The annual State Fiddling Contest returns to the Minnesota State Fair this weekend — a two-day event in which people young and old, playing fast and slow (and sometimes behind their back), test their musical skills.
Lee Cowan, a former truck driver from Oak Grove who was sure to bring his fiddle when he was on the road, expects to be there. So does John Wallace of Minnetonka, who teaches fiddling and has won his share of prizes at the contest over the years.
Former champion Deena Bistodeau, a Princeton, Minn. native, won’t be on hand, but she’s still going strong. She plays with a country band out of Nashville, and she credits the State Fair contest with helping to jump-start her career.
This years’s competition is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 23-24, at the West End Market Stage at the Falcon Heights fairgrounds. It’s sponsored by the Minnesota State Fiddlers Association and includes several different divisions organized by age and style.
Dee Scott of Mound, who manages the competition, said the association strives to keep the heritage of fiddling alive. Membership in the association that originated in 1986 “isn’t what it once was,” she said, but the contest and regular jam sessions always get a good turnout.
The contest’s youth divisions usually have the most entrants. Scott says that children often will catch the competition with their families. “They say to themselves, ‘I want to fiddle,’ ” said Scott, adding, “We get a lot of new fiddlers that way.”
As of last week, about 30 people had registered for the contest, said Mary Pat Kleven, a Cannon Falls resident who leads the fiddlers association.
In the various age divisions, fiddlers play a waltz and a fast tune. In the open division, which tends to attract more accomplished players, mainly because it offers larger cash prizes, said Kleven, fiddlers play several pieces, including a waltz, a hoedown and a tune of their choice, like a jig or a polka.
There’s also a “trick” category, in which contestants can show off moves like playing the fiddle behind their back, Scott said.
Pairs can team up for the “twin” division, while “Fe-Fi-Faux” lets people fiddle around on other acoustic instruments, Kleven said.
A new “heritage” category will ask contestants to tell a compelling story about a particular tune, such as its origin or how the player learned it. Then, the contestant will play the song on another acoustic instrument, Scott said.
Time permitting, judges and contestants will also test their tune knowledge in a “Gambler’s” division.
Fiddlers can play alone or with up to three accompanists. Judges score performances on tone, timing and execution. Overall, the prizes range from $10 to $300, contest materials say.
Deena Bistodeau, the Princeton native who recently relocated from Austin, Texas, to Nashville, said the State Fair contest and others around the country played a major role in helping her career. Right now, she is touring with Mustang Sally, a band that’s on the road 265 days a year.
Bistodeau entered the State Fair contest for a number of years and won six titles. Her sister, Sedra, with whom Deena played for a season on “A Prairie Home Companion,” won several awards at the contest, as well.
“One of the reasons I am so passionate about contesting is because as a child, looking back, it was the main reason I played,” Deena Bistodeau said. It inspired healthy competition “that pushed me to the next level.” It also introduced her to her mentor, and to the Texas contest style that involves “controlled improvisation,” which dominates the American contest landscape, she said.
Bistodeau is glad to see the youth involvement in the State Fair competition, but “what’s missing are the advanced players,” she said.
In the past, the contest drew more elite players, including from out-of-state, she said. Fiddlers like Jimmie Don Bates, Jed Germond and Bethany Borg, once familiar faces at the contest and others, “all had great influence on my playing and were top-notch players at contests,” said Bistodeau, who started playing the violin at 7.
In the past few years, several local fiddling contests have gone under, she said, including one that the Bistodeau family ran for eight years: the Gene Girth Memorial Contest in Princeton.
“Ours came about to perpetuate the tradition,” and to provide another high-paying contest, Deena said. For several years, she ran it remotely. However, that got to be too difficult, so the 2013 contest was the last.
Texas, Idaho, California, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee are all “intense competition grounds” for fiddlers, she said. Minnesota is a little more “off the grid.”
Bistodeau, who used to travel to contests all over the country, encourages people to “go and find the knowledge, experience it, and try to get it back in the state. It’s a sacred and guarded tradition. There are a lot of people across the country working hard to keep it alive.”
Preparing for the Fair
Cowan, 71, of Oak Grove, is a native of Canada who says fiddling helps connect him to that country and to his past. As a teenager, he played a fiddle that had belonged to his uncle, who died in World War II. He also remembers teaching himself simple tunes one night when he was bundling hay on his family’s farm. It was the 1950s, and there was “no such thing as a dance that didn’t have a fiddle,” he said.
Cowan’s current repertoire includes mainly Canadian tunes, which are peppy, he says. Often he gets accused of playing too fast.
One of his favorites is a song called “Maple Sugar.” He jokes that it’s the “national anthem of Canada.”
Cowan has tried to do his part to keep the art form going. He often shows up to jams, even when he doesn’t feel up to par.
He also taught his two children to play the fiddle. When they were small, he made a deal with them: He’d give them a nickel for every note they mastered. It started out with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which amounted to about a dollar for them. When a more complicated song later cost him $40, “I had to put a stop to it,” he said.
Wallace, of Minnetonka, came to fiddling more than 30 years ago after trying out other string instruments. Wallace, who is also a State Fiddlers Association board member, teaches the instrument at the Homestead Pickin’ Parlor in Richfield.
Over the past dozen years or so, he’s gotten prizes at the State Fair contest all but twice, or “enough times to keep me going,” he said. He sees the contest as “a way to get onstage and try your best, then let go of things and let the judges do their work.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.