Saline Fiddlers to open for Ricky Skaggs

East, west, north and south, bluegrass music has its young musicians in many different regions. Some found off the beaten track are the Saline Fiddlers who open for bluegrass music legend, 15-time Grammy winner, and newly-inducted member of the Country Music Hall of Fame Ricky Skaggs in Ann Arbor, MI this coming Saturday.    

The Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic was formed in August 1994 by Bob Phillips, the orchestra director at Saline High School, near Saline, just south of Ann Arbor. He approached some string musicians in his group with the idea of forming an extra-curricular group with the aim of them learning traditional American fiddle music, and in due course, playing for small audiences and help perpetuate this rich, musical heritage. 

They had their 25th Anniversary Hometown Show on February 9, 2019. 

Phillips remembers …… 

“Fiddling started in the Saline Area Schools orchestra program in 1976 as part of the overall curriculum. We then created a fiddling class in the middle school during the year, and in the summer orchestra program. Eventually, we decided to start the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic in 1994. Within a few years, the group was playing 80 to 100 shows a year and opening for players such Bryon Berline, Peter Oustroushko, Bonnie Rideout, The RFD Boys, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, Del McCoury, Mark O’Connor, Natalie McMaster, Sam Bush, and many other legends of bluegrass and Celtic music. 

The large number of festivals and concerts they performed allowed the group to interact with so many great artists and bands. This was a great learning experience for the students through the years. It gave them great love for fiddling in all its forms. 

Some great professional players have come out of the group such as Jeremy Kittel, Brad Phillips, and Cori Smith. In addition, some well-known public-school orchestra teachers such as Ben Culver, Becky Bush, Sarah Lenhart, Amy Marr, and Reid Smith are alumni and have continued to use fiddling in their school programs. 

Some of the most memorable moments include playing at the White House multiple times, as well as the Kennedy Center. The group has toured throughout Europe, the United States, and Canada playing in many professional settings and venues. Many of the former players continue to play in bands and perform on a regular basis.”

Ashley Grebe, the Artistic Director of Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic, emphasises the groups’ expansive development, as they celebrate 25 years   …. 

“The Saline Fiddlers have a rich history that began in 1994 when Bob Phillips, the then orchestra director at Saline High School, formed an extracurricular group devoted to American fiddle music. The intent of such project was to introduce an alternative style of playing to his students to further enrich their musical experience and love of performing. 

The initial response was so positive from both the students and the community that the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic was born, and remains a point of pride for Saline after 25 years of music. Over the years, steady growth has allowed Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic to bring its unique brand of fiddle music to audiences locally, across the country, and internationally. With this growth, the structure of the group evolved from an extracurricular activity operating out of the Saline Schools to its current status as an independent non-profit organization. The reputation of Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic grew as a model for alternative musical education, inspiring the creation of other such ensembles across the US and Canada. The Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic of today draws on the rural history of Saline by performing American traditional fiddle music but, has also grown to embrace fiddle and folk music from other regions and genres to create an eclectic mix of music. Students and staff remain committed to keeping the history of the group alive, while keeping it relevant for current and future generations of Fiddlers and fiddle fans.”

As Phillips says, two-time Grammy nominee Jeremy Kittel is an alumnus. He started playing the fiddle around the age of eight or nine ……

“It was an amazing experience to be part of the Saline Fiddlers. We got to perform often around Michigan, travel far around the US and abroad, and work with stellar artists who came to visit and work with the group on a joint concert. Some of the artists who came while I was a member are Byron Berline, Richard Greene, Bonnie Rideout, Barrage, and many more. I remember we visited and performed at Mark O’Connor’s old Nashville camp one year too. We had lots of chances to be creative musically as well; our fearless leader Bob Phillips (founder) was always finding ways to feature talented students in song, dance, and of course instrumental skill. I was fortunate in this way to get a chance to develop my improvising chops on fiddle tunes, which paved the way for me to study jazz in college. It was really meaningful socially for all of us as well, a tight-knit, positive group. There are many great musicians who were so positively impacted by being a part of the Saline Fiddlers, and also, many alumni for whom music is simply a bigger part of their lives than it would have been otherwise, which I think is almost always a positive thing.”

Kittel, though, didn’t have a typical experience with the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic due to a couple of factors in addition to an early start on the instrument … 

“I was part of the middle school fiddle clubs, and another middle-school program Bob called Creative Arts Orchestra where we worked on learning to improvise. I was a bit of an odd kid grade-wise, as I was partly home-schooled for a couple years around early middle school, and ended up entering high school early at age twelve (a couple years early). So, I was too young to join the Fiddlers from a social standpoint at my freshman year and joined sophomore year at 13 instead. While home-schooled I was doing a lot of music outside of the Saline programs too, so I did have this combination of lots of music studies going on in my own world, and then this awesome school group (the Fiddlers) that I got to be part of and learn through for most of high school.”

2019 Grammy nominee Jeremy Kittel was the guest artist at The Saline Fiddler’s 25th Anniversary Hometown Show on February 9.

