Copyright 2017 Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention
A dance contest is held separately for bragging rights and ribbons. Dancing generally appears in three styles: flatfooting, clogging and buck dancing. However, these are not judged separately; judges score contestants based on how well they dance in their preferred style. Many dancers mix styles. Dancers move through the contest quickly–it’s fun to watch!
As you can see from these Web pages, there’s a variety to see and do. And it’s all family friendly. We encourage kids to enter the contests or just come and enjoy the convention.
And what’s the difference between old time and bluegrass?
A fiddlers convention is a gathering of people who like to play string music and those who like to listen or dance.
Musicians come for friendly competition, camaraderie, and to show and hone their skills. Others come to see and hear the contest, scout around the fairgrounds for hot jam sessions, kick up their heels, see their friends and neighbors, and sample the fare of a variety of vendors.
Northwest North Carolina and Southwest Virginia have been called the nation’s hotbed of string musicians. You can’t turn a corner without running into someone who plays an instrument or three or four. These are people who play for fun and not for a living. Their skills, nonetheless, are amazing.
In this contest, bands and individual musicians are scored by three judges who are musicians themselves. The contestants with the highest scores win cash prizes and ribbons.
Here are a few more things to look for:
In old time, the fiddle is the lead instrument. It stops and starts the tunes and carries the energy of the melody. Fiddle is the most difficult of the stringed instruments to learn to play, thus fiddlers are held in high regard and the contests are called fiddlers conventions.
Bluegrass musicians take turns taking breaks. No single instrument is considered lead. Bluegrass fiddlers play quick and notey breaks that cascade around the melody in fast tunes, and soulful and harmonious sounds in slow tunes.
Mandolins may also appear in old time bands, but being the instrument of bluegrass founding father Bill Monroe, they are associated more with bluegrass. A mandolin player will often chop rhythm besides taking breaks.
Bluegrass emphasizes singing with tight harmonies.
The style of banjo is also different: the way it’s played and (usually) the way it looks.
Old time musicians play a clawhammer, frailing or two-finger style with no picks for a rhythmic and melodic sound. Their banjos are usually “open back.”
Bluegrass banjo players use picks and play fast and rolling licks. Their banjos have a circular attachment on the back called a resonator, which projects the sound toward the listener.
If you’re listening to a band and still wonder whether it’s bluegrass or old time, take a look at the crowd at the dance floor. Are they listening or dancing?
Fiddlers conventions as organized events are a longstanding tradition in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A few ongoing conventions in this area date back to the 1930s.
The Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention began in 1995 as a way to raise money for the new nonprofit fairgrounds, now the site of family events all year round.
The event was eventually turned over to the Sparta-Alleghany Volunteer Fire Department as one of several fundraisers it holds. Part of the proceeds continue to go toward continuing improvements and maintenance at the fairgrounds.
An old time contestant with an open back banjo.
A bluegrass contestant with a resonator banjo.
Bluegrass or Old Time?
What’s the difference between old time and bluegrass? That question is often heard among people who are not familiar with traditional string music. After all, the instruments are the same.
Old time, as the name implies, is an older style. It developed in the nation’s infancy when people gathered to dance and socialize, often including tunes they brought from the “Old Country” and played on instruments that were small and portable. Music was passed on from person to person by ear.
Since there was no amplification, the musicians played in unison for maximum rhythm and volume. The fiddle was played on the highest pitched strings so as to be heard over the noise of dancers.
Bluegrass as a style developed around the time of World War II, when musicians like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were experimenting with new and blended styles of playing. With electric amplification available, musicians could now show off their skills with fancy “breaks” or solos and be heard. Bluegrass evolved as music for listeners as opposed to dancers.
As bluegrass solidified into a new style, fiddlers conventions began dividing up contestants in the two categories, the older one taking the name “old time.” Bluegrass is named for Bill Monroe’s home state of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State.
Other local nonprofits, including the rescue squad, other fire departments and civic organizations, raise money at the convention by selling food and other items.