Toe-tapping fiddle festival back on stage in Llano this weekend

Savannah Still, 18, warms up before playing for KBEY 103.9 to promote the Llano Fiddle Fest. Staff Photo

Texas-style fiddling takes center stage during the annual Llano Fiddle Festival this weekend, April 5-7. The main event of the weekend — the Llano Open Fiddle Contest — is April 6 at the LanTex Theater, 113 W. Main St. The contest runs 10 a.m. to about 5 p.m.

While this marks the 36th year Llano has hosted a fiddle contest, it was absent for several years. Llano County resident John Caballero became one of the forces behind resurrecting the festival and contest last year.

“I’m actually a guitar and mandolin player, and I probably hadn’t played my instruments for 30 years,” he said. “But I began meeting these older musicians, so I picked my instruments back up.”

During those interactions, several fiddlers regaled Caballero with stories about the fiddle fest and contest. He realized a part of Texas’ culture and history was slipping away, so he helped bring it back.

Original Texas style

The purpose behind the festival, Caballero said, was not only to showcase the fiddlers but expose people to this unique style of playing.

“Texas fiddle is recognized as a style all its own,” he said.

Classically trained violinist Keenan Fletcher agrees. The first time she competed in the Llano Fiddle Fest, she figured she had it in the bag. For someone who had performed alongside some of the best classical musicians in the country, played in symphonies in Dallas and attended a violin teacher symposium at the Juilliard School in New York City, how tough could Texas-style fiddle playing be?

“I came in dead last,” Fletcher said, now several years removed from the experience. “It was crazy.”

Still, Fletcher wasn’t convinced Texas fiddle playing was anything special. She picked up a CD by fiddler Jesse Mears and spent almost a year listening to it, trying to figure out the style’s appeal.

Finally, she reached out to Mears and asked if he would give her lessons.

“He said ‘No,'” Fletcher said with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe it. I kept asking him, and he kept saying, ‘No.’ Finally, I wore him down, and he agreed to take me to my first jam.”

The experience didn’t just give her a new appreciation for Texas fiddling, it changed her musical direction.

“Oh, my gosh, I saw some of the most incredible musicians I’ve ever seen,” she said. “These fiddlers, they had all this music in their heads, and they were playing fast and furious. I came home, quit my orchestra gig and began studying Texas fiddle.”

As a tradition of more than 100 years, Texas fiddle music is part jazz and Irish jig, mixed with a Texas sound that makes up its own style, Fletcher said.

Fletcher still teaches and practices classical violin. She pointed out the two styles share some similarities, including how their creators might have envisioned fiddle or violin performances.

“As a classical musician, I was really never given any choices,” she said. “Classical music is performed in a rigid style. But when classical music was being written, Beethoven wasn’t considered classical. He was way out there. And Bach, his music was all loosely improvised. It was only after somebody wrote it down that his music was played so formally.”

The same spirit Bach and Beethoven infused into their music is shared by Texas fiddlers when they place the instrument under their chins and pick up the bow, she said.

“There’s a freedom of music with the fiddler,” Fletcher said. “You really have to own what you’re doing. You play with your heart, not what’s on the page. If you play a good fiddle tune, people laugh and smile after it.”

Festival Magic

Festivals help keep the Texas style alive because it connects experienced fiddlers with new ones or potential ones. One of the things that separates Texas fiddling, and fiddling in general, from other forms of music is how it’s passed on.

“It’s a handed-down tradition,” Fletcher said. “You can’t get it from a book. You have to find somebody to share it with you.”

Mears shared it with Fletcher. Now she tries to share the form with as many people as she can.

Even if you’re not a fiddler, you’ll love listening to the performances at the Llano Fiddle Festival this weekend.

“Be prepared to be blown away,” Fletcher said. “Bring a picnic lunch and make a day of it, because once you are there, you’re not going to want to leave.”

For more information and a complete schedule, go to www.llanofiddlecontest.com.

Picayune Editor Daniel Clifton contributed to this report.