Having a Coffee with… Maddie Denton

This is fun series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so famous, about their interests as well as about the music that they love.

Maddie Denton is a third-generation fiddle player from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who began playing at the age of five and entered her first fiddle contest two years later.

In addition to her love of contest fiddling, she also enjoys playing a broad range of fiddle styles, her favorite being bluegrass.

As the biggest portion of her fiddling career has been playing Texas contest style, her primary influences have been Daniel Carwile, Terry Morris, Benny Thomasson, and Jim ‘Texas Shorty’ Chancellor. In the bluegrass world, she has studied Stuart Duncan, Alison Krauss, Mark O’Connor, and Jim Van Cleve and their contributions to the genre.

Her successes at fiddle contests amount to 14 state championship titles. Since 2008 she has come out on top in the Tennessee Old-Time Fiddlers State Championships three times (in 2009, 2011, and 2016); having won the Junior fiddling title at the 41st Annual Smithville Fiddler’s Jamboree (Tennessee – July 2012) she even went on to win the fiddle-off against her mother, Marcia, to win the Berry C. Williams Memorial award, presented to the best overall fiddler; when a college sophomore, Denton took first place in the fiddle competition at the 36th Annual Uncle Dave Macon Days Festival (July 2013); in 2016 and 2017 she won the Alabama State Fiddle Championships (in Athens, Alabama); and in May 2019 she was the winner of the Randall Franks Trophy at the 1890s Old-Time Fiddle Convention, Ringgold, Georgia.

Also, Denton has state championship awards in Indiana and Kentucky.

If those titles aren’t notable enough, she was the 2009 National Junior Fiddle Champion; in 2011 she was awarded the Charlie Bush Traditional Fiddler Performance Award at the Grand Masters and – leaving her highest honor until last – in 2016 Denton became the first Tennessee-born contestant to ever become the Grand Master Fiddle Champion.

In addition to competing Denton is a judge, being nationally qualified with experience judging the National Old-Time Fiddle Championship, the Grand Master Fiddle Championship and multiple state championships.

Aside from music, she is a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) with a degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology, carrying that on into teaching Biology and Environmental Science at Siegel High School where she is also the men’s and women’s assistant golf coach.

Denton’s golfing exploits include playing at MTSU and in the University of Missouri’s Johnie Imes Invitational event wherein she carded a first-round score of six under par (66), which is the second lowest score in MTSU women’s golf history.

Her sporting prowess extends beyond excelling at golf, having played basketball and volleyball, which she loves, when in High School.

During the Novel Coronavirus shutdown, Denton recorded her very first album, which she views as a snapshot of the 21 years in which she has played the fiddle. In addition to some of the tunes she grew up hearing and playing, Maddie’s album also featured her own original music, as well as songs written by her friends Theo MacMillan and Jason Owen.

She comments ….

“It is very special to me that I was able to record my first album with some of my very best friends. Everyone on this album brings a set of unique talents to the table, and I feel fortunate to not only work with them, but to call them friends as well.”

Playin’ In This Town was released on July 1, 2021.

As well as fronting the Maddie Denton Band, she performs currently with at least three other groups – the Theo & Brenna Band, with whom she recorded their March 2019 album, When You Go; the Dan Tyminski Band; and East Nash Grass, featuring on their recently released eponymous CD.

In addition to her immensely talented bandmates, other notable players she has been fortunate to share the stage with include David Grier, Dennis Crouch, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mike Bub, Greg Cahill, Rick Faris, and Carrie Hassler. 

She was among the 2021 IBMA Momentum Award Recipients – in the Instrumentalist of the Year category. 

When You Come Home by the Maddie Denton Band at the Station Inn, July 21, 2021.

What would you like to drink?

I’d like a cold brew with a splash of heavy cream.

Do you want anything to eat as well?

I’m not big on pastries, but if there’s egg bites then, yes!!

What’s your favorite food? 

I love all kinds of food! But if I could have anything in the world right now it’d be my grandmother’s mashed potatoes. I don’t know what she did to make them so wonderful, but nobody could make mashed potatoes like Julia Lewis.

And what would you have to drink with that?

Buttermilk! Most people wrinkle their noses at the thought of drinking buttermilk straight, but I grew up drinking it with every meal.

What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had? 

I haven’t had too many “super fancy” or expensive meals. In fact, the thing that makes a meal nice in my mind is simply getting to share it with the people I love most. I am gone a lot playing music (and so are a lot of my closest people), so it’s always nice when our schedules align, and I can come home and eat together with the folks I love.

Let’s talk bluegrass….. 

Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music? 

I started playing the fiddle when I was five years old. For as long as I can remember, my world has been surrounded by music. Both of my parents are musicians, and I am a third-generation fiddle player as my mom plays, as did her father before her. I started out playing Texas Contest Style fiddle, and my parents were generous enough to pay for lessons and take me all over the country to compete in these competitions. I am thankful for my experience competing in fiddle contests although I haven’t competed much these days.

Back to bluegrass, my dad was a fan of Strength in Numbers, so we played that album on many a road trip when I was younger. However, even though I’d listened to some bluegrass in my early years (mostly Alison Krauss & Union Station, Dan Tyminski, Dolly Parton’s The Grass is Blue album, New Grass Revival, Cadillac Sky, Mountain Heart, and a few others), I didn’t get serious about playing bluegrass myself until my senior year of college. I’d had some success at fiddle contests, but playing bluegrass was very intimidating (mostly due to the improvisation and complete change of mindset from Texas Style fiddle). Once I was bitten by the bluegrass bug, though, I couldn’t stop! So, I finished up my degree in Biology at Middle Tennessee State University and began thinking about how I could have a steady income job, but also pursue my passion for music, and I’ve been burning the candle at both ends ever since!

