Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention

Off-Stage Jam Session The Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention (TVOTFC) takes place each year on the campus of Athens State University (Limestone County, Alabama) on the first Friday and Saturday in October. Though founded in 1966, its roots go back to the mid-1920s. Small communities across Limestone County sponsored fiddle contests as fund-raisers for their schools, most beginning around 1925 and reaching their peak during the Great Depression. They were usually called "old fiddlers' contests" or "old-time fiddlers' conventions" to capitalize upon nostalgia for bygone days. Future major acts, such as the Delmore Brothers, performed at these events.

Audience at Founder's Hall The largest and most respected of the early Limestone County fiddlers' conventions took place annually in Athens at the Agricultural High School between 1924 and 1936 under the direction of its principal, W. H. Johnson. Area newspapers published detailed reports on the event each year, noting that the auditorium was packed with people and many had to be turned away. More than 150 musicians would compete in the course of one evening. The convention was discontinued after Johnson moved elsewhere, but other schools in Limestone County continued to hold conventions until World War II turned people's attention away from fiddling.

A folk revival in the 1960s inspired fiddlers in the county to dust off their instruments and start playing once again. Sam McCracken, a master fiddler born in 1888, began having gatherings in his Elk River home. Bill Harrison, a manager at Redstone Arsenal who grew up listening to the fiddlers who gathered at his father's country store in Limestone County, attended the gatherings and described them as the incubator for the TVOFC. The enthusiasm surrounding the sessions soon inspired a group of participants to establish a fiddle contest, with Harrison, though not a fiddler himself, becoming the convention's chief organizer and promoter.

Young Buck Dancer The first two contests (1966 and 1967) were held in rural schoolhouses with only word-of-mouth advertising, yet both drew standing-room-only crowds. In response to this success, the organizers formed the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Association with the intention of doing a yearly convention and publishing a newsletter about fiddling. They established a permanent location for the convention on the campus of Athens State College (then Athens College, a private school) and held the first one there on November 4, 1967, with proceeds going to scholarships at the college. They also established a newsletter which shortly grew into a quarterly journal under the editorship of Stephen F. Davis, a psychology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas. The Devil's Box contained articles about fiddling by noted scholars and musicians and had an international readership.

In 1982 the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Association disbanded and passed sponsorship of the convention to the Athens State College Foundation and the Athens-Limestone County Chamber of Commerce. Sponsorship of The Devil's Box passed to the Tennessee Folklore Society which continued publishing it until Davis's retirement as editor in 1998. Faculty and staff at Athens State College have continued to run the TVOTFC with the same integrity and in the same spirit as the founders of the event. They estimate the attendance at 15,000 each year, but when the weather is excellent, the crowd far exceeds that number. Over the years the contest has raised more than $500,000 in scholarships for the college.

Beginning Fiddler Contestant During the TVOTFC, convention-goers cover practically every inch of the campus. They watch the continuous instrumental competitions at Founder's Hall (built in 1842) or they crowd around the Buck Dancing stage in front of historic Brown Hall (1912). They browse through an acre of arts and crafts booths and instrument traders and stand in line for hamburgers, camp stews, funnel cake, fresh apple cider, barbecue and other foods cooked on site by various campus and community organizations. They fill parking lots and athletic fields with recreational vehicles. And in every space not filled with all of the above, they play music. Fiddlers, guitarists, players of banjos, mandolins, harmonicas, upright basses, and spoons form spontaneous jam sessions, joined by singers and buck dancers, surrounded by listeners holding tape recorders. Or they slip into more private corners to practice for their moments on stage.

The heart of the event is the competition which starts on Friday night at 6 p.m. with the harmonica contest. With Founder's Hall and its magnificent pillars as a backdrop, the contest proceeds efficiently through categories for mandolin, bluegrass and old-time banjo, Dobro, dulcimer, old-time singing, beginning fiddler, finger-picking and flat-picking guitar, junior, senior and classic old-time fiddler, bluegrass and old-time band and buckdancing. It ends late on Saturday night with a contest between two fiddlers—the winners of the junior and the senior fiddle contests. Having already won $500 in those categories, the winner of the "fiddle-off" takes home an additional $500 and a large trophy.

Convention organizers publish clear rules for competitors and guidelines for judges, who are selected on the basis of their expertise in the categories of music they are to judge. Because of its skilled judging and large cash prizes, the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers convention draws contestants from across the nation, though primarily from Alabama and Tennessee. Similarly, many audience members drive great distances to attend. TVOTFC has been named by tourism groups as one of the top 20 attractions in the Southeast and is an annual gathering place for Airstream trailer clubs. However, much of its success and appeal comes from the loyalty of the homefolks. Many Limestone Countians attend without fail and schedule family reunions and parties to coincide with the event.

Further Reading

  • Cauthen, Joyce. With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: A History of Old-Time Fiddling in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.
  • Delmore, Aton. Truth is Stranger than Publicity. Nashville, Tenn.: Country Music Foundation Press, Vanderbilt University Press, 1995.

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