The Texas Cowboy Reunion fiddle contest

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J. & M. at the Texas Cowboy Reunion paradeAs exciting as it was to see our 10-year-old win the Harry Potter costume contest last Friday night (thanks, Dawn -- we think so, too), we were even more excited and proud about something he accomplished earlier this month.

Right before Independence Day, we drove down to Stamford, Texas, to visit my wife's relatives there -- her dad grew up on a cotton farm northwest of town, and she still has a few aunts and uncles around.

At the same time, Stamford was hosting the Texas Cowboy Reunion, four days of activities including the world's largest amateur rodeo, a grand parade on the 4th of July, nightly western dances, chuckwagon barbecue dinners, and a fiddle contest.

We watched the fiddle contest when we were last there for the TCR, and when we began making plans for this visit, my son decided he wanted to enter. He's only had a year of classical violin training, but his performance piece for last fall was the fiddle tune "Old Joe Clark," and like the rest of the family, he loves western swing music. Once his spring performance was out of the way, he began working up a few more tunes.

IMG_2488We were six hours into the drive to Stamford when we realized that all of us had forgotten to bring his fiddle. We had music and a stand, but no instrument. The boy was heartbroken. The next day, my wife called the contest organizers and someone that her family knew to see about borrowing a fiddle for the contest.

He had been used to playing a half-size, and the size affects your finger positions. Suzanne Walker, who used to teach, had a quarter-size she could lend him, along with a book of fiddle tunes. Ray Clark of Tru-Sound Studios downtown lent him a full-size, painted silver. Neither were exactly what he was used to, so he practiced with both to see which would be the easier adjustment to make. In the end, he felt more comfortable with the full-size. He learned from his great-uncle that for the contest he'd need to play two breakdowns and a waltz. He didn't have a waltz, so in two days he learned "Streets of Laredo" from Mrs. Walker's book. He knew the song from years of listening to Riders in the Sky.

For the next couple of days, he worked in practice time in between the TCR parade, a night at the rodeo, a visit out to the old farm, a look at the artifacts in the Texas Cowboy Museum, games of Chinese checkers and Wahoo, and one delicious home cooked meal after another, each one featuring fresh peaches from the farm. The temperature was in the mid 80s all week, unseasonably cool for Texas in July, and we've never seen the fields so green.

At one point in all the practicing, I told my wife she needed to quit stopping him when he slipped up. It was more important for him to have the confidence to recover and keep going after a mistake.

All hat and no cattleSaturday morning came. It was not a huge field -- only four entrants in the under-18s class. Two were older teens, both excellent fiddlers, and there was another boy about our son's age. There were about 100 people in the audience. Former Congressman Charlie Stenholm was the MC, telling old jokes to break the tension and fill time as each fiddler got ready to play.

J. and K. with Charlie Stenholm at the Texas Cowboy Reunion fiddle contestOur boy was sixth to play: "Bile Them Cabbage Down," "Streets of Laredo," then "Old Joe Clark," which he had relearned with double-stops (playing two strings at once for harmony). He got a bit lost on the first one, but recovered, restarted, and got through it. The waltz was solid, and the final breakdown gave him a strong finish. (You can see his performance on Google Video.) Our son was the only one to play without a rhythm guitarist accompanying him; guess I'm going to have to learn to play.

When the judging was over, our son finished third in his class, behind the two older teens, one of whom won the playoff to be grand champion. The third-place finish was good for a $25 prize. After the contest, all the fiddlers gathered up front for a jam session, playing songs like "Maiden's Prayer" and "Faded Love." Since he doesn't know that many songs yet, the other musicians kindly let him call a couple of tunes: "Cotton Eyed Joe" and "Little Liza Jane." We celebrated with an authentic chuckwagon lunch before setting out for Tulsa.

(By the way, the prize money was donated by the local Wal-Mart, which also covered the entrance fees. Wal-Mart helped us out again later that day: When the van lost a tire tread south of Chickasha, just after 8 p.m., my wife called and asked if they could stay open late and sell us a new tire, as we couldn't drive home on the compact spare I'd installed. They were very nice about it, and we made it home that night, albeit later than planned. Paul Harvey likes to say that if you've got a Wal-Mart in your hometown, you couldn't ask for a better neighbor. Mom-and-pop stores might dispute that, but there's no question that Wal-Mart, along with the good people of Stamford, made our 07/07/07 a lucky day.)

Our son still has a lot to learn about fiddling, but we're proud that he persisted in the face of some setbacks and kept his composure in front of a big audience. It was satisfying, too, that he now has a stronger connection to his roots in Texas cotton country.

I've posted a whole pile of pics of our trip on Flickr, including as many blurry rodeo pictures as a person could want. There are also some shots of our brief browsing stop in Archer City, Texas' version of Hay-on-Wye, home of Larry McMurtry's multi-building Booked-Up bookstore and the movie theater that inspired The Last Picture Show.

Toddler and peachesThere's a separate set (for the historians among you) of photos of documents and artifacts from Stamford's museum, including pages from the 1940 town directory, a 1950 semi-centennial book about the town, a 78 rpm disc of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys performing "New Spanish Two Step," and a scrapbook presentation (a low-tech Powerpoint) that the Chamber of Commerce made in 1923 in their unsuccessful bid to become the site of Texas Tech.

I've also posted some video of the calf scramble at the rodeo. They let all the children 12 and under into the arena, then let loose some calves with ribbons tied to their tails. The kids who manage to grab a ribbon win a prize. My 10-year-old had done it three years ago; this year he was joined by his six-year-old sister. After it was over, I asked them about the experience and got reaction from the toddler, too. For more flavor of the event, here's someone else's video from the wild mare race at the 2006 TCR rodeo -- teams of three cowboys catch, saddle, and ride a wild mare to the other end of the arena and back.

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Jeff Shaw said:

Good story. Love that fiddle playin'. It's harder than it looks, for all you people who don't know.

Lil' Joe'll make a fine fiddle player. (does that sound Texas enough?)

Giant Bob said:

What a great experience, and a wonderful story. Bet the youngun'll win that contest some day, and many more. Lookin' forward to updates!

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 25, 2007 2:48 PM.

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