The annual Great Southern Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, to be held March 12th, draws old-time musicians from across the region.
Every March, Lindsay Street Hall in Chattanooga takes a step back in history as more than 120 old time fiddlers from across the region descend on the scenic city for the annual Great Southern Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention. Musicians young and old compete for cash prizes throughout the day in a variety of genres—fiddle, banjo, string band, dance, and traditional song—in a distinctive style with no microphone or amplification. It is this commitment to the true old-time tradition that sets the annual event apart.
“We’re still playing the same tunes, celebrating the same music, and continuing on the old-time fiddling tradition just like they were back in the 1920s,” says Matt Downer, musician and President of the Chattanooga Old Fiddlers’ Association. “Anytime you can go back more than 90 years into the past and celebrate the music, just like it was then, all acoustic with no amplification, it’s really special. It connects us with our past and connects us as a community, which has always been an important part of old-time music.”
The event’s history dates back to December 1925 when local fiddler, J.H. Gaston, called for “bow artists” to compete in a contest held at the Hamilton County Courthouse to determine the best fiddler in Chattanooga. Gaston held the contest in response to Henry Ford promoting Maine-based fiddler Mellie Dunham as the best old-time fiddler in the nation after inviting him to play at his home. With fiddling having deep roots in the South, Gaston and fellow musicians believed a Southern fiddler should hold this national recognition. The group sent a telegram to Henry Ford asking him to tune in on a certain night and time on the radio to “hear what real fiddlin’ sounds like,” according to Downer, who has conducted extensive research and produced a documentary in 2014 on the history of the Great Southern Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention.
Within two years, the annual Chattanooga event was drawing crowds of more than 5,000 to the newly built Memorial Auditorium and was considered the championship of the South. Several famous fiddlers—including Gid Tanner, Clayton McMichen, and Uncle Dave Macon—would come to Chattanooga every year to compete against Chattanooga’s best local fiddlers like “Sawmill” Tom Smith, Jess Young, and Lowe Stokes. After more than two decades of success and growth, the war and fuel rationing in the 1940s led to the end of the event and more than 60 years would pass before it was revived.
“All of that history, it just blew my mind,” says Downer. “As a resident of Chattanooga, I thought it was my obligation to bring that back and share it with the city.”
In March 2010, Downer organized the first Great Southern Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention since the late 1940s, and it has continued to grow each year, drawing musicians from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, as well as a crowd of more than 500 spectators throughout the all-day event.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind event,” says Downer. “I’ve been to several festivals, contests, and fiddlers’ conventions, but I’ve never been to one that’s held like this one with no amplification. Lindsay Street Hall is an acoustically designed building, and it’s perfect for the unamplified music.”
Downer, who grew up on Sand Mountain in Alabama, performs traditional old-time music on fiddle, banjo, and guitar. He learned to play the songs and tunes in the local style from his grandfather and other elder musicians in the region. The annual convention is like a family reunion each year of like-minded musicians who hope to keep the craft alive.
“There’s really no better people in my mind than the old-time community,” says Downer. “They have really deep appreciation and knowledge about this music.”
Mick Kinney, a band member for the Georgia Crackers, has participated as a performer and judge in the convention each year. He is drawn to the event because of its unique approach, and he and one of his sons have won several awards at the event over the last six years. “What I like about the venue is that it is the only festival that I know of that is non-amplified,” says Kinney. “It is a different way of presenting the music because you really have to voice your instrument for an acoustic, truly sonic performance, the way that it was supposed to be. It really makes it authentic and more close to the way it was done 100 years ago.”
This year’s Great Southern Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention will be held Saturday, March 12th beginning at noon, with several competitions spanning the old-time tradition and a culminating fiddle competition at 7:00 PM (see sidebar for schedule). The event is open to the public, with a $10 general admission fee per person (children under 6 are free). Registration for the contests is free with admission. There are food and drink vendors and informal side shows outside as old-time musicians showcase their unique style and talents.
According to Downer, maintaining a connection to this rich heritage will ensure generations to come can enjoy and appreciate old-time music. “We’re still playing the same tunes, celebrating the same music, and continuing the old-time fiddling tradition just like they were back in the 1920s.”
To learn more, visit www.oldchattanooga.com or find the event or Chattanooga Old Time Fiddlers’ Association on Facebook. Photos by Gary Hamilton.