IF YOU GO
■ What: Fifth annual Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers Convention.
■ When: Noon Saturday, March 15.
■ Where: Lindsay Street Hall, 901 Lindsay St.
■ Admission: $10 (free for ages 12 and younger).
■ Phone: 423-755-9111.
■ Website: www.oldchattanooga.com.
Noon. Doors open
1 p.m. Performance
2 p.m. Dance contest
3 p.m. Banjo contest
4 p.m. Performance
5 p.m. Traditional Song contest
6 p.m. String Band contest
7 p.m. Fiddle contest
■ General: No electric instruments, mikes, amplifiers or speaker systems permitted. Drawing for order of contestants will take place 15 minutes before each competition at the registration table.
■ Fiddle/banjo: May play solo or with one accompanist. Two tunes each during preliminary and final rounds.
■ String band: Band must include at least two-stringed instruments. Each musician may compete in only one band. Two tunes/songs must be played, one of which must include vocals.
■ Dance: Dancer may wear metal on their shoe soles, but must bring a board to dance on.
■ Traditional song: Pre-1930 traditional songs. Three-minute time limit. Must be performed solo or self-accompanied on an instrument.
In 2010, Matt Downer dreamed of organizing a festival that would serve as a historic throwback to when Chattanooga was positioned smack dab at the center of the old-time musical universe.
For five years, the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers Convention has been a kind of living time capsule to the heady days of the 1920s, when some of the most skilled performers from across the South would converge on the Scenic City to compete for prizes and honors.
The modern iteration of the convention is staunchly adherent to the methods and trappings of its historic namesake.
Musicians play unamplified. Song and tune selections must be period-appropriate. And God help the man who attempts to buck string-band tradition by trying to sneak a mandolin onstage.
Basically, Downer says, if it was good enough at the first in 1925, it's good enough for 2014.
"It's something special to be able to go and experience something like that where it's not locked up in a museum behind glass," he says. "It's a living history for people to be part of and take part of."
Holding true to the old ways has been a boon for the event, which has seen fairly steady growth for the past five years. When it returns to Lindsay Street Hall on Saturday, March 15, Downer expects the convention to attract about 500 people.
Downer says he's content with the event's slow and steady growth, which keeps the hall -- a converted church -- comfortably crowded and makes it feasible to maintain the historically accurate requirement to play unplugged.
In addition to contests for banjo players and fiddlers, the convention features competitions for string bands, dancers and, returning from last year, folk singers. About $1,300 in prizes will be up for grabs.
Looking back on the last five years, Downer says he's pleased that he's been able to bring back an event and revive a tradition that connects Chattanooga to a period of its past that's relatively unknown but which deserves to be remembered.
"We're making Chattanooga once more a meeting ground and a hub for the old-time community, just like it was 89 years ago," he says. "Carrying on that tradition is what excites me the most. Seeing that happen is really something special for me every year."
Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
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 ...