CLARION — The theme of this year’s Autumn Leaf Festival is “An American Autumn.” There might have been no better way to celebrate that theme than by listening to some traditional American music at the Pennsylvania State Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest that was held Saturday in Clarion.
Fiddlers, ranging in age from elementary school students to retired seniors, converged on the First United Methodist Church to compete in one of four divisions for the right to be named their age-group’s 2019 Pennsylvania State Fiddle Champion. Guitar, banjo, and mandolin competitions were held concurrently.
“The purpose of this event was to promote fiddling and guitar, banjo, and mandolin playing,” contest coordinator Kim Thomas said. “We want to keep this type of music alive and this is one of the ways to do that. Also they’re (the attendees) going to hear the best of the best.
“We are registered by the National Fiddlers’ Association; they’re located in Weiser, Idaho. And we are able to send our winners of each fiddle division – we’re only registered in the fiddle divisions – to that competition (National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival in June 2020) as a registered state champion,” Thomas said.
Each fiddler was given five minutes to play three tunes; in order, a hoedown, a waltz and a song of their choice (other than a hoedown or waltz). Musicians in the other instrumental categories played two tunes in five minutes. Contestants could be accompanied by an instrument of their choice, with most who opted for accompaniment choosing a guitarist. Regardless of the instrument, all tunes were to be played, according to the rules, in an old time style at a danceable tempo.
“They’re judged on tone, which is the quality of their sound; rhythm and timing, keeping a steady beat; intonation, the pitch and in-tuneness of their sound; then the creativity of their playing, if they add nice variations,” Thomas explained.
The winner of the highest fiddle division, the Champion Division, was Ryan Sutter, a 25-year-old freelance musician from Punxsutawney. Sutter, who was performing on his late grandfather’s fiddle, began playing at age 11 and has been competing ever since.
Sutter was named the champion in 2018 as well. Talking about his motivation for competing, Sutter said, “It’s just the energy, especially with old time music. Just the drive with it. It’s really fun. It challenges me, keeps me practicing.”
Ron Buchanan, of Edgewood, earned the title of state champion in the Senior Fiddle Division and placed fourth in the banjo competition. Playing since 1976, Buchanan took up the fiddle as an offshoot of his interest in square dancing.
“I was a square dance caller. I loved dancing, became a caller, and I enjoyed the fiddle and I wanted to learn more about music,” Buchanan said.
Interestingly, Buchanan sees competing in fiddle contests as something of a means to an end. “I’m not sure if I do (like competing). But I like to meet the other players. And, you know, I’m sort of willing to compete in order to meet everybody. If you win that doesn’t hurt, that kind of gets you to come back.”
Brookville’s Maeve Jordan was the state champion in the Teen Fiddle Division and Danae Hansford, of Knox, was the Junior Fiddle Division winner. Hansford, age 8, took up the fiddle a little over a year ago and was competing in her first competition. Reacting to her victory, she said, “Just surprised.”
Scott Pearson won both the guitar and mandolin competitions. “My fingers aren’t really long so it’s easier for me to play the mandolin. It’s almost a toss-up between that and the guitar. But I think I’m a little bit better at the mandolin than I am at the guitar. That is probably why I like it better. They’re both great instruments,” he said.
Pearson, a resident of Warren, saw a lot of time on stage. In addition to winning two divisions he also finished second in the Champion Fiddle Division and earned runner-up status on banjo. Additionally, he accompanied several other performs, including his 16-year-old son, Selvie, who was runner-up in the Teen Fiddle Divison. Punxsutawney’s Jim McCollough finished first in banjo.
The contest, which was open to anyone, whether they had ever won a competition or not, has moved several times over its history but seems to have found a home in Clarion during ALF.
“It actually started in Uniontown. And it was just disbanded; they didn’t continue it there. I picked it up and brought it to Brookville. Due to lack of sponsorship Brookville had to drop it. We went to the Tom Mix Festival (in DuBois). We actually just kind of lost our sponsorship and event there. I think it’s been a great move (to Clarion). We’re very happy to be here at the Autumn Leaf Festival. It’s a great location, great venue,” Thomas said.