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It all started the day I was born.


My first fiddle contest in Graham, MO.

Yep, that's right, all my life, I really don't remember anything other than hearing old-time music. My family were playing something all the time. Sunday afternoons, visits to my grandpa's gas station and holidays were filled with someone getting out the guitar and my grandpa pulling out the latest fiddle that his friend purchased at an auction. I still remember my family jamming with other folks until late at night when my eyes couldn't stay open any longer, and I would drift off to my grandma singing or my grandpa sawing on his fiddle. Matter of fact, I thought everyone grew up going to festivals and fiddling contests. It all seemed natural for me to begin on some instrument. I don't know if I picked it or if it was because my grandpa wanted me to play it, but fiddle became my instrument.

Somewhere around the age of 3, my family decided to enroll me in Suzuki classes. I don't remember how long I took these classes or even if I learned anything, but for whatever reason, I stopped playing that way and started learning from my grandma. She seemed to have an abundance of patience when it came to listening to someone play so horribly. For many hours, she would teach me what she knew, which was a few songs and what she had taught herself from playing mandolin. She showed me the G scale and double notes and was able to teach me Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Mary Had A Little Lamb. I would get my fiddle out occasionally to practice, and at the age of 8, I decided I was ready to play in my first contest. It was August of 1979 and the contest was held in Graham, Missouri. Once there, I found out that I needed to play three songs for the contest, so grandpa took me out behind our camper and taught me Go Tell Aunt Molly. I competed that day and out of three junior contestants, I placed third. It didn't matter where I placed because they gave me $35 silver dollars, a trophy, and the desire to practice and compete. From that day on, my family grew to include all of these other wonderful fiddlers from across the U.S. who I couldn't wait to see at the next contest.


My dad, Rod, backing my Grandpa up in a contest.

Shortly after this first contest, grandma didn't think she could teach me the songs I was ready to learn, so grandpa took over. My grandpa was no ordinary man. He was simple, and when he liked something, he was like a kid and would indulge in it. He owned and worked at the Skelly gas station in Big Springs off of Highway 40 and did this all the time I was growing up until his death. It seemed that life revolved around that gas station. Often, that is where my dad and I did grocery shopping, and obviously it was the nearest place to get gas, and is where the bus let me off after school. In the early years, an 8-foot meat case held cold items, and I remember times when my dad would walk in and say that he needed a pound of baloney and a pound of cheese. Grandpa would pull these out, slice them on a meat slicer and wrap them up in brown paper and tape. At some point, the meat case broke. It then became the storage unit for all of his valuables: his fiddles. There would be fiddle after fiddle, some on top of each other in that case. I remember the day that I searched it for my grown-up fiddle. I ended up with some Stainer copy with the fingerboard already worn from years of being played on and a big crack on the top. At that time, I thought it looked cool and sounded pretty good for the mess it was in, and it actually did sound pretty good. Anyway, before grandpa was passing down his obsession for fiddles to me, he started passing down his years of playing to me. I would sit in one of the two chairs at the gas station and listen to the series of notes he played and try to repeat them. This was difficult! Grandpa had the biggest fingers and often he would use the wrong ones to fit in his notes. All of this learning was occasionally interrupted when grandpa had to pump gas or ring someone up on the old push-button cash register. Sometimes I would get it right quickly and sometimes he would sit there saying nothing as I sobbed because I couldn't figure out what he was doing. Eventually, he taught me real fiddle tunes. Grandpa's favorite fiddle tune of mine was Durham's Reel and it made me feel good when he would say he wished he could play like that. (Today, I find myself wishing I could play like him.)

With the new contest tunes came the excitement of competing in various contests. We traveled to Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and South Dakota. My favorite contest that my family went to every year was in Yankton, South Dakota. This was the highlight of my year. Every third weekend in September, Dad, grandma with her dog, and grandpa loaded up the mini home with instruments, picked me up from a volleyball game, and drove out to South Dakota. The trip seemed to take forever, especially since I was so young. I would be so excited when we would pull into the Piggly Wiggly to stock up on groceries. The drive was finally over. Once the camper was parked, I would jump out and see who of my extended family was there already. The weekend was filled with fiddler after fiddler playing their best on the big stage, fiddlers playing out in the parking lot, fiddlers playing in town at various restaurants, and fiddles echoing in the gymnasium until the wee hours of the morning. It was always cold, and when I would go to sleep, it seemed I heard all of the fiddle tunes in the world ringing in my ears. I would play fiddles with or against Amos Chase - (Grantville, Kansas), Lucy Pierce - (Kansas City, Kansas), Dwight Lamb - (Onawa, Iowa), Pete McMahan - (Missouri), the Shaw boys - (Lincoln, Nebraska) John and his younger brother Jason always beat me and would draw huge crowds because they were so young and played so well, the Blom family - (Blair, Wisconsin), Reg Bouvette - (St. Boniface, Canada), and so many others. I even played against Vernon Spencer of Big Springs, Kansas - yep, my Grandpa!

