For a time, starting in 1972, the Deer Creek Fiddlers Convention was a big deal in the Maryland music scene. People flocked to the festival, first in Harford County, then in Carroll County, on the serene grounds of the county farm museum.
Walt Michael was among them, and he has some performance ribbons tucked away somewhere from those heady days.
But the festival atrophied over years and now Michael, director of Common Ground on the Hill in nearby Westminster, Md., is on a mission to return it to must-attend status.
The 44th annual Deer Creek gathering, which takes place Saturday on the farm museum grounds, will include some of the changes Michael and a sponsor, Eastman Strings, are making to try to bring the event some of the status that had faded over the years.
“We’re upping the ante,” Michael said. “We’re working to build it back up. The goal this year is increased attendance, increased participation in the contests.”
Part of upping the ante and drawing performers to the contests for bands and individual performers is a souped-up prize package. The first three finishers in the band categories (bluegrass, old-time, Celtic and clogging) will win cash — $200 for first place, $100 for second and $50 for third.
This year, for the first time, the top finisher in each category will also receive performance slots. The winning bluegrass band will play on the main stage at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival in August, while the old-time, Celtic and clogging winners will perform at the Common Ground Roots Music & Arts Festival in July.
Prizes for the top instrumentalists are $100 for first, $50 for second and $25 for third. First place winners for guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bluegrass banjo and old-time banjo will also win instruments. Eastman is donating the guitar, mandolin and fiddle, while Gold Tone and Caswell are contributing the banjos. There will also be a special performance award for someone that plays another traditional instrument, such as an autoharp, mountain dulcimer or harmonica.
In addition to the contests and scheduled performances, there are food vendors, juried arts and crafts offerings and plenty of opportunities for jamming. This year, for the first time, wine and beer will be sold in a garden within listening distance of the main stage.
Michael and Common Ground managed the festival for a time while the museum owned it, then Common Ground took it over four years ago. While a fiddlers convention might seem more at home in the hills and hollows of West Virginia, Michael said rural Maryland is a good fit, too.
“A lot of folks from Appalachia came here over the years to work in the factories of Baltimore, and they brought their music with them,” he said. Among those who made that journey: the late Hazel Dickens. “There’s no reason we can’t tap into that legacy.”
More information about the Deer Creek Fiddlers Convention and Common Ground’s annual traditions weeks for musicians and artists can be found at commongroundonthehill.org.