Fiddlers and bluegrass enthusiasts will be making plenty of sweet music in Lodi next week.
That’s because the city will be playing host to the 53rd annual California State Old Time Open Fiddle & Picking Championships next weekeend, alongside the California Bluegrass Association’s yearly CBA Camp Out starting on Monday.
“We’re musical cousins,” said Mark Hogan, who serves on the board of directors for both groups. He is working to organize the dual events along with board members Cathy Agnew, Deb Livermore, Sharon Barrett and Ruth Oveland. Dave Nielsen is providing the sound, and Tex Ash is the emcee.
The old-time fiddle contest was founded in 1966. It wasn’t the first fiddling contest in California — those came along with migrants from Oklahoma and other regions hit hard by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
“They brought all this music with them to California,” Hogan said.
The statewide contest was founded following the post-World War II boom in country, folk and bluegrass. At first, the competition traveled from city to city along the Highway 99 corridor, eventually settling in Oroville, where it’s been held for the past three decades.
Now, organizers are hoping the move to the Lodi Grape Festival Grounds will being some fresh blood — both among competitors and in the audience. Lodi is closer to the Bay Area than Oroville, as well as more centrally located in California, Hogan said, so they’re hoping to reach people who haven’t attended the competition in the past. The move also gives the competition space to grow.
What sets old-time fiddling apart is the style of play, he said.
A fiddle is a violin — the name is slang used by fiddlers. But fiddling is a lot different from playing the violin in a classical orchestra. The point of fiddling was originally to get people’s feet moving.
“It was aimed at the dancers,” Hogan said.
Old-time fiddling grew out of square dancing, and the songs are focused on a rhythm people can dance well to, along with some repetition.
From there, it grew into bluegrass, western swing, and other fiddle styles, more focused on the music. But old-time fiddling still puts the focus on danceability.
“Old-time tends to be very straight-ahead, and the arrangements aren’t as complex,” Hogan said.
Which doesn’t mean old-time fiddling requires any less skill. Musicians still have to hone their craft and many spend decades doing just that.
The California State Old Time Open Fiddle & Picking Championships gives them the chance to show off those skills, as well as teach each other tunes and techniques during the breaks.
Other categories will give non-fiddlers a chance to shine.
“There will be a raffle and a Contra Dance open to the public,” Hogan said. “Also there is a special division called ‘Anything Goes.’ This is just for fun. It involves comparing apples and oranges so to speak. It can be a spoon player versus a yodeler versus a fiddler versus a banjo player versus a saw player.”
There will be prizes — cash and medallions, not a fiddle made of gold — but the goal isn’t winning. It’s interacting with fellow musicians, whether they’re competitors, onlookers or bluegrass campers.
Hogan pointed to one pair of fiddlers who have been competing against each other since the contest started. Sometimes one wins, sometimes the other.
“They have a good time,” he said. “It’s supposed to be for fun.”
Hogan hopes musicians from both events will take the time to jam together. There are a lot of kid fiddlers, but sometimes they’ll come, compete and then their parents pack them off to the next activity, he said. They never get the chance to sit with the old-timers and hear stories and learn songs through the oral tradition.
“We’re more connected than we’ve ever been, but we’re not talking to each other,” he said.
To that end, the directors of the two boards plan to sit down together and brainstorm how they might work together on joint events in the future.
“I’m trying to unite the two outfits,” Hogan said.
Both groups are looking to become part of the community, too. The competition will include a wine and beer vendor, and the wines will be from Lodi.
Normally, the beer would too, Hogan said, but the organization still has several leftover cases of Lagunitas donated for a previous event. For future competitions, he said, they plan to reach out to local breweries.
“We’re really trying to get out feet wet,” he said.
They’ve invited several city officials to come out, and hope local residents will join them for two days of music and fun.