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For the week of May 24 through May 30, 2000

Gutbucket rhythm

Gamblers’ competition keeps fiddlers honest

"I’ve played with some that had no more rhythm to them than a chicken hawk."

Fiddler Archie Turner

Express Staff Writer

Joyce Erikson
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 behind—but, 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.

"I’m 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, rightDoris Hayward, right, a senior-senior division finalist in last weekend’s Idaho Old Time Fiddlers State Championships, prepares to fiddle her final ditty.

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 won’t mention any names," he said, "but I’ve played with some that had no more rhythm to them than a chicken hawk."

Friday night’s 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 night’s Gamblers’ Competition. It was altogether unlike Saturday’s state competition, where tensions would run high.

"You’ll get tired of hearing the same tune," predicted event organizer Sally Turner about Saturday’s competition. Turner, 70, has been involved with the event since her husband, Archie Turner, joined The Old Time Fiddlers in 1965.

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 didn’t know it, drew again. Fiddlers who didn’t know the second tune were obliged to fake it—that is, to gamble.

The coffee can, it seemed, was a bottomless pit of obscure ditties—like 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, "That’s an easy one!"

Winners impressed the nine judges with "foot tapping ability—does 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 to gamble.

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, "That’s been asked all the way through, hasn’t it?"

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."


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