Which of your own songs do you have a particular liking for? 

I honestly haven’t written that many songs. The first song I wrote was inspired by my mom, and the awful thought that there will someday be a time when we are without each other. The song is a celebration of life and I was honored to share it with my mom as a selection on my recent album, Playin’ in This Town. Another tune I’m proud of is a song that I co-wrote with Harry Clark called Bobby Ate the Lutefisk. It’s a quirky instrumental inspired by our favorite television show, King of the Hill.

What about a song written by someone else? 

My favorite songwriter of all time is Sting. How he effortlessly combines waves of emotion with beautiful melodies is beyond compare. However, keeping it closer to bluegrass, there are a few songwriters who have moved me that I would like to recognize. Theo and Brenna MacMillan are a brother-sister duo from Kentucky. Individually, they have both written some unique and thought-provoking music. But together, they wrote an inspirational song in the middle of the raging pandemic about the struggles mankind was facing, all while admiring the peacefulness of a robin outside their window. It filled me (and anyone else who listened) with hope during a time of widespread despair, and for that, I’m thankful. Another songwriter who has tugged on my heartstrings is Harry Clark. He’s written several powerful songs, but one of my favorites is one he wrote about his parents’ early days of marriage, called Bismarck. Its sparse melody and dissonant chords combined with a painful love story leaves the listener longing for resolution that never comes.

Which particular album do you like best and why?

Wow, I’m not sure I could condense the vast expanse of incredible bluegrass albums down into just one selection. And I think if I were to choose a favorite album today, tomorrow I might say something different!

You play the fiddle (while writing songs?) …. … 

I definitely consider myself a fiddle player more than a songwriter. And, strangely enough, every instrumental I’ve written was while I was playing mandolin. I’m not much of a mandolin player, but something about it lays differently in a way that helps my brain be more creative.

What model is it?

In 1996, a violin maker named Sam Zygmuntowicz was teaching a master class in Italy with this fiddle, which he’d obtained from someone that had only partially completed it. He was going to be demonstrating some techniques to the class, so he completely remade the exterior and varnished it as part of the lesson. Originally, he had not planned to complete his work on this instrument as it was just for demonstration, but something about it appealed to him so he brought it back to New York to finish the project in his own shop. Once he finished it, he played the fiddle as his own personal instrument. 

My fiddle teacher at the time, Jim Wood, happened to play a gig with him shortly after. Upon realizing what a quality instrument Sam was playing, my teacher urged him to show me the fiddle, and the rest is history! I have been playing that instrument since I was a teenager and I absolutely love it! Maybe this is weird to say, but I feel like somehow my fiddle and I have the same personalities, and we’ve grown together through the years. We can both be loud and slightly abrasive at times, and maybe a little too honest for our own good (my fiddle’s responsiveness is awesome, but there’s definitely no hiding any wrong notes or slip ups, of which I have plenty, haha!). My fiddle is all or nothing, and that’s one thing I love about it the most. Above all, I am incredibly grateful to my parents for believing in me and trusting me enough to buy me a quality instrument to play when I was young.

Do you play any other instruments?

I play a few other instruments, in fact, the last track on my album is just me playing fiddle, guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo. I don’t claim to be proficient at any of these instruments though. I do play tenor guitar and frequently back up other competitors at fiddle contests. I played tenor guitar on several tracks on my album as well.

What’s your favorite bluegrass memory? 

I have made so many wonderful memories playing bluegrass music that I’m not sure I could condense them all down to just one favorite. I think the highlight of my music career has been playing fiddle in the Dan Tyminski Band. I’ll never forget the moment that Dan asked me to be in the band.

How do you keep fit and healthy when you spend time on the road? 

It’s definitely difficult to get exercise and keep up a healthy lifestyle while we are on the road. I love to see all the sights and truly experience all the places I’m fortunate enough to travel with Dan Tyminski, and luckily, our bass player, Grace Davis, does too! If we have free time, Grace and I can usually be found exploring the area around the venue. Whether that be renting bikes to ride around downtown Chicago, or renting kayaks in Wisconsin, or playing in the ocean in St. Augustine, Florida, we are always up for an adventure!

Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow? 

I love sports!! I played Division I college golf for Middle Tennessee State University. I also played high school basketball and travel volleyball. I’m a big Tennessee fan but, of course, I have to root for my alma mater anytime they play as well.

What hobbies do you have?

My friend and bandmate Brenna MacMillan and I love to play volleyball. I do still occasionally play golf and, as I have said, I’m usually up for any kind of adventure!

What is the last movie film that you watched?

I don’t watch very many movies, mostly just because I don’t have time to just sit for two hours, but sometimes I will make time for it. The most recent movie I watched was The Village. I’d never seen it before and I’m not much of a scary movie fan, but it was spooky season, so I sat down and decided to give it a try. I really liked it! 

What is your favorite film and why?

I think my favorite film of all time would have to be Hoosiers. It’s such an inspirational story, and I watched it a ton when I was a kid so it just gives me all the happy feelings.

Do you get much time to watch TV?

I don’t have much time to watch TV, but I do like to watch while I eat dinner and sometimes when I’m trying to go to sleep at night. My favorite shows are Law and Order SVU, King of the Hill and Family Guy.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music? 

I can’t imagine a life without bluegrass music. However, I am a biology teacher at Siegel High School, where I also coach golf. This is my fifth-year teaching biology while juggling music as well. If I didn’t have music, I would probably have some existence of a social life, which always seems to take a backseat to music during my free time these days.

The Maddie Denton Band plays Natalie Padilla’s original tune The Breakdown (also at the Station Inn on July 21, 2021) …. 

Maddie Denton still lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.