In Burleson, fiddle orchestra preserves traditional music

Posted Friday, Mar. 07, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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A warm Saturday afternoon turned cool, and a motley crew of fiddlers trickled in.

Outside, behind the small-town music shop, the fiddlers arranged themselves in a semi-circle, dry leaves crunching beneath their cowboy boots.

Chins perched on instruments, they gazed forward and waited for a cue.

They call themselves Valerie’s Texas Fiddle Orchestra, and members gather here a couple times a month to play tunes like Hoedown Medley and Billy in the Lowground.

Note by note, the fiddlers are trying to preserve old-time Texas fiddle music, a distinctive style once played on front porches and in living rooms.

On Saturday, Valerie’s orchestra will perform at the first Crockett Fiddlers Festival at the Alamo in San Antonio.

“It is beautiful music,” said Valerie Ryals, leader of the group and owner of Valerie’s Music Studio. “Depending on the tune, it can make you feel so happy or sad and blue. It touches your heart in a million different ways.”

Old-time Texas fiddle music emerged in the 1800s, following the Civil War, and blended country and bluegrass with touches of African-American, Appalachian, Cajun, German, Irish, Mexican and Scottish influences, reflecting the diversity of people settling here.

Songs with names like Sally Goodin and Dusty Miller were passed down through generations, played on fiddles, banjos and guitars.

“Most of us learned to play sitting knee to knee with someone older,” said Lydia Stuart, a member of the orchestra and Ryals’ sister. “They would play a key and we would play it back. We did that over and over until we got it right.”

‘Anyone can fiddle’

One orchestra member, Bubba Hopkins, recalled traveling to country music festivals as a boy with his grandparents. At age 6, a friend of his grandparents handed him a fiddle and sat down to teach him a few tunes.

Now 25, Hopkins is the five-time Texas state fiddle champion.

“People fall in love with the fiddle,” said Hopkins, who lives in Keller and works as an optometrist’s assistant. “It spans all age groups. Anyone can fiddle.”

But not long after the Great Depression, Texas fiddling faded, replaced by swing and other styles. Tunes were not commonly recorded, and sheet music rarely existed.

Ryals learned to play at age 9, when her granddad sat at the kitchen table and taught her how to play the song Rubber Dolly.

In the mid 1980s, Ryals opened a music shop in Burleson and planned to teach a variety of music. But she found a niche market in fiddling and soon started the old-time fiddle orchestra, which has performed around North Texas and the state. Slowly, Ryals is committing hundreds of songs to sheet music.

“People were intrigued by fiddling,” said Ryals, who in 2009 became the only woman inducted into the Texas Fiddlers Hall of Fame. “This was something they could not get anywhere else.”

‘A sudden resurgence’

Membership has fluctuated between 20 and 60 fiddlers and guitarists. Today, the group has roughly 30 members, ranging in age from 4 to 76. At rehearsals, high school students play next to grandparents, and novices fiddle next to seasoned musicians.

Julie Morris, a longtime fiddler and orchestra member, said she has noticed an uptick in popularity, thanks to groups such as Mumford & Sons, a folk rock band.

“More and more people are discovering old-time Texas fiddle music,” Morris said. “We’re seeing a sudden resurgence.”

Katie Crawford, 16, a junior at Burleson High School, took her first fiddle lesson at age 5. In 2010, she was named the state’s junior champion.

“It was like no other music I had ever heard before,” Crawford said. “It didn’t sound like country or rock and roll. It was an entirely different style, and I loved it.”

‘Music from the heart’

Fiddling can be difficult to master. The style requires use of the entire length of the bow, more than one position on the fingerboard and coordination of wrist and arm movement, Hopkins said.

At the recent rehearsal, gusts of wind blew sheet music, and the group warmed up with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star before moving onto Deep in the Heart of Texas and the Golden Fiddle Waltz.

Improvisation is big in fiddling. Members hooted, hollered and tapped their feet. For many fiddlers, that is the draw.

“Nothing is plugged in. The music is from the heart,” Morris said. “We may play a song a certain way just one time, and then never again. It’s sort of exciting.”

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056 Twitter: @sarahbfw

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