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Brian and Austin Derryberry jam outside the Lindsay Street Performance Hall during a past convention.

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No Fiddling Around: Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention part of a long history

If you go

› What: Great Southern Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention

› When: Noon, Saturday, March 11

› Where: Lindsay Street Hall, 901 Lindsay St.

› Admission: $10

› Online: www.oldchattanooga.com

When Matt Downer got a copy of "Chattanooga Fiddlers's Convention History" a few years ago, he was amazed to learn that Chattanooga was once the Southern capital of fiddling.

A picker himself, Downer, was fascinated by the collection of newspaper clippings from the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News put together by Ken Parr, and says it "made me want to bring this back."

Inspiration running high, he wanted to create a national competition similar to ones that took place here in the '20s, '30s and '40s.

So that's what he did.

In 2010, he staged his first Great Southern Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention at Lindsay Street Hall, and it drew about 400 artists and fans competing in banjo, fiddle and string band events. This year's convention, set for Saturday, March 11, will have all those instruments and also include a dance contest.

Downer says that few people outside of the fiddling world today realize that Chattanooga was home to a national fiddlers competition from 1925 to the '40s when World War II brought an end to such events. The performers came from all over the world and were well known in the music world. People like "Sawmill" Tom Smith, Jess Young, Clayton McMitchen and Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers all played here.

The contests got their start here in 1925 after local fiddle proponent J.H. Gaston tired of reading about the fiddling and square dance partiers that auto magnate and fiddle enthusiast Henry Ford was bringing to Detroit. Gaston was particularly hot under the collar about Maine's Mellie Dunham, a favorite of Ford's, being touted as the best fiddler in the country. Gaston put out a call for local fiddlers to compete for the right to challenge Dunham.

The first contest was held at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Georgia Avenue. "Sawmill" Smith was the local winner, but the bigger news was that Gaston was so happy with the turnout, he planned a larger convention a few months later. More than 200 fiddlers gathered at the brand-new Memorial Auditorium to perform. Jess Young, who grew up in Whitwell, Tenn., was declared Tri-State champion.

Downer says many towns held fiddlers' conventions back in those years, but Chattanooga's was considered the Southern championship. Then as now, performers and competitors played without any amplification or microphones.

But the conventions are as much about community as music, Downer says.

"This music is community music. People would gather on porches after working all day and relax. It was also about passing on oral histories through the songs," he says.

Downer grew up on Sand Mountain and used to sit and listen to his grandfather Wayne Heard play. When Downer moved to Chattanooga in his early 20s, he started listening to and playing rock like most people his age, but the old-time music called him back, and he started recording his sessions with his grandfather as a way to learn himself. Pretty soon he realized he wanted to learn more.

He found Joseph D. "Cast" King, a old-time music legend, living on Sand Mountain and over time convinced King to record his music. Downer, who also played guitar on the recordings, got enough to put out a cassette tape of the recordings called "Saw Mill Man" in 2005. Downer also recorded with Stanley Baker and Jess Moore and soon found that old-time music was his calling.

He was part of the New Binkley Brothers with Clark Williams and Daniel Binkley for awhile and has been performing at Rock City regularly during the summer for a number of years. He has collected thousands of songs and tapes of old-time music and hopes to one day have it all catalogued.

"I love the sound and the history, and I believe it's important to save this music."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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