After spending most of the week entertaining in Rim country schools and nursing homes, Arizona's finest fiddlers are ready to compete for the state championship this weekend at the 30th Annual Old Time Fiddlers' Contest.
Several thousand fans are expected to converge on the Payson Event Center when the gates open at 9 a.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, with the fiddling competition beginning at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. respectively, Vertielee Floyd, festival director, said. Floyd has been involved in planning and staging the event for more years than she cares to remember.
"It's just such an important part of who we are up here," Floyd said. "I'll keep on doing this as long as I can."
Proclaimed the official state championship event in 1974, the contest has grown in size and scope almost every year since its inception.
In addition to the fiddling competition, the 2000 festival will feature cowboy poetry, gospel music, food booths, arts and crafts, and the opportunity to watch a genuine fiddlemaker, Arvid Thompson of Strawberry, working at his craft.
Contestants are allowed to play for no more than four minutes, and must include a hoedown, waltz, and a tune of their choice. Fiddlers compete in age divisions and in such categories as Twin Fiddle, Trick Fiddle, Fancy Fiddling, Cross-Tuned Fiddle, and the Arizona State Championship Division.
The field is whittled down on Saturday, with the finalists going at it for the championship on Sunday. The champions will go on to the national competition in Weiser, Idaho.
Featured entertainer at the Payson Parks and Recreation Department-sponsored event is two-time Four Corner States Banjo champion Rudy Cortese. A special gospel program will be presented at 10 a.m. on Sunday.
Thompson said that some of the earliest fiddles in the U.S. were brought here from Ireland.
"A fiddle and a violin are actually one and the same," he said. "Fiddlin' is such a great part of our cowboy heritage. I just marvel at the fact that fiddles survived when they were toted all over the place on the back of a horse."
While practitioners of the craft are few and far between, Thompson said he wouldn't exactly call them a dying breed.
"But you sure can't make any money at it," he said. "Even if you can get $3,000 for a fiddle, that works out to about $10 an hour."
A contingent of fiddlers who came to Payson several days early to entertain and educate children and seniors shared their labor of love Thursday with students at Julia Randall Elementary School. Children in one classroom after another clapped, swayed and sang along to the quick-tempo fiddle music.
"This is really what it's all about," Floyd whispered as she sat in the back of the classroom tapping her feet to the music. "This is the real story right here."