IF YOU GO
What: The Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers Convention.
When and where: Variety show, 7 p.m. today at Chattanooga Choo Choo Centennial Theater, 1400 Market St.; contests, 4 p.m. Saturday at Lindsay Street Hall, 901 Lindsay St.
Admission: $5 each night.
As time goes on, Matt Downer said, he is taking steps to make the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers Convention as true to its heritage as possible.
Downer, a local old-time banjo player with The New Binkley Brothers, founded the convention three years ago as a way of hearkening back to the 1920s, when fiddling contests drew thousands of people to Chattanooga from throughout the Southeast.
He said he has ensured the modern event echoed those original competitions by having performers play without amplification and restricting performances to old-time selections.
This year, Downer did something he said he’s wanted to do from the very beginning by splitting the formerly one-day convention into two events on separate nights.
The festival begins tonight with a concert in the Chattanooga Choo Choo’s Centennial Theater. As in the past, there will be a series of contests hosted at Lindsay Street Hall.
“It seemed to make sense to do a less-rushed variety show the night before,” Downer said. “That’s how they did it before. When they had the musicians in town, they had a big shindig.”
By isolating the variety show from the competitions, Downer said the professional performers will be able to play longer in a more formal setting, rather than being squeezed between the contests for fiddle, banjo, string bands and dancers.
The new format also puts the focus Saturday evening on the fiddling competition, which was the main pull of the historical events.
This year’s performing bill includes a trio of well-known old-time artists: the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, banjo player/singer Leroy Troy and Georgia Crackers fiddler Mick Kinney.
Although the festival is still relatively new, it has generated significant interest from the old-time community. The Hilltoppers were the headliners of the first festival but returned the following year to enter the contests, Downer said.
“To see people I respect in that old-time scene have a good time and want to come back means a lot to me,” he said. “I hope to see a lot of the same faces.”
The festival last year attracted about 500 people over the course of the day, and Downer said he anticipates an increase in attendance this year. With more time devoted to the contests, he said he also expects a bump in entrants from the 20 fiddlers and 15 banjo players who competed last year.
Its popularity notwithstanding, Downer said he’ll be happy as long as he’s able to maintain the event’s historical integrity, which he feels has been improving with each iteration.
“It’s like a bridge to the past,” he said. “It’s how they did it back then, and there’s no reason not to do it that way, in my opinion.”
Order of performance determined by a drawing held 15 minutes before each contest. Contestants in instrumental competitions may have one additional accompanist. Selections limited to old-time tunes, and no electric instruments allowed.
Fiddle: $200, $100 and $50 prizes
Banjo: $100, $50 and $25 prizes
String band: $150, $75 and $50 prizes
Dance: $60, $40 and $20 prizes
Roan Mountain Hilltoppers — This string-band quartet started 30 years ago on Roan Mountain in Northeast Tennessee. Their performances include the 1982 World’s Fair and Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
Mick Kinney — Kinney is fiddler for the Atlanta-based quartet The Georgia Crackers. He will be performing a set that draws on traditional American music predating the rise of bluegrass.
Leroy Troy — Troy is a vaudeville/country banjo player and singer from Goodlettsville, Tenn. Among his influences are old-time entertainers such as Grandpa Jones and Bashful Brother Oswald.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...