Gamblers competition keeps fiddlers honest
"Ive played with some that had no more rhythm to them than
a chicken hawk."
Fiddler Archie Turner
By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer
Does the fiddler make you want to get out and dance? Of senior-senior division finalist
Joyce Erikson, the judges said, yes. Express photos by Willy Cook
The plastic bucket attached to a broom handle and a string might have
looked like something the cleanup crew left behindbut, in fact, it was much more
important than its simple design suggested.
Early during the Friday night Idaho Old Time Fiddlers Gamblers
Competition, one of the dozens of bearded, hatted, denim-clad musicians retrieved the
device from where it had been stashed against a wall in the Hailey Armory. He joined his
band on the hay-bale stage, stepped on the bucket, pulled back the broom handle and
rhythmically plucked away at the string.
For someone sitting in the audience, the strange, buoyant reverberations
were not so much heard as felt deep inside the stomach. It was a good feeling.
"Im real critical of a gutbucket player," contestant
Archie Turner, 74, said after the competition. Turner, who enjoys "hunting, fishing
and working with his mule, Jerry," has been playing the fiddle since 1932.
Doris Hayward, right, a senior-senior division finalist in
last weekends Idaho Old Time Fiddlers State Championships, prepares to fiddle her
The gutbucket, he explained, is important because it keeps the beat for
the other musicians. But unfortunately, it seems, gutbucket players are notorious for
their wandering attention.
"We wont mention any names," he said, "but Ive
played with some that had no more rhythm to them than a chicken hawk."
Friday nights contest was just part of the three-day hoe-down that
took place in Hailey this weekend. Contestants from all over the state played at a variety
of venues, including the Hailey Library and the Wood River High School, to spread
awareness of the art of fiddling. On Saturday, contestants vied for state champion status
and an opportunity to compete at the national finals next month in Weiser.
But the most fun event, arguably, was Friday nights Gamblers
Competition. It was altogether unlike Saturdays state competition, where tensions
would run high.
"Youll get tired of hearing the same tune," predicted
event organizer Sally Turner about Saturdays competition. Turner, 70, has been
involved with the event since her husband, Archie Turner, joined The Old Time Fiddlers in
More than a dozen contestants from age 7 to 90 competed before a crowd of
about 100 spectators. Stetsons, Tony Lama boots and Wrangler jeans were de rigueur.
Bow-legged walks proved these fans and musicians were the genuine article.
The rules were simple. Each contestant drew the name of a tune from a
coffee can and either played the tune, or if he or she didnt know it, drew again.
Fiddlers who didnt know the second tune were obliged to fake itthat is, to
The coffee can, it seemed, was a bottomless pit of obscure
dittieslike the "Hamilton County Breakdown," "Whiskey Before
Breakfast" and "The People Who Waltz,"that had astonished spectators
crying, "Who knows that?"
Lucky fiddlers who drew such tunes as "Five Foot Two, or "Bill
Bailey," however, were likely to be admonished with, "Thats an easy
Winners impressed the nine judges with "foot tapping
abilitydoes the fiddler make you want to get out and dance?"and
showmanship, according to the contest rules.
It was showmanship that came into play most when contestants were forced
Seniors division contestant Fran Caward impressed everyone when she broke
into spontaneous singing after playing only a few bars of "The Sidewalks of New
York." She won second place for her performance, which inspired a foot-stomping
sing-along that nearly blew off the roof.
So what defines fiddling, as opposed to mere violin playing?
Elray Woerman, 90, who plays a Guarnerius fiddle he inherited after his
uncle was killed in World War I, said, "Thats been asked all the way through,
The droll Archie Turner put it another way. The art of fiddling, he said,
really comes down to "the nut on the end of the bow."