Contest-style fiddling in many ways represents the apex of traditional folk music. It demands of its practitioners a technical command of the violin on par with all but the most pyrotechnical classical repertory, and it requires a keen sense of melodic invention and structural development akin to the best of jazz. In addition, one must marry a deep connection with the contest fiddle tradition to an implacable commitment to developing one’s own unique musical voice. Finally, from a psychological standpoint, one must possess an unabashed desire to sound impressive, be willing to take risks, and want to win. It is not for the faint of heart; the very word “contest” implies the competitive spirit.
Although a reached a point five years ago when I felt that the narrowly defined stylistic parameters of the contests themselves no longer served my own growth as an artist, I staunchly advocate fiddle competitions as the best training ground imaginable. All fiddlers should compete for at least some part of their careers. The practice in preparation for a serious competition puts a fine edge on one’s playing as few situations can do, and the actual performance for the judges requires a level of focus that I have never quite experienced in any other set of circumstances.
A typical fiddle contest is divided into preliminary rounds (usually one or two) and a finals round, and many competitions require a breakdown (or hoedown), a waltz, and a tune of choice (normally something other than a breakdown or waltz). This article is the first in a series of three and presents “Dusty Miller” for a breakdown. My version of this tune definitely owes much to Major Franklin and Benny Thomasson from Texas and J. T. Perkins from Alabama. I consider these three artists to be the most important fiddlers in the development of the contest style, and everybody should listen to their recordings.
“Dusty Miller” is on a short list of tried-and- true contest breakdown favorites that, when executed at the highest level, can be competitive against any other tune. Other contest war horses include “Sally Goodin,” “Grey Eagle,” “Limerock,” “Tom and Jerry,” “Sally Johnson,” “Say Old Man,” “Cattle in the Cane,” “Done Gone,” “Leather Britches,” “Billy in the Lowground,” “Tennessee Waggoner,” “Brilliancy,” and “Durang’s Hornpipe.” This does not mean that a piece such as “Chief Sitting Bull,” for instance, might not be a killer tune, but it has been my experience that, given equally skilled performances, the tunes on my short list will definitely provide an advantage.
I hope you enjoy my version of “Dusty Miller.” Parts two and three in this series will cover “Flat Creek Waltz,” and “Cotton Patch Rag,” and more of my ramblings on the art of contest fiddling.
A Winning Contest Fiddle Round Part One: Dusty Miller – Published originally in Fiddler Magazine
Click here to read Part Two.
Click here to read Part Three.