This story by Christina Hobert and Anna Nichols was originally published March 17, 2016 in The Trailblazer, the official student newspaper of Morehead State University in Kentucky. They have graciously consented to having it reprinted here. Thanks to Raymond McLain, Director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music for suggesting that our readers would enjoy this inspirational account.
Samantha Cunningham brought the house down and the audience to their feet Wednesday night with her scorching rendition of Fiddle Patch, though few knew of the emotional struggle and motivation it took to even learn the song.
The Kentucky Center for Traditional Music’s mid-semester concert should have been a casual affair. But Samantha made her performance a surprise tribute to her late mother, who had been her strongest supporter.
For Samantha, learning a fiddle tune had been fairly simple: listen to the song a couple of times, give it a couple of rehearsals and then play it. She would often go secretly off to learn the songs she knew her mother wanted to hear, then give a surprise recital with a tune such as Bluegrass in the Backwoods.
After her mother went in for a heart checkup last year, Samantha approached Raymond McLain about learning Fiddle Patch for her mother. McLain had never played the song before, but agreed to work with her. It would prove to be an emotional journey for both of them. They started a week before school ended in December 2015.
“I’ve done things like this before, but this time is a little more special,” Samantha said.
Lisa Cunningham passed away January 7, 2016, at the age of 53 while awaiting a heart transplant, before Samantha had the song down.
Samantha’s love for music and the fiddle started when Lisa enrolled her in music classes at 5 years old. Lisa wasn’t even sure Samantha would stick with it at an early age, but Samantha did and worked her way up to place in the top 20 at the Grandmaster’s Fiddle Competition in Nashville. She now hones her technique at the Morehead State’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music under McLain.
“I’ve seen Samantha take on several challenges and always come through,” McLain said. “She’s able to make music even when it’s difficult for her to do it.”
One song her mother loved was Fiddle Patch by Dale Potter after having heard it played at a hot fiddle competition. Samantha never attempted to learn the song because of its difficult rhythmic values, fast movements and triple stops.
“Thirty minutes after she passed away I looked at my boyfriend, Gabe, and I told him ‘Now I have to finish this song,’” said Samantha. “So, if I got fed up after that, there wasn’t really a time where I said, you know, ‘I’m just going to quit it.’ I had to finish this song for my mom cause this one she wanted me to do and I never got to play it for her.”
Samantha already knew the main melody of Fiddle Patch because her mother had played it so many times. She needed McLain’s help to decipher the rest of the notes. To learn the song, McLain and Samantha would listen to the best recording they could find of Fiddle Patch on YouTube.
She said for every 20 seconds of the song, it took an average of 20 minutes to learn it. There was a lot of frustration while learning, but they both pushed through.
“I think this process, learning to play the tune, has been wonderful for Samantha because it is a way she can be close to her mother,” said McLain. “It meant a lot to her mother for her to play, and to play well.”
McLain spoke of Samantha’s drive. He has always recognized her technical ability, but said it takes more than just that. He said she has the mindset to keep working to perfection.
“You have to challenge yourself. If you don’t challenge yourself in life, or in anything that you do, it’ll get pretty boring,” said Samantha. “You could absolutely fail or you could sit there and say ‘Hey, I’m going to do something that no one else is really doing right now. I’m going to make myself something.’”
Samantha felt she had the song down by February 24 and the next step was a lot of “wood-shedding” to perfection. She rehearsed the song with the Mountain Music Ambassadors, her KCTM ensemble, in time to play it live as a tribute to her mother at the mid-semester show. She had kept the idea from her father, Mark, to surprise him.
Almost two months to the day of her mother’s passing, Samantha and the band took to the Rowan County Arts Center stage as the final performers and with no hesitation ripped into one of the most difficult tunes a fiddle player can attempt.
As her father in the front row realized what she was doing, she kept her eyes on her fingers as they danced though the first part. Where any fiddle player could have faltered, McLain stood close to encourage her with a smile and rhythm guitar.
As she neared the end of the tune, where a quick trill demanded her full attention, the crowd pitched in with their own encouragement with hoots and yells, then rose to their feet as the ensemble helped her bring it to a loud and sudden close. Samantha stood and absorbed the applause before her father came to the edge of the stage to hug her. McLain reflected on the months of emotional frustration to satisfy a daughter’s promise to her mother. “Going through this process has been inspiring to me to watch her do this for her momma,” he said.