Another who has progressed from the Fiddlers to having a professional career in music is Brad Phillips (no relation to the Fiddlers’ founder) ………   

“I was an early member of the Fiddlers (1999-2003). The group is largely, if not entirely responsible for my becoming a professional musician. I saw the group perform as an elementary school student in Saline and thought it looked like fun, so I joined the school orchestra program the next year just so that I could learn to play Cripple Creek on the fiddle.

Being a member of the group, I was able to explore my own creativity as a musician in the context of traditional fiddle music while learning the ropes of what it means to be a part of a touring semi-professional ensemble. There are so many elements of what I learned back then that are still a part of my touring life now. In addition to the musical side of things, we also learned a great deal about pro audio, and we all knew how to set up and run the sound system. It was a team effort across the board to make the show happen from rehearsals, to traveling, to loading in, to warming up, performing, tearing down, loading up, and heading home; a process which we repeated nearly 80 times a year at that time.”

Brad Phillips served as the Assistant Artistic Direct, and Composer/Arranger for the group after undergrad from 2007-2013 and took over for one year as Artistic Director from 2013-2014……

“During my time as Artistic Director, the overarching responsibility for that position was to oversee and set in motion the overall creative vision of the group.  The day-to-day responsibilities, however, were more complex.  There are many moving parts to an organization like the Fiddlers, so there was a lot to keep track of.  Sometimes the music and creative part of the job were a very small piece of the puzzle as compared to the administrative responsibilities that inevitably came up.  Ultimately, the most rewarding part of the Artistic Director job was working with the kids in rehearsals and watching them thrive in performance.  If there’s anything I miss most about my time with the Fiddlers, it would be that part.”

He moved on from the group in 2014 to pursue other endeavors. Here is a video of Brad in the studio with his own band: Keith Billik on banjo, Mike Shea on drums, Jacob Warren on bass, and Jason Dennie on guitar.

Violin player Shaylee Louth is in no doubt that her involvement in the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic been beneficial in more ways than one ….  

“I think that Fiddlers has helped me grow tremendously as a person, not just a player. I have gained so much confidence over the years! Four years ago, speaking in front of a crowd, let alone playing a solo, was unfathomable to me.

The family that you find in Fiddlers is really supportive, so it’s easy to try new things and experiment outside of your musical comfort zone. It’s also a great way to go into high school with a strong support system.”

Ashley Grebe shares these thoughts ahead of the prestigious show …. 

“The Fiddlers have had the privilege of making music with many of their musical heroes including Mark O’Connor, Kevin Burke, Hanneke Cassel, and Jeremy Kittel. Working with Ricky Skaggs will be an experience that our young Fiddlers won’t soon forget. We currently perform a few tunes that he and Kentucky Thunder have recorded, and it will be a thrill to hear him play these live, and to perform some of them alongside him! 

Our Fiddlers are very excited for this opportunity. One of our senior class Fiddlers, Brady Farr, says ……..

‘Playing on stage with Ricky Skaggs is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. It means so much to be able to play next to such an amazing bluegrass legend. I’m so thankful that the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic are able to collaborate with such a prodigious artist, and I will remember this experience and performance for the rest of my life.'”

Brady Farr is a 17-year-old violin player who has been a member for four years. 

Brad Phillips provides this footnote, a tribute to the founder of the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic …

“[Bob Phillips] was my teacher at Saline High School and remains an important mentor in my life today. While we’re not related, Bob and his family were very much like family to all of us in the group, whether we shared his last name or not.”

The Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder will be appearing at the historic Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, in an Acoustic Routes Concerts presentation this coming Saturday, May 25. 

This short video was prepared by Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic to help the promotion of this special concert …. 

The concert, a benefit for The Fiddlers, is one of the major events planned for their 25th-anniversary season. 

The Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic, described as “America’s premier youth fiddling show band,” continues to be an integral part of the City of Saline and the wider Michigan community.

Its members are selected through competitive auditions, based on musical talent and personal maturity. They balance academics, sports, school organizations, church activities, jobs, and social lives with the demanding commitment to music that is required for participation in the group.

They have more than 1,500 performances to their credit, playing in the majority of the states of America, with milestones including three performances at the White House; in 1997, 1998, and 2004; twice on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center; as well as at a State of Michigan’s Presidential Inaugural Ball.

They also performed Winter Getaway at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 2007.

Annual summer tours have spanned the United States and include performances in Canada and tours in Europe, including visits to Saline’s sister cities of Brecon, Wales, and Lindenberg, Germany.  

However, most of the 50-plus shows they perform each year are for community festivals, schools, seniors, and veterans in Michigan, generally devoting a third of their annual schedule to community service events.  

This year the group is touring Quebec, Ontario and upstate New York. 

Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic has four CDs available, three of which are by two associated groups, the Fiddlers Restrung (1) and the Saline Fiddlers (2). 

Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic is a music education and performance organization with IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable designation. The group is supported by countless hours of volunteer labour, student tuition, sales of recordings, fees for performing, and donations from its many dedicated fans.  

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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.