My grandpa was not a flashy player. He wouldn't string a series of notes together that would make your head spin. Matter of fact, it seemed that he really wasn't too interested in the amount of notes he played but concentrated on his unique bowing style, which I never did figure out while he was living. I really never heard anyone else that played like him. It is interesting that even today, I can picture in my head the way he stood, how his mouth moved, which seemed to help him picked up notes, and his boot-tapping rhythm that was sometimes louder than his playing. He had this hat that was a black ball cap that said, "good guys wear white hats." It didn't stop there because he had this small pin attached to his hat that said, "everyone needs a hero, I'm mine." (Perhaps his sense of humor was passed to me as well.) Anyway, my crowning achievement happened the year my grandpa passed away. It was third weekend in September. I was living in St. Louis trying to make money with my first real job and playing with a band. But I decided to travel with my family to South Dakota. Even though my grandparents had continued to go, I hadn't been for a long time. It was my first time competing in the open division there, and I had never placed higher than third at Yankton: But that year, I won the competition with my grandpa watching. Two months later, I found myself realizing I would never play with my grandpa again. I was left with his latest prize possession, and to this day, I have never found a fiddle I would rather play. It took some time to pass after grandpa's death before I could play again, but about seven years later, I picked it up again and competed at South Dakota seven months pregnant with my second child and won the open division again. This also was a memorable contest, because my longtime friend and mentor Amos Chase, who was one of the judges in my division, passed away at the contest.


Amos Chase, Grantville, KS and my Grandpa
playing up at his station.

Amos Chase was an amazing fiddler. He lived in Grantville, Kansas, which was out in the boonies. His friendship with my grandpa was an old one, and I really don't know how they met. Amos was an interesting character as well. He had a new joke to tell me every time we got together (he thought they were new) and spent half of our time teasing me and the other half showing me what he knew. Amos won so many contests and played with so many people that I can't begin to describe his talent. He and his wife, Ruby, were like an other set of grandparents and always let me hang out in their mini home. Occasionally, I would ride part way with them to and from a fiddling contest. I don't know how old I was when I started going over to his house and learning new tunes. He knew so many tunes and also played more notes than grandpa did, and I was wanting more progressive-sounding tunes. This is when my fiddle style started to change from sounding old-timey to a little more fancy Texas style. At some point during my lessons, I played in a contest. Grandpa placed fifth and I placed fourth. That was a big day. Grandpa was so proud of me.

I must have lived somewhat in a vacuum, because during this time, other fiddlers were making a name for themselves and I didn't know who they were or what they were doing that was changing contest fiddling. Mark O'Conner was impressing everyone during this time, as well as Alison Krauss. Anyway, what I thought was progressive was nothing compared to what these fiddlers were doing. I competed against this fancy fiddling and always lost. My greatest rivals in my age group where John and Jason Shaw. John was the same age as me and his first contest was Graham, Missouri, as well. However, he won it and already knew these fancier contest tunes. He was amazing and then he had a younger brother who started playing and was just as good. To this day, I have never beaten a Shaw boy. (If you are interested in finding out what I think about fancy fiddling and old-timey fiddling, either email me or check back and see if I have added to this story.)

After all of those years of playing, you would have thought that I would have been a virtuoso at an early age. I wasn't. I didn't like practicing, and when my family was busy playing music, I was probably busy playing sports in school. But it all worked out. I was able to go to college on a couple of athletic scholarships. After college, I moved to St. Louis and met Steve Craig and Rick Thum. Extremely wonderful people, and I was allowed to play with them. I say allowed, because what I didn't do well was play with others. I could play a fiddle tune like you wouldn't believe, but if I didn't know the song, I didn't do much. My stay in St. Louis was short, and after the death of my grandpa, I moved back home and hung up my fiddle. I married and had two beautiful children and started to miss playing. I picked it up a little more, often dissatisfied with my playing. I gave some lessons while my daughter was little, but I then moved on to do other things. My love for playing didn't return until Noah Musser and Greg Yother, only acquaintances at the time, came over and started playing fiddle tunes. The fiddle tunes led into bluegrass songs we all liked, and those bluegrass songs led to Virginia Musser learning how to play bass. I am a better fiddler because of the band members who drive me. As I write this, we have been playing together for a little over three years, and these last three years have been icing on a cake that has taken a lifetime to bake. Furthermore, I have improved more in the last three years than all of the progress of my youth.

Not only have I been affected by grandpa's influence of music, but I also have that love of fiddles. After his death, I picked out the 10 best of his 80 fiddles, which were hidden under beds, dark closets, and behind doors of his old house, and started working on them. I am always looking to purchase more and horde them. This love led me to ask Steve Mason, another lover of fiddles, if I could work in his shop and learn the luthier art from him. I started going to his shop two days a week and have been honing my craft since 2003.

I wasn't planning on my story of music being this long, but while I am here, I would sure like to let my family know that they gave me the greatest gift. Today, my relationship with my grandma is very special. I hold so many fond memories of my grandpa and the man he was. My dad, who is an incredible musician. He spent many hours backing me up on the guitar and could somehow calm my nerves with his steady presence. My mother, who has always reminded me that playing is a special gift and must be shared. Thanks to Rodney who was patient and encouraged my love of music and helped me instill this love in our children. It is such a wonderful feeling listening to my children and other children sing the songs we sing or watch them pretend to play the instruments. To all of you who bring them and listen, thank you!