Sniff, Sniff…. What’s that? Something’s frying, and it sure smells good. Could it be a corndog? Maybe an Elephant Ear? I could sure go for some cotton candy too.
Wait! There’s the sound of fiddles, banjos, guitars… yes, it’s that time of the year in Oklahoma – 47 years in a row! Every year the Tulsa State Fair hosts the Oklahoma State Fiddling & Picking contest, and on the lower level of The River Spirit Expo Building you will find a competition unlike any other. Contestants and music lovers wait to see who gets the draw to compete first.
In 2019, Oklahoma Judges for the state Fiddling & Picking contest were:
- Byron Berline: When the phone rings at The Double Stop Fiddle Shop, Berline answers, “Fiddle Shop.” Byron, just a good ole country boy, has played with many of the greatest musicians over many genres. From Sir Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Vince Gill, Bob Dylan, and the Eagles, Berline has played with them all and more. Currently, he fronts his own bluegrass and western swing band, The Byron Berline Band, coordinates his own Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival, and is the grandfather to four. Byron has played the fiddle most of his life (starting at the age of 5), and is as good a mandolin player as he is a fiddler. Known as the “King of the Double-stop,” Berline’s love for fiddle trickery is also tied to his shops name, The Double Stop Fiddle Shop. Byron says, “A double-stop is when you play two notes together.” Laughing he finishes, “Hopefully they’re in tune. It’s all about scales, if you can’t play scales in tune, then you can’t play double stops.” Byron loves them. Also known as the Tall Fiddler, Berline recorded with The Dillards in 1964, also the year he won his first national fiddling title. Winning the title twice more (1965 and 1970), Berline retired himself from the competition, but never stopped playing or loving bluegrass. In 1965, Byron was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival. It was there that Byron met his bluegrass hero, Bill Monroe. In 1967, Berline obtained his teaching degree in Physical Education from Oklahoma University, and joined Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys shortly after, replacing Richard Greene. Recording three instrumentals with the Blue Grass Boys, including Gold Rush which he co-wrote with Monroe. In September 1967, Berline was drafted into the US Army, and in ’69, (after being discharged) began to play with Dillard & Clark. From the Dillards, to the Rolling Stones, Byron Berline is truly one of the masters of the stringed instruments.
- Greg Burgess: Greg Burgess has been playing guitar and fiddle for over 30 years. Starting as a child, Greg had a ton of support and instruction from family and friends. Over the years, associations with fiddlers like Clark Forshee, Amos Hedrick, Ace Sewell, Russell O’Neal, Herman Johnson, Dick Barrett, Orville Burns, Merle David and of course, Byron Berline, has helped with the Burgess style of entertaining. Greg has won the title championship of Oklahoma State Fiddler numerous times, and has been ranked in the top ten at a number of national level fiddle contests. Greg has recorded and/or shared the stage with musical greats including Hank Thompson, Leon Rausch, Jody Miller, Mel Tillis, Moe Bandy, Billy Walker, Wanda Jackson, Becky Hobbs, Asleep at The Wheel, and many others. Residing in Guthrie, OK, Greg considers it a privilege and an honor to play twin fiddles and guitar with The Byron Berline Band.
- Justin Branum: Branum picked up the bow at the age of 12, and his music journey began with learning about Texas/contest style fiddling, and competing in fiddle contests around the world. During this time, he was influenced by the fiddling of Benny Thomasson, Terry Morrow, Orville Burns, Louis Franklin, and other greats of Texas style fiddling, as well as bluegrass legends like Kenny Baker and Benny Martin. It was through contests that Justin was exposed to western swing and jazz violin, which were so inspiring that he shifted his focus to those styles. During his teenage and college years, Justin studied and absorbed the styles of players like Johnny Gimble, Buddy Spicher, Randy Elmore, Dale Potter, Tommy Jackson, and Svend Asmussen. These studies led to him changing from a straight up contest fiddler to an improvising player on not just fiddle, but also viola, mandolin, and guitar. While known for being a lover of swing music, Justin is also quite fond of and at home playing bluegrass, country, and old-time. Justin has a Master of Music degree in jazz performance from Webster University. Contest titles Justin has won include the 2010 Grand Master Fiddler Championship, 2010 Tennessee State Fiddle Championship, 2010 Gone to Texas Fiddle Championship, and the 2008 National Young Adult Fiddle Championship.
The competition was fierce, upon entering the practice/warm up area. Last year’s Pee Wee Division winner, Tristan Paskvan was already warming up; however his coach, Katie Paskvan (and his Mom) whispered in my ear, “Watch that little girl, her name is McKenna.” I found myself mesmerized by the tiny little blonde with a silver Bling head bow adorning the top of her ponytail. Walking over to “Mom” (there’s always Mom’s at these contests), McKenna turned her vibrant blue eyes to me. When asked if she was nervous about competing for the state title, she said to me “Did you see the ginormous bubbles?” Right outside the tented area where the tuneups were taking place was a children’s exhibit. It had a HUGE bubble exhibit, and that was what this little girl was so excited about.
Bob Fjelsted took the microphone, and the contests began with the three judges performance. Off to their private barns, where they were sequestered during the contest, as the contestants rosined up their bows.
- Pee Wee: Ages 8 and under
- Youth: Ages 9 – 11
- Junior Junior: Ages 12 – 14
- Junior: Ages 15 – 17
- Championship: All ages
- Senior: Ages 60+
- Banjo, Mandolin, Flatpick & Fingerstyle Guitar: All ages
- Bob Wills: All AgesString Band: All groups up to 7 people
Pee Wee Division Entrants were:
- McKenna Peterson – Age 7 – Fulshear, TX
- Dacey Lacey – Age 8 – Skiatook, OK
- Lydia Scott – Age 6 – Beggs, OK
- Zella Creekpaum – Age 5 – Tulsa, OK
- Sadie Deneen – Age 7 – Tulsa, OK
Winning the Pee Wee Division with a jewel encrusted belt buckle, was McKenna Peterson. Peterson also qualified to attend the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, ID with her first place certificate, and a $50 bill.
Youth Division Entrants were:
- Ezekial Baker – Age 11 – Birch Tree, MO
- Anna Marchand – Age 9 – Arlington, TX
- Claire Marchand – Age 11 – Arlington, TX
- Tristan Paskvan – Age 8 – Southlake, TX
- Kira Courtright – Age 10 – Denison, TX
- Jolie Marshall – Age 10 – McCloud, OK
- Macie Lynn – Age 9 – Branum, OK
While the contestants in this division were awaiting to hear the winner, my eyes focused on two sisters in this division. The Marchand girls, Anna and Claire (who I also met last year at this contest) were standing holding hands, in total support of one another. This is what competition is about, not just winning, but supporting each other as you anticipate what might be.
Pee Wee State Champion 2018, Tristan Paskvan stepped up and entered in an older division and won the Youth division. After his division was over, he could hardly wait until his Dad helped him remove his old buckle and put the new one on.
Jr. Jr. Division 2019 Contestants were:
- Mary Parker – Mountain View, AR
- Thomas Paskvan – Southlake, TX
- Alexis Harmon – Tulsa, OK
- Thad Graves – Barnsdall, OK
- Natalie Delozier – Tulsa, OK
- Maggie Merrill – Mounds, OK
- Colton Smith – Afton, OK
- Joel Teague – Claremore, OK
- Madelaine Guenther – Sandsprings, OK
- Morgan Merrill – Mounds, OK
Mary Parker was crowned the Jr Jr Division winner. Competing for her 7th year at the Oklahoma State Fiddling contest, Parker has become a tradition in Tulsa. Parker will be moving up into a new bracket in 2020.
The Junior division of the Oklahoma State Picking and Fiddling may have only had 5 competitors, but the competition and the fiddling was fierce. Those competing for the buckle, and the cash were:
- Megan Merrill – Mounds, OK
- Baylee Sidden – Holt, MO
- Elijah Baker – Birch Tree, MO
- Michael Merrill – Mounds, OK
- Trey Delozier – Talon, OK
Baylee Sidden slid into first place, with her rendition of River Road Two Step. With her winning the Junior division, Baylee also won the JC Broughton award. The coveted award, was named for JC Broughton, a long time fiddler from Tulsa, OK. Broughton won two Oklahoma state titles, and went on to Weiser where he won the National title at the Old Time Fiddlers Contest and later became a runner-up in the world championships. After his passing in 2012, his family created the JC Broughton award.
The big moment arrived with the lineup of amazing fiddlers, and as the 9 contestants gathered to draw you could sense the tension.
The field was tough with the following taking their place center stage to compete for the State Title in the Open Division.
- Carina Baker
- Samantha Williamson
- Aimee Peterson
- Trustin Baker
- Bubba Hopkins
- Jake Duncan
- Emma Jane Pendleton
- Leah Sawyer
- Monte Gaylord
Winning the Open Division, buckle, and a nice check was Trustin Baker. Trustin recently played the Grand Ole Opry, and has won the 2018 Grand Master Fiddler Championship. With several titles already under his name, one can only wonder what else there is for this young man to achieve. To round out the top 5 places in this division were: Monte Gaylord (2), Jake Duncan (3rd), Leah Sawyer (4th), with Bubba Hopkins coming in at fifth.
While participation was low in the SR. Division, the competition was not.
Carol Smith took 2nd place and Bill Taylor won first for the second year in a row. Both Oklahomans showcased their talents and love for the fiddle well.
Sunday, the contest continued with the following winners:
- Finger Style Guitar – Mark Bruner
- Flat Pick Guitar – Cody Frost
- Mandolin – Cody Frost
- Banjo – Mason Woodward
String Band Competition is a hot topic at Tulsa. In 2019, there were 5 groups. The Baker Family won first in this division; of course, the bass trickery performed by Elijah was highlighted by fiddle tricks from Trustin. Then in the second round, Carina showed us all how to clog. Pearlgrace & Co., back from China, left it all on the stage in their battle. This family has some of the best 4 part harmonies. Watch out for this one!
Leaving Tulsa in the rearview mirror as I headed back to my home base in Moore, OK, I could hardly wait to cover 2020 and their picking and fiddling contest to see the growth of the musicians and the new ones coming up.