The Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention: Building Culture And Community For 52 Years

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Kicking off the 2018 fall festival season in Athens-Limestone County is the “granddaddy of ‘em all,” the annual Fiddlers Convention, which has grown to be a nationally recognized event that truly has something for everyone. Each year, thousands of people descend on Athens and fill up the historic Athens State University campus for three days listening to the distinctly American “old-timey” sound; participating in spontaneous music making; competing in everything from buck dancing to harmonica, mandolin, bluegrass banjo, dobro, dulcimer, old-time singing, fiddle playing, guitar finger and flat picking; and enjoying the chance to view or purchase the work of artisans, as well as taste festival food.

In the late ‘60s, when the convention began, there was concern that the “old-timey” sound and lifestyle was dying, and something needed to be done to revive it. A handful of local musicians decided to do all they could to pass on a love for an art form that is part of the fabric of American history to the next generation, and now there are junior categories of competition that are the same as those listed above. In keeping with the desire to “hand off” to the next generation, proceeds go to various scholarship and project programs at Athens State University, and there are more than $18,000 dollars in prize money available to the winners.

I spoke with Chris Latham, the Athens State University Director of Marketing and Public Relations, and his favorite things about Fiddlers is that “the community comes together to celebrate incredible talent, both in the competitions and in the concerts.” This year’s talent not only includes all of the incredible competitors but also Flatt Lonesome, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and the legendary Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. Huntsville International Airport is the Presenting Sponsor, the Alabama Farmers’ Cooperative and Aetos Systems are the Stage Sponsors, and grants have been garnered by the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and the Alabama State Department of Tourism.

You can know that if your state government recognizes the contribution an event makes to better the quality of life in Alabama, you are on the right track. In 2013, the state legislature passed a resolution recognizing the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention as the official home of 14 state champions, including the Alabama State Fiddle Champion.

Once again, this year will feature a free concert on Thursday night, October 4, beginning at 5:30 in McCandless Hall. It will be a tribute concert to the award-winning songwriter and original steering committee member Jake Landers, and the music will be performed by Bradley Walker. There will also be a few vendors set up for business on Thursday night. Then, at 7 p.m., Flatt Lonesome will perform on the Founders’ Hall main state. Again, both concerts are free to the public. On Friday, October 5, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage will be performing at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Then, on Saturday, October 6, 15-time Grammy Award winner Ricky Skaggs will be on the main stage at 6 p.m.

There are a number of things that will be new this year in anticipation of a larger crowd. For the first time, credit and debit cards will be able to be used at the Founders Hall Gate for tickets. The other gates will only accept cash and online tickets. Also, some of the food and arts/crafts vendors do accept cards through the Square card reader. There will also be ATM machines for cash withdrawals. One of the best features of Fiddlers’ is the more than reasonable price. Thursday is completely free, Friday only is $15, Saturday only is $15, and the whole weekend is $20 per person. Children under 12 are admitted free of charge. Also new this year is the ability to purchase tickets online at Gates open at 8:00 a.m. on Friday and 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, making plenty of time for one of the best parts of the weekend — the unplanned formation of groups of strangers coming together to make music. They are everywhere, inside buildings and out on the lawn. Old, young, experienced, beginners, black, white, male, female, everyone comes together to speak the international language of music while others look on.
Every year space is made available free of charge for camping, but there are no electrical hookups or waste disposal services. Also, this year there will be an Airstream Rally, with campers coming in from all over the country. Some campers stay clear through till it’s time for the Storytelling Festival.

So, get out your favorite lawn chair, and get yourself to Athens State University on October 4-6 for the 52nd Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention, where you won’t be able to stop pickin’, grinnin’, or both.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner