Mountaineer Week started off strong Saturday night with this year’s Appalachian-style Fiddle Contest.
As the Gluck Theatre in the Mountainlair filled to the brim with a crowd almost exclusively made up of non-students, the sounds of practicing fiddlers leaked in from all directions.
At 7:40 p.m., JP Crandall, a member of the Mountaineer Week Committee, introduced the show’s MC for the night. Travis Stimeling, an assistant professor of music history at the WVU School of Music and West Virginia native, took his place at the podium to get the contest started.
Stimeling stated the rules and expectations of the competition, introduced the judges and revealed the $1,450 in cash prizes that were up for grabs, sponsored by the College of Creative Arts.
Some of the best fiddlers in the mountain state made up the panel of judges: Bobby Taylor of Dunbar, W.Va.; Kim Johnson of Clendenin, W.Va. and Andrew Dunlap of St. Albans, W.Va. The judges had to judge each fiddler in five areas, which were tonal quality, timing and rythym, compexity, expression and old-time style. Each fiddler was required to play two songs, one of their choice and a Heritage tune that originated in West Virginia. Each set was allowed one accompanist.
The show began with Selvie Pearson of Warren, Pa., in the youth category, accompanied by Scott Pearson. The youngest in the competition, Selvie Pearson lit up the whole room with his smile, enthusiasm and impressive control of his instrument. He placed third in the youth category of the competition.
Third to take the stage was Erynn Marshall of Galax, Va., accompanied by guitar. Her pleasant demeanor and expressions made her set both fun to listen to and watch. She played “Queen of the Earth Skies,” and her Heritage tune was “Washington’s March,” a song she chose to remember her mentor, Woody Simmons.
After a few more fiddlers, 95-year-old Elmer Rich of Westover, W.Va., took the stage to compete in the senior category. Rich was loved by the audience as he played old-time tunes passed down by his father. In 2007, Rich won the very first Heritage Award. This year, he came in third place overall.
Aubrey Pearson, also of Warren, Pa., played for the youth category. She won first place for her age group with her performance of “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Directly after, David Aste, of Morgantown, W.Va., who won second place in the adult category of the competition, played “Devil’s Hornpipe” and “Nail That Catfish to a Tree.” His silly stage presence and performance-style and natural fiddling ability was hard to compete with.
Eleven-year-old Silas Powell of Salem, W.Va., came onto the stage with a unique fashion sense and determined look. He beautifully performed “Joesphine’s Waltz,” then picked it up with “Whiskey for Rebels.” He placed second in his category.
Cathy Pearson, also of Warren, Pa., grew up in Marion County, W.Va.. She played “Birdie” and “Redbird.” Cathy Pearson had great technique. She and Marshall were called back up onto the stage before the final scores were tallied to settle a tie. While I think Marshall was a more emotive fiddler, Pearson came in fourth place, leaving Marshall with fifth.
The first place winner in of the competition was West Virginia native John Morris, who played “Camp Chase” and also went home with the 2014 Heritage Award.
While the cash prizes in the contest were a big attraction for fiddle players, the Mountaineer Week Fiddle Contest is not just about the money. The most important part of the contest is spreading the message that traditional Appalachian music is still alive and well in West Virginia.
When the contest ended, audience members had the opportunity to experience more mountain music with a performance by the Hillbilly Gypsies in the food court.
Mountaineer Week will focus on music, folklore, food and more throughout this week.