Fiddle convention keeps tradition humming along

The throaty sigh of fiddles, the humming twang of banjos and the silvery twinkling of hammered dulcimers will soon fill the grounds of the Carroll County Farm Museum with the coming of the 43rd Annual Deer Creek Fiddlers’ Convention. Focusing on acoustic bluegrass, old-time and Celtic music, the convention will combine a competition for musicians with a fun festival atmosphere for music fans, according to Maria Wong, director of promotions and development at Common Ground on the Hill, which manages the event.

The gates open at 9 a.m. for musicians to register for the competition, which will begin at 11 a.m. and run until 7 p.m., according to Wong, with cash prizes in several categories ranging from $25 to $250.

“We have lots of categories for the competition. Band categories, something like bluegrass band or old time band and we have solo instruments categories like fiddle or banjo and voice categories,” she said. “We also have a southern Appalachian dance contest, which is clogging.”

The competition is open to anyone, not just professional musicians, according to Wong, and it is this participatory nature of the convention that distinguishes it from some other summer music festivals. The event is as much about bringing people together to play music as it is about performing music for others, a place where the line between audience and performers is blurred and some of the bands that compete have formed under the trees that very morning.

“The festivals are about audience members coming to hear and buy the music. This one really is focusing just on ... people gathering together in an informal way to meet and play together,” she said. “You don’t have to just be an audience member. If you come and bring your fiddle or guitar or your bass and you see somebody sitting down under a tree, you can wander over to them. Then next thing you know, you’ll have five, 10, 20 people sitting under a tree playing together.”

Such “shade tree picking” might even be considered the core of the event, according to Walt Michael, executive director of Common Ground on the Hill. Even the most novice of musicians can join in a jam.

“People are playing music all day and when their number is called, they go up on stage and play a few tunes,” Michael said. “It’s a really a great cultural event where music is in and amongst the whole facilities ... If you like to play the guitar and want to hang out and watch people, it’s a great way to learn.”

Everyone who comes to the convention and signs up has the opportunity to get on stage and possibly win a prize, but the important thing, according to Michael, is that they are making music and helping perpetuate tradition.

The convention itself is a long standing tradition. Originally held at a farm in Baltimore County in the 70s, it moved to the Farm Museum in the early 80s, with the museum taking over management of the event, according to Dottie Freeman, manager of the Farm Museum.

“I came here in 1986 and it was going on since before I came,” she said. “It’s such a really interesting day. You’re sitting in the office and you see little trios or quartets under the trees everywhere making music. That’s the history of it.”

Over the years, as the Farm Museum took on other projects and programs, it began to be overwhelming to keep the Fiddlers’ Convention going, according to Freeman. Not wanting to let the event die away, she began looking for someone to take over the management of convention three years ago, which was when she into Michael.

“I had walked behind this one building and Walt was there signing a contract for another event. We started talking about the fiddlers and he offered, ‘why don’t you hand it over to me?’” Freeman said. “I thought he could breathe some new life into it …. He made it happen and I am glad.”

Michael is a bluegrass musician himself, known for playing the hammered dulcimer, and he has put his connections within the music community to work to spread the word to musicians that the convention is here to stay. At the same time, he hopes the community will come out and enjoy the event, even if their only musical ability is humming along to a melody.

“Come spend a day with acoustic music on the grounds of the Farm Museum, in an absolutely beautiful setting, to hear music that’s played the way it’s been played for years and years,” he said. “It’s rewarding to be around music that doesn’t have a lot of hype behind it and it’s great for all ages.”