published Friday, March 18th, 2011

Q&A with Matt Downer: Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers Convention

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Matt Downer, organizer of the second annual Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers Convention, about his expectations this year, what’s been changed and what bands he’s excited to see.

CP: What was the reaction like to last year's convention?

MD: It was great. It was very good response and great weather. We got a little over 400 people out and over 60 entered to compete. For the first year back, I thought it went really well. I was pretty optimistic. I was shooting for 300, so we beat that. It was pretty much full up in there. We put out 150 chairs, and they were all full pretty much the whole time.

CP: How soon after the first convention was over did you discuss bringing it back this year?

MD: We talked about it even that day that we would do it. We set the date in May within two months.

CP: What kind of response did you get from people who showed up?

MD: Everybody I saw had a smile on their face, so that's a good thing. I got nothing but positive feedback. Many people hadn't been to an event like that that was solely focused on old-time music. Many events have those categories, but they aren't devoted to old time. It was a few people's first time to Chattanooga and to Lindsey Street Hall. It's a very nice venue, especially for something like that. It's great for their first exposure to be something historical like that.

CP: What was your goal for the first year? What did you want people to leave with?

MD: I hoped to educate people more on that type of music (old-time). We definitely did that. It was successful in that regard for sure. I wanted them to have awareness of the event, that it went back 86 years here in town. A lot of people weren't aware of that and how well attended it was then.

CP: How closely did you try and mimic the conventions of the past? How successful were you at that imitation?

MD: All we had to go on were old newspaper articles, but it was done acoustically, and I think it was as close as we could get. We are in 2011, but we tried to keep it as old-time as we could.

CP: How far away did people come from last year?

MD: We had several from North Carolina and Kentucky and Alabama and Georgia. One guy from Pennsylvania to play with the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers.

CP: Who are some bands to watch for this year?

MD: We have Leroy Troy this year. There were some last year I was unaware of, and it's always exciting to hear that in this music. The Hogslop String Band won the string band competition last year, and they'll kick it off this year. They and Leroy Troy are the featured performers.

CP: How many people would you like to see come out?

MD: I'm hoping for 500 this year. I think it's very possible. Weather plays a huge part, and last year, it was great, couldn't have been better. The feedback I got from everybody was great last year, so I'm hoping for the best.

CP: Did the number of entrants in the competitions surprise you?

MD: It didn't really surprise me. It seems like the majority of people into old-time music play, so that makes it pretty musician-heavy crowd, I guess.

CP: Are you expecting more people to compete this year?

MD: I hope it will be more. The goal is 100. Several of the old-time musicians play multiple instruments, so it's neat to see them compete in both the fiddle and banjo contest. We're not charging any registration fees, so hopefully that will bring in more.

CP: What else have you tweaked this year?

MD: There were some issues with lighting, not as far as being there and impacting your experience, but as far as photographs and videos coming out. We'll address that.

We're going to do unobtrusive curtains in the back to help with some of the echo. We do it without microphones, without amplification, but we're thinking of sneaking in some microphones where you can't see it so we can get better audio recordings.

CP: So you recorded the performances last year?

MD: Yeah, but it's kind of from the back of the room. We're giving it more consideration this year. We did a small compilation video last year - for posterity first and foremost, but for down the line, a video may help out with funding.

CP: What was funding like this year? Did you get more or less support?

MD: It was a little less this year. Last year, we ran it on a shoestring; this year, we did it barefoot. (Laughs.) It doesn't take a whole lot to do this event. The main expense is the prize money. All that stayed the same.

CP: Did you make any other alterations?

MD: Not really. We spaced out the schedule. Last year, we ran all the contests back to back, but this year, we threw in a performance towards the end. We'll end it with the contest this year.

CP: Last year had the automatic draw of being both the inaugural year and the 85th anniversary. What are you doing this year to make people just as excited? What will have to happen for you to consider this year a success?

MD: To me, it's a success already because it's happening, 86 years later. I've already got a matching agreement with some of the sponsors for next year. That's exciting. It's not really dependent, to me, on turnout.

I was having a discussion with someone that just getting to see those guys (Leroy/Hogslop) will make it great for me. Hopefully, more people will come out, out of curiosity. It's neat for people to see the history of the music locally. It's a far cry from what you hear on the radio, so it's neat for people to see the old, traditional music still being played.

CP: Anything else you'd like to add about the convention?

MD: The No. 1 thing this even that's going for it is that it's different. It's pretty much the only one I'm aware of around here that's strictly old time. It's the only one I'm aware of that's done without amplification. That aspect of it gives it its own flavor and makes the experience something different than you'd find anywhere else.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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