Champion division and was forced to sit out, I came back to a field of competitors at Weiser where every other fiddler was basically copying my style and approach, as well as mimicking my own variations of tunes and even memorizing my improvisations from jam tapes. My strategy for winning my 4th open title 1984 involved a rather unique plan. I changed the key to several well-known tunes, writing completely new renditions of standards, all so I could stick out from the field like I used to. It worked! While one of Weiser’s top champions Tony Ludiker tagged me in the contest the year before, I was able to return the favor for my 4th and final win. The audio recordings of my rounds during these years from 1975 through 1984 were preserved on an album and in a book called “Championship Years.” Why did I retire so young at age 23, especially when I was so good at fiddle contests? Later that year in 1984, I signed a multiple album deal as solo artist/producer with Warner Bros. Records. Besides the pop star Prince, I was the youngest artist/producer ever signed to WB at that time. I had a whole other music career unfolding and responsible for composing, performing, recording and producing new music. The bulk of my traditional music had to take a back seat at that point, but what a dream come true for me as well. This journey was informed by my experiences with Benny and at Weiser about as much as any other thing I can think of.
6. Based on your wide experience, do you have any suggestions to improve the contest and festival to ensure they continue for many more decades? With the best fiddlers, or for any fiddler actually, the creativity and personal style was the standard bearer for the fiddle contest era of the 1970s and before. It was both expected and very much a part of the culture concerning this kind of musicianship. Players wanted to sound different from each other and that was not only at the heart of the fiddle culture that I grew up in, but it was insisted on by all of my fiddle teachers including Benny Thomasson as well as my final teacher, the jazz legend Stephane Grappelli. They all maintained that I continue to develop my own style, approach, variation writing, tune-writing and improvisational ideas. To illustrate this specifically to Weiser, allow me to list some top champions back in the 1970s to make the case. Even within a single American fiddle style, the “Texas Style fiddling”, tunes sound so completely different in the hands of Benny Thomasson, as they did Dick Barrett, as they did with Herman Johnson and then add myself in that same mix. We were all playing the same repertoire with many of the same principles of the Texas style being applied, and we were often using the same accompanists, but we might as well have been playing in 4 separate genres, because our personal style and individual expression sounded so unique from one another. Even our style and approach to improvisation was quite a bit different from one another. Today, it is hard to make a similar case. The idea of individuality has broken down in the fiddling culture, as it has in practically every other genre of music. Today the scoring cord and individual categories for judging need to be adjusted in order to accommodate this negative trend of mimicking, copying and in essence aping licks right from tapes and recordings for the competitions. Most fiddlers who merely copy and play memorized performances for their rounds, are nearly duplicating sometimes even more than a few fiddlers in the very same contest. This advice is not as much for Weiser as it is for all fiddle contests around the country. I would create another score card to replace many of the existing ones, and make sure that the categories of originality, creativity, variation writing, expression and even some reward for tune-writing or improvisation if it is not over done, are all reflected. I believe this will single-handedly keep fiddling alive and well. Great fiddling should not be about Memorex and pressing forever repeat of the same notes again and again. The great fiddlers never quit working on their renditions. The single greatest thing that separates American fiddling from say Irish fiddling and some other fiddle styles, is the fiddler’s ability to come up with their own renditions of tunes and to improvise within the style and within the tune, as well as have their own recognizable sound and personality. American fiddle contests should be about creativity and personal expression like it used to be in the 1970s, an era that was perhaps the greatest fiddle contest era.
7. Do you have any advice for youngsters who compete and jam at Weiser as they go forward in life with their fiddling, either as a hobby or professionally? I always thought that the contests were a great training ground for being a professional musician. As a teen, I found that contests were one of the few stages in front of a large audience that I could play as a soloist. You learn how to prepare and practice for the contest performances, figure out warm up routines, find adequate accompaniment that can help you on stage, and deal with high pressure situations that comes both on and off stage in a sometimes tension-filled environment. Competition playing is really close to what I do today as a professional artist actually. I always thought that the contests were a great way to keep track of other great players as well, pick up some new tunes and ideas and get some feedback for your latest renditions. I like to see players, whether they are on the stage, or in the jam sessions after hours, look for opportunities to become better musicians in the process. I think that the idea of having fun, can be framed around taking every contest and every jam session you enter in seriously, making every note count and becoming the best you can be at an event like Weiser. That process and journey is in itself, fun.
8. Overall, what does your Weiser experience mean to you? For me, the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest at Weiser Idaho had a profound impact on me as an artist and also for my music education efforts today. In 1994, I held my first international “fiddle camp” and it immediately became the gold standard string camp in the U.S. for American fiddle genres. I have had well over 7,000 unique enrollments at my Camps over the years. I designed the structure of these camps around the 5-day Weiser contest format. I thought it was the perfect length to both push oneself to the max, and have just enough energy to get through and survive the 5 days successfully. The new O’Connor Method String Camp features the 5-day format as well. Authoring the multi-books series, the “O’Connor Method” (A New American School of String Playing) is a direct lineage from my experiences as a young boy at Weiser. How I was able to learn from the older generations at Weiser, both my father’s generation and my grandfather’s generations there all had a huge impact on how I see the American System of string pedagogy. After all, I met my profound teacher Benny Thomasson at Weiser and that led to bi-monthly, day-long, sometimes weekend-long fiddle lessons for years. We worked on breakdowns as if it was our Johann Sebastian Bach. Benny is like our Bach. So I have added to the Weiser experience and legacy with my on String Camps, and now a formalized violin pedagogy using American music in order to learn how to play this magical instrument. I came along at the right time to have experienced first-hand, what was perhaps the greatest era in American music history, to know and learn from the originators of the great American fiddle styles from the 1930s – 1970s. I learned and played with people like the Franklins, the Solomons and the Morris’ out of Texas, along with folks like Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker, B.B. King, Johnny Gimble, Merle Haggard, Roy Acuff, Bo Diddley, Vassar Clements, Earl Scruggs, Buddy Spicher, Chet Atkins, Byron Berline, Doc Watson, Joe Venuti and many more. These great memories and inspiration are permanently etched in stone. Mark O’Connor