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In Galax, a convergence of music traditions

Three musicians are seen on stage playing a washtub, banjo and a fiddle. They are in front of a black poster that reads "Virginia is for Music Lovers."
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
A banjo, washtub and fiddle are all possible components of a combo at the Old Fiddlers' Convention in Galax, Va.

For more than 85 years, the Old Fiddlers' Convention has fostered acoustic music.

Bluegrass and old-time musicians from around the world converge on the small Southwestern city of Galax every year for the Old Fiddlers' Convention.

The Galax Parent Teacher Association first held the event in 1935 with the Galax Moose Lodge. Lodge members quickly took over the event, according to Tom Jones, the convention spokesperson.

“A couple years, they had it twice a year,” Jones said. “But now it’s grown so much, we pretty much only have it [for one long week].”

More than 30,000 people are estimated to have attended the festival, outstripping the city’s population of about 7,000. At a campground in Galax, an audience can gather around a competition stage, but a tourist can hear plenty of music at the surrounding campsites. Musicians compete in individual categories, like guitar, dobro and fiddle, and group competitions for bluegrass and old-time music.

“This is actually one of the longest running music festivals in the Commonwealth of Virginia, if not the whole Southeast,” said Tyler Hughes, executive director of The Crooked Road, a heritage trail aimed at spotlighting the musical traditions of Southwest Virginia. “So, we’re celebrating these sorts of traditions that have been going on for generation after generation.”

Unlike many other music festivals, the Old Fiddlers’ Convention doesn’t have a headlining set of professionals playing for an audience. Instead, audience members are also performers. Some attendees form bands and compete, and some bring instruments and play music by a campsite. Others just show up and watch.

“The convention’s not about the contest. It’s about fellowship and friendship, and making good music together,” said Tara Linhardt, who teaches mandolin and guides music tours through countries like Nepal.

Every year, there are a few Old Fiddlers' Convention devotees who end up making a pilgrimage from far-flung parts of the world like Japan, Sweden and Australia. This summer, the Cayman Islands' Swanky Kitchen band competed as an old-time combo.

According to fiddler Samuel Rose, he got the idea to travel with his band from the Caribbean after attending the festival last year.

"June Apple"
Gina Dilg (fiddle), Jason Dilg (mandolin) and Tyler Hughes (guitar)

“I didn’t walk in with my fiddle, because I didn’t know what I was walking into,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a spectator and I didn’t know what I was supposed to bring to the party.”

Rose’s bandmate, vocalist Karen Edie, said Swanky Kitchen is the last band in the Caymans to play Indigenous music.

“So, it’s a lot on our shoulders to make sure we keep going for generations to come,” she said.

“Kitchen band music,” as the archipelago’s traditional sounds are called, generally includes a set of instruments that wouldn't qualify for an old-time band at the festival.

The convention’s rules on instrumentation tend to be strict. An old-time band, as defined by the festival, needs to have the following three components: a guitarist, a banjo player and a fiddler. Finally, no amplified electric instruments are allowed.

While kitchen band music uses percussion — like maracas and shakers — it doesn’t generally include banjo. But by adding in banjo and acoustic bass, the band met the competition’s criteria.

After its two-minute set was finished, the crowd in Galax erupted in applause.

“For us it was just such a great opportunity to showcase and share our traditional music,” Rose said. “It was very humbling for us to hear that warm applause and to hear the cheers.”

Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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