Fiddlers find a hillbilly heaven at Deer Creek 75 area musicians compete at convention

August 05, 1991|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,Sun Staff Correspondent

WESTMINSTER — It was Hillbilly Heaven by Ralph Lauren and Reebok, a sweltering summer hootenanny of twangy strings and twangier voices that barely gave tired toes time to stop tapping.

From noon to late night yesterday, the rolling fields of the Carroll County Farm Museum came alive with the sounds of old-time, country and bluegrass music at the 48th Deer Creek Fiddlers Convention.

The down-home picking, strumming and fiddling was not confined to the stage, where about 75 musicians competed for over $3,000 in prizes.

Under the shade trees, informal groups with fiddles and banjos, guitars and mandolins would gather to quickly find a common chord and then break out with the strains of "Fly Away," "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" or "Faded Love." These impromptu jams were at the heart of the convention, since each performer had only a few minutes on main stage.

"They're virtually all amateurs -- no one can make a full-time living playing bluegrass," said Megan Shook, who with her brother, David Greene, originated this festival in 1971.

But most of the performers have devoted years to perfecting their technique, and the results sounded fully professional to the crowd of about 2,500 people who spread over the grounds.

The first convention was held as a weekend campout at Deer Creek, near Madonna in Harford County. Mr. Greene, who nurtured a love of bluegrass music from his childhood days of covertly listening to Canadian country radio broadcasts, attended a big fiddlers festival in North Carolina and decided that he could do thesame thing for the Baltimore area. Several conventions are held each year, all since 1983 at the Farm Museum.

The atmosphere is one of reunion and picnic amid the competition, which puts an edge on the otherwise relaxed setting, said Bill Wisdom, a philosophy professor at Temple University. He's been attending for more than 10 years, performing with his wife in a band and solo on the old-time banjo.

"This music is from a very social tradition, a way that people have gotten together to entertain each other for generations," he said. The convention perpetuates that feeling, he said, while prodding performers to hone their skills for the competition.

A former mandolin player in the Mummers parades in Philadelphia, Mr. Wisdom became inspired by the folk music of Pete Seeger and vowed to take up the banjo. Like the other players here yesterday, he was never a coal miner or hardscrabble farmer who learned the old songs by ear from a family balladeer.

Mr. Wisdom concentrates on old-time music, which recreates the mountain music of the early 1900s. That music has been passed down largely by aural tradition, he explained, while bluegrass is a more complex, commercial music that originated a half-century ago.

Bill Falkenstine plays bluegrass banjo, with an upward, three-finger picking motion that contrasts with the downward, strumming motion of the old-time player. He came to the genre after several years of full-time work with a country band, playing a more melodic and danceable music.

"Bluegrass is so insistent, the tempo keeps getting faster and faster," he noted. It's not easy for everyone to listen to but "it is the music I love to play," said the Glen Burnie property management agent.

For 18 years, Bill Beeler has been coming to the Deer Creek convention to renew acquaintances and play a little bluegrass mandolin. His band, which performs a couple of times a month, won the champions contest a few years ago.

The early Deer Creek conventions were like hippie, flower-chilweekends at a remote campsite, which have been transformed into a more popular event.

"It's a become very much a family event," said Mr. Beeler, who brought along his two young children for the afternoon in the sun. The event now draws people of all ages, many of whom come back year after year, he noted.

Despite his success, he is not excited by the competition. "There's a lot of stress; it's not like playing your music in a club where you can try things," he observed. Still, the modest prizes help to draw a larger crowd of musicians, he added.

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