Alexandra Harman at the 2018 Oklahoma State Picking and Fiddling Championship – photo by Pamm Tucker
On the last weekend of September, the Tulsa State Fair continued their tradition by hosting the 46th Annual Picking and Fiddling Championship. Yes, I said 46th year. In the 1960s the State Fair became the mother ship of the annual event, featuring fiddlers from surrounding states, in all age groups.
Fiddling is a folk tradition, that began when the Indian Territory (which is now Oklahoma) opened for eastern settlers. When they reached the end of the trail, the new settlers had carried their tunes and brought them into an abundant land of opportunity. Playing by ear, not by sheet music, became a tradition that still holds true at this competition. The Oklahoma State Picking and Fiddling contest is sanctioned by The Bob Wills Heritage Foundation and certified by The National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho.
Showcasing fiddle players of truly all ages and divisions and talents took place in T- town. Each contestant was announced by number for anonymity, and performed a breakdown, waltz, and a tune of their choice. Judges sit behind the scenes, and listen to the playing, without seeing or knowing who is performing.
The 2018 panel of judges included some of the most talented fiddlers in the Midwest. Brad Hawkins has an extensive background in fiddle music of more than 28 years. With wins under his belt from the following states: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas, Hawkins is currently passing on his knowledge to those interested in learning the fiddle tunes, as well as guitar enthusiasts. Brad’s influences are Terry Morris, Ricky Turping, Wes Wesmoreland, and Rudi Booher.
Also, wearing the title of judge for the weekend, was the ever so talented Shelby Eicher. Shelby grew up in northern Ohio, where he learned to”saw” at the local square dance hall. Upon graduation of high school Eicher was granted a scholarship to Claremore Junior College, and the foundation of his musical career was in place. It was this move to Oklahoma that really shifted Eicher’s musical career. Shelby performed with the great Roy Clark for 15 years, recorded 5 albums with him, and appeared on the infamous Hee Haw show for 10 years. Shelby says, “I have been a judge at the championships in Tulsa for years.”
The buzz around the contest this was the change of venue. In past years, the event has been held outdoors in the blistering Oklahoma heat, with the blazing sun on your back or in your face. It was Eicher who suggested that they change things up a bit, and for 2018, the contest was held in the famed Tulsa Driller’s building with the welcome addition of chairs – padded with backs – and air-conditioning.
Wayne Head, a 4th generation fiddler wrapped up the field of judges for 2018. Wayne holds the title of Oklahoma State Fiddling Championship, and the Senior Division Fiddling Champion from Branson, MO in 2011, 2014 and 2016. It doesn’t stop there, as Head also holds Mid America Fiddlers Champion titles, and Senior Division titles in Grove OK, consecutively in 2013 and 2014. Wayne has also judged several times in the Oklahoma State Picking and fiddling Championship, The Grand Lake National Fiddling Contest, as well as the Bowie Texas Fiddling contest. As you can tell, the board had the best judging the weekend competitors.
The contest kicked off on the chime at 11:00 a.m. (well it was a little later), and the Pee Wee division (under 8) started the day off with 6 contestants. First place of this division went to Tristin Paskvan, from Southlake, TX. With his toothy grin, the lad took home a ruby encrusted belt buckle, which happened to be almost as big as his hat, and a $50 bill. “My guitar player said it may not be real ruby, but if it’s not we are going to get real ones,” Trustin shared. With contestants representing states from Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas, the skill level was quite high. First grader, Paskvan takes lesson from Sherrie McKenzie. “What do you like most about playing the fiddle?” I asked him. “Mainly it’s the girls,” the young man said. When asked who he looked up to, as a fiddler, that is, and without hesitation he said “Ridge…the guitar player…he is cool.” Coming in at 2nd, Kolton Buttress, Summersville, MO, put $30 in his wallet.
The next category to take bow in hand, was the youth division (ages 9-11). States that would be proud of the talent on stage included Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri. Elizabeth Merritt took first place winning the ever so popular, buckle and $50. Merritt lives in Greenwood AR where she is homeschooled. Her love of the fiddle developed on YouTube. And don’t you make the mistake of calling it a violin, as she will set you straight! She is self taught, playing mostly by ear. According to Elizabeth’s mom, bluegrass has been in her blood for generations, as her grandfather used to play. Broken out with a case of poison ivy the day before the contest, Merritt’s eyes were swollen shut when her dad suggested that they cancel, but Elizabeth insisted on playing. When she took center stage, however, she could see just fine, and played elegantly.
Thomas Paskvan (brother of Trustin) was right on her heels, with 2nd place. Thomas started the fiddle at 3 years of age, not by choice as his instrument was chosen by his mom, Katy, a viola player. Classically trained, this is not the first time that the older Paskvan has been in the spotlight as a winner/runner-up. He has 5 wins under his belt and, in my opinion, has many more to come in his lifetime.
Ages 12-14 make up the division recognized as the Jr-Jrs. First place was taken by Mary Parker (2017 Jr Jr winner). Parker is also homeschooled, and travels to contests with her dad and younger brother. A professional in every aspect, with albums recorded and for sale, Parker did not disappoint. Her fingers literally floated over the strings as she bowed her way to a buckle and $50. This is Parker’s last year in this age group. This contest was one of the closest in points, with a mere three points were between 1st and 2nd. Alexandra Harmon, who is taught by her mother, Karen Harmon, and Emma Pendleton, took 2nd. Not only is Alexandra a showcase of talent, she is also an instructor, teaching students 4- 7 years of age, and already has 4 students under her tutelage. With her mother and her grandmother, Harmon has traveled internationally (Canada, Austria, and Ireland) to play her violin.
Allowing contestants from 15-17, The Jr category was a small in number, but still a mighty division. Winner of the famed buckle and $100, Nathan Pednault stated “I love my fiddle.” Nathan’s mom told me that oftentimes she has to get up in the middle of the night to “kidnap” Nathan’s instruments so he will go to bed. Nathan has a distinct stance while he performs, as if he is protecting his instrument, and himself. “That’s a personal thing. I hear the rhythm and groove…it’s a protective mode.” The Texan is taught by Brooke Wallace, Valerie Ryall, and Jr. Merriot. Future plans for Pednault are to join the Marines and follow in his family’s footsteps. Nathan is a rescuer. He “rescues” old violins/fiddles and gives them new life, and a new existence. Passion for Pednault is not a girlfriend, it’s his fiddle, and his idol, Ridge (there’s that name again). Trey Delozier, Tulsa native, came in with a 2nd place.
The J.C. Broughton Rising Star Award was won by Delozier’s cousin, Michael Merritt. Merritt was awarded his rising star, which is the front part of a fiddle custom designed to hang on the wall.
Winner of the open division, and the title of 2018 Oklahoma State Champion Fiddler (plus $1,000) was Ridge Roberts. All day, I had heard this name, Ridge. However, when he took the stage, andratised his bow, I knew why. Roberts has many wins under his belt: 3 National plus Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma. Not only was Roberts the winner and the champion at the Tulsa State Fair, he was recently awarded the title of World Champion Fiddler in Crockett, TX. The youngest since 1965 to be honored with this title, Ridge also had a supportive side to him. All day long he accompanied many younger contestants, always reassuring them and helping them get set correctly. But this young man is already chasing his dream and pursuing his career. Roberts picked up the fiddle at the age of 7, and today leaves his audience hungry for more. People that grab Ridge’s attention are Bob Wills, Don Rich, and Texas fiddler Terry Morris. At the age of 15, Ridge holds more titles than most people will be awarded in their lifetime.
Roberts said, “it was time for me to go open. I made the decision to do it.”