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Imperial Valley Expo plays host to String Fling 2001 old-time fiddlers competition

January 27, 2001|By RICHARD MONTENEGRO, Staff Writer

IMPERIAL — Racing bows effortlessly across the strings of their violins, brothers Tyler and Doug Powell of Escondido turned out a passionate yet pious rendition of "Old Rugged Cross" as they competed for a berth in the twin fiddle finals of String Fling 2001 here Saturday.

The Powell brothers were among 40 entrants from throughout the western United States competing in a variety of categories in the second annual String Fling old-time fiddle contest sponsored by the Imperial County Arts Council and the California Old Time Fiddlers' Association, districts 7 (San Diego County) and 14 (Imperial County).

Two of the younger participants in what looked to be a largely senior crowd, the Powells said they were impressed by the organization of the local competition, which started Friday afternoon and ran through late Saturday in the Bingo Faire building at the Imperial Valley Expo in Imperial.

"It's really cool, a really good facility and good time of year for this," 24-year-old Tyler Powell said minutes after leaving the stage.


Doug Powell, 27, said, "The sound system's awesome."

While there were individual competitions for guitar pickers and other musicians such as banjo and mandolin players, the majority of the contest stayed true to its roots, pitting fiddle players in various configurations and age groups against each other; from the pee wee division (those age 8 and under) to the senior senior division (70 and up).

Event organizer Lyn Neal of El Centro, a local musician and music teacher and a member of the state Old Time Fiddlers' Association board of directors, said she started String Fling last year to reprise a defunct fiddle contest once staged during the Niland Tomato and Sportsmen's Festival.

"There was an interest and we're just reviving that," she said, adding the popularity of the contest has continued to grow.

"It makes me feel wonderful to bring this back to the Valley," Neal said.

Jerry Wilson of Washington state, a snowbird on his first trip to the Imperial Valley, attended String Fling with his wife.

"I like the music. We've never been to a fiddle competition before. We came to find out more about it," he said.

The Wilsons thought they were attending a bluegrass festival. Still, Jerry Wilson said he was having a great time.

Like most in attendance on Saturday, Glendale, Ariz. resident Ethel Estes attends many fiddle contests.

Of String Fling, she said, "For one that's very young, it's pretty good."

George Franks of Grand Junction, Colo., said, "I think they've got a good contest. I don't understand why more local people aren't at the contest. For being the second year, I'm surprised there are so many fiddlers here."

Said Pauline Mears of Modesto: "I go to a lot of these. This one is well-planned and I'm hoping it gets even bigger. It looks promising."

Every song played by the contestants or heard around the dozens of motor homes parked at the I.V. Expo is steeped in nostalgia.

Tyler Powell said, "It's a real down home, salt-of-the-earth Americana-type thing."


California Old Time Fiddlers' Association president Bill Whitfield of Patterson said competitions such as String Fling help foster and promote a style of music Whitfield said is purely American.

"Our tunes are hundreds of years old. The Lewis and Clark expedition had three fiddlers in their crew. The English hired fiddlers on their war ships to entertain the sailors," he said. "Some of the tunes we're playing in the local competition were played then, like ‘Soldier's Joy' and ‘Miller's Reel.'

"This is an American heritage," Whitfield added. "Some of the tunes you're hearing … are hundreds of years old and still sound exciting and new."

Mears said the preservation of these songs and this style of music is all important.

"There's a lot of us working to do that very thing, hoping it can stay alive," she said. "Attendance is less and less everywhere we go."

Mears said she was happy to see the crowd at String Fling 2001 had grown from the previous year.

In addition to the preservation and promotion of the music, Whitfield said the Old Time Fiddlers' Association has brought a sense of community to many retired people and musicians.

He said, "The social aspect of this organization is fantastic."

For 63-year-old Al Colby of Sacramento, 58-year-old Ian Van Dusen of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and 65-year-old Linda Barnett of Idaho, it's all about the social aspect.

Sitting outside a large motor home Saturday, Colby, Van Dusen and Barnett had come together to jam.

Between playing songs on his Gibson mandolin, Van Dusen said, "This is the fun part. Contests are work; this is fun."

Colby added, "We just hang out and make music with friends. There's no pressure. This is just for fun."

Running through several tunes from the '30s and '40s, and even a Connie Francis number, Van Dusen laughed, saying, "We're not talented, but we are fearless."

Results of the contest were unavailable Saturday.

Staff Writer Richard Montenegro can be reached at 337-3453.

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