by Mike Burkett
Vertielee Floyd has been the director of Payson's 31-year-old Old Time Fiddlers' Contest since the very first festival in 1976 except, the septuagenarian said, "when I took some time out so I could have a heart valve replaced 16 years ago. It's still ticking away!"
It certainly is.
And so, therefore, is her annual fiddle fest, in which Arizona's finest catgut-pluckers vie for the state championship. The newest edition, sponsored by the Town of Payson's Parks and Recreation Department, hits the stage at Rumsey Park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., this Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 29 and 30.
This year's lineup will not only feature typically fine fiddling by contestants from the ages of (literally) 6 to 86, but also cowboy poets, storytellers, food, country & bluegrass music, Irish step-dancers, a 21-Fiddle Salute at high noon both days, children's music workshop, crafts, fiddle makers, leather workers ...
... And, of course, Vertielee Floyd, this event's string-pulling Wizard of Oz, making sure everything runs like clockwork.
"I feel like the Lord gave each one of us something," Floyd said of the highly personal drive which keeps the festival going. "He did not give me music, but he did give me the organizational skills and the love of people to get things done in a project like this."
The first festival, Floyd said, wasn't planned as a festival at all, but as a small part of the local celebration of the country's bi-centennial anniversary.
"The decision was made to feature the old-time music of our heritage and that's how all these festivals came out of my head," she said.
Proclaimed the official state championship event in the year of its birth, the contest annually grows in size and scope. 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 Saturday, with the finalists going at it for the championship Sunday.
In talking to Floyd about the festival, it doesn't take long to discover that she's not pouring her energy into it just because she loves the music. In fact, when you repeatedly ask her what she loves most about the music, Floyd's answer will invariably go something like this:
"What I love about fiddle music is the people who play it and share it. They're just great, great people."
It's the people involved who make the festival, Floyd said in a dozen different ways. And it's a year-round job for nearly all of them.
"Before this year's contest is over, I'll be making preparations for the sound system and many other things for next year's festival," Floyd said. "And as the year goes by, you've got to see that addresses are updated, to keep up with people in the field, make contacts, do PR work, see that things are mailed on time."
Floyd said her helpers are all "so great. They know what they are doing, and they are so willing to help. It's not a big crew, but a concentrated group that has special training and skills."
"Registration, for example, is very complicated. It's not just 'Hey, I wanna play.' You've got to qualify, and there's a lot to it. Then we need to be sure we're staffed with enough people to handle the gates. Then scorekeeping; that's another tedious job.
We also hire an emcee, but it's got to be someone who really knows the music and the people."
If you try hard enough, you can eventually get Floyd to talk about the music and what she expects will be this year's musical highlights in a roundabout way.
"The first contests were held on the back of a flatbed truck on Main and the Beeline, where that two-story county building has since been built," she said. "In those years, we had one child in Arizona who played for us. Now we have so many that we have to divide them up between small fry, junior-junior, and junior.
"We're also going to do something different this year. These festivals are always about Arizona, and we've always featured our Arizona musicians. So the Old-Time Fiddler's Association, which was organized right here in Payson, is going to be doing special music between the divisions this year.
"There's something else that will be very special if we can pull it off," Floyd adds. "We'll have all of these live musicians, and they're all very generous, very kind people. So we're thinking about doing an evening benefit concert to assist victims and families of the terrorist attacks on our country. We would invite the community, and encourage kids and their parents to come down and participate."
Which brings Floyd to the best reason to attend the Old Time Fiddlers' Contest: "To celebrate some of our musical heritage especially right now."
For more information about the 31st Annual Old Time Fiddlers' Contest, call Vertielee Floyd at 474-3398.