Go with the bow
Spurred by its western swing legacy, Tulsa has become a talent factory for a new generation of fiddling phenoms whose gifts will be displayed at this month’s Oklahoma State Picking and Fiddling Championships at the Tulsa State Fair.
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The thriving local fiddle scene, of which the Tulsa State Fair is a key element, has its roots in the music of Bob Wills.
Oh, the stories Oklahoma’s older folks tell: How they sold chickens to the grocery store to earn the price of a Texas Playboys ticket. How they collected drip gas from oil wellheads to fuel the trip from the farm to the Tulsa show, or else misused the ration cards that Uncle Sam intended for rural America’s (believe it or not) gas-powered washing machines. And then, how they would stand 10-deep at the Cain’s Ballroom stage to watch the charismatic Wills fiddle “Don’t Let the Deal Go Down.”
Wills’ individual acts of generosity, both with his money and his time, will never be matched by an artist of his stature. That spirit flowed through Wills’ music and soothed the hard times for millions of devotees.
In 1975, two weeks after Saigon fell and mere months before Bruce Springsteen released “Born to Run,” Wills turned in his fiddle for a harp and wings.
Times and styles had changed radically, and the King of Western Swing was gone. Yet the kingdom remained intact. Those who had taken comfort from fiddling through the Depression and World War II years joined to nurture and preserve that music, incorporating as the Oklahoma State Fiddlers in 1975.
Chapters opened around the state. Tulsa’s chapter took responsibility for holding a fiddle championship. Then-chapter President Ed Richmond (whose keyboardist son, Walt, is touring with Eric Clapton) gained the support of the Tulsa State Fair right from the start. University of Tulsa professors Guy Logsdon and Glenn Godsey were also instrumental in creating the Oklahoma State Picking and Fiddling Championships. In the 1980s, Bob Fjeldsted, guitarist in a ’50s doo-wop band who nonetheless admired Wills and his music, relocated from Los Angeles and joined on. Fjeldsted has led the chapter and run the contest — sometimes aided only by his wife, Vicki — for the last 22 years.
“It has opened huge doors for kids,” Fjeldsted says of the contest. “The fiddle players can show their wares.”
With an event organized by Wills’ fans, and performance space and prize money courtesy of the Tulsa State Fair, the next need was to interest kids.
As elsewhere, T-Town’s youth had gone with the flow: rock, disco, grunge, synth pop. There were white-tablecloth Tulsans who preferred the highbrow arts their mothers enjoyed back East and brought with them when their oil-speculator husbands moved to this roughneck city. Never fans of hard-drinking, cigar-chomping Wills, they steered their children into classical music.
Enter the “First Lady of Country Fiddle”: Jana Jae. A national fiddle champion who became the first female instrumentalist in a big-time country band, Jae went on to stardom on TV’s “Hee Haw.” Then she established herself as a national touring act and made Tulsa her home base about three decades ago.
Besides being a high-energy performer, Jae is a powerful catalyst. While living in California, she started a school violin and string orchestra program that mushroomed to 250 participants in one year. Tulsa fiddling, she realized, needed a similar boost.
She launched a festival and camp for fiddling in nearby Grove about 15 years ago. Her Grand Lake National Fiddle Fest exposes young fiddlers to some of the best players in the nation. And the Jana Jae Fiddle Camp over Labor Day weekend brings kids together with such fiddle greats as Rick Morton of Tractors fame; world champion fiddler Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor; and many more.
Jae says she moved to Tulsa to work with music promoter and booking agent Jim Halsey and because she felt at home with the city’s musical heritage.
“We have the roots here,” she says. “We’re right in the center of America. It’s marvelous to build on all the history in this area. Bob Wills, jazz, classical — you’ve got it all. The heritage of America is right here.”
Around the same time, Guthrie fiddle great Byron Berline started the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie. Every year, the 501(c)3 raises thousands of dollars to support youth through music scholarships and continuing music education opportunities. The impact of Berline and Jae is seen in the sizzling picking and fiddling contests at the Tulsa State Fair.
Their impact also is seen in the younger fiddlers they have inspired.
Mark O’Connor, a nationally prominent fiddler and composer from Seattle, first met Berline in 1974 at a festival in Langley when O’Connor was 12. He says he not only won the fiddle contest, with Berline backing him on guitar, but he also first played on stage with a then-16-year-old Vince Gill.
In 1976, O’Connor won the Oklahoma State Fiddling Championship, and by 1981, he was performing at Cain’s Ballroom as part of The Dregs.
“I knew I was on an historic stage because the great Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys played there,” he says.
Now, O’Connor is inspiring a new generation of music students through his O’Connor Method for violin and strings.
“Some of the lessons I give in my method, and some of the tunes I feature, I learned myself throughout my travels around the country, and my Oklahoma experiences as a young player contributed to my method,” he says. “I am happy that several teachers, such as Kathy Rad, Karen Harmon and Jody Naifeh in Oklahoma, are certified teachers in my method, and wonderful organizations like the Tulsa Symphony have sponsored events that teach my method for strings to young people in Oklahoma.”
As to why young musicians are attracted to fiddling, Jae says, “It’s infectious.”
Eric Dysart, the fiddler for the Rockin’ Acoustic Circus and a three-time junior champ at the Tulsa State Fair, is thrilled by “definitive” improvisational techniques by fiddle icons such as Vassar Clements. When you hear sliding vibrato, Dysart says, “you just know it was a Vassar lick.”