News & Features » Miscellany

The big fiddlers want their place in the mountains of Galax.

The Bass Players' Revenge


I witnessed a small revolt in Galax earlier this month.

It was so small that some people who saw the whole thing didn't realize what they were looking at. I saw part of it, and I'll tell you what I believe to be the facts of the case.

You've probably heard of the big fiddlers convention they have over in Galax. Fiddlers conventions are congregations of people who enjoy mountain music. Mountain music is generally divided into two broad categories: bluegrass and old-time. Bluegrass was more or less invented earlier this century, but old-time is just what it sounds like. Some of it came into the mountains with the first white settlers.

There are lots of ways to tell bluegrass from old-time. The fiddles are played differently. The banjos are played and made differently. Some folks have said there's a thin line between bluegrass music and old-time music — and a thinner line between old-time music and no music at all.

Bluegrass and old-time are back-porch and kitchen music, most often played by friends for friends, and for fun rather than profit. All summer long — and most of the spring and fall, too — aficionados and maestros of mountain music gather to play and sing and compete at things called fiddlers conventions.

Galax is one of the largest and oldest shindigs of its kind in the country. This year's was the 64th Annual Old Fiddlers Convention. As in every other year, the event was sponsored by Galax Lodge No. 733 of the Loyal Order of the Moose.

As has been the case for the last 63 years or so, the event was held in Felts Park, a big stretch of land with a grandstand between the YMCA and a furniture factory. Every year that park is filled with trailers and motor homes and tents, and old buses that have been turned into houses on wheels. There's usually at least one camper — the kind you usually see on the back of a pickup truck — that's been grafted onto an old Cadillac. This year I saw some folks sacking out on what appeared to be old airliner seats.

Campers don't fill the space, exactly. They just take up most of it. There's room for people to sell banjos and guitar stings, and finger picks and other musical paraphernalia. There's room for people to sell pinto beans and cornbread and piles of potatoes and stir-fried alligator. And there's room for the big yellow tent that opens onto the stage where the competitions that are the heart of the convention are held.

Any sort of contest must have rules. The fiddlers convention has 17 of them, not counting the 11 individual subheadings under rule number two.

That may sound like a lot of rules, but there are a lot of contests at the fiddlers' convention.

There's a contest for bluegrass bands and a contest for old-time bands; one for bluegrass fiddlers and another for old-time fiddlers. There are contests for folks who play the autoharp, guitar, mandolin, claw-hammer banjo, bluegrass banjo, dulcimer and dobro. There's a contest for folk singers. There's even a contest for flatfoot dancers.

But there's not a thing for people who play bass fiddles.

For years now, bass players have been trying to get a contest of their own at Galax. Eventually, one of them decided that since his bass is really just a big fiddle and since he plays bluegrass music with it, he should enter the bluegrass fiddle competition.

That's the reason for Rule 2(h): "No bass fiddle can be entered in the old-time or bluegrass individual fiddle competition."

This year bass players formed a protest group called the Rodney Dangerfield Unit.

Mindful of Rule 2(j) — "To qualify, a band must consist of at least a banjo, a fiddle and a guitar." — they got themselves a banjo player, a fiddle player and a guitar player — and four bass players. One of the bass players used a bow on his fiddle, which is about as common in bluegrass as a mandolin player who picks out tunes with his teeth.

The Rodney Dangerfield Unit played an old standard called "Mama Don't Allow." The singer usually sings about how Mama "don't allow no music playing around here, but we don't care what Mama don't allow, we're going to play our music anyhow." At the end of each verse, a different band member gets to pick a lick or two.

That's not how the Rodney Dangerfield Unit did it. They sang, "The Moose don't allow no bass playing around here. We don't care what the Moose don't allow, we're going to play a little bass anyhow." And at the end of each verse a different bass player took a turn playing a solo.

The folks sitting next to me in the grandstand didn't get it. I heard one fellow say to his buddy, "I tell you one thing. They're not going to win. They're not much of a bluegrass band."

Truth be told, they were only a fair bluegrass band. But they were my

Add a comment