Wyoming Fiddlers hold tight to beloved music

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As light streamed through a wide window on a sleepy Sunday, John Greet heard a song he liked, politely asked the cutest girl in the bar to dance — he’s always the gentleman — and with a nod and a smile they two-stepped to the middle of the dance floor.

Greet had shined his black boots, put on his Sunday Stetson and driven all the way from Ten Sleep to the Byron Bar and Grill to hear beloved music from his youth played live. He wouldn’t say how old he is. But he’s willing to cross the Big Horn Basin for a chance to travel back in time and witness mountain music, bluegrass or country western tunes — anything with “that old time fiddling,” he said.

Greet’s family used to have a band, but the old-timey music is now hard to find.

“I hate that,” he said. “It’s gettin’ rare.”

There used to be seven district fiddlers’ clubs in the Wyoming Fiddlers Association, but now there are only two — including the District 2 group that performed in Byron on Sunday.

The Big Horn Basin fiddlers have lost many of their members and traditional venues have “fallen on hard times” and closed or changed gears, said group president Steve Martin of Powell.

But the music has been kept alive by those who love the sound, the message of folk music and the sharp twang of a steel-stringed violin. Martin, a retired Powell High School chemistry and physics teacher, didn’t pick up the fiddle until he was 52. The now-65-year-old took some lessons, but still doesn’t read music; fiddling is hallmarked by those who are self-taught.

“It’s a learn on your own thing a lot of times,” Martin said.

Many in the District 2 club took fiddle lessons from Peggy Buntin. While Buntin died in 2017, her music lives on across the state through her students, Martin said.

They play-by-ear with a large dose of heart. Well-known songs as old as the hills are played with gusto despite the lack of sheet music. Neighbors with mandolins, dulcimers, banjos, guitars or anything handy join in. All are welcome. “I first heard fiddle music three or four years before I picked one up. It just sort of grabbed me and forced me to join in,” Martin said.

There was a time not too long ago that Martin had a problem playing in public, but he’s now one of the area favorites. In the Byron bar, folks hooted and hollered as the emcee announced Martin’s turn at the mic.

 

Handcrafted with love

Like the difference between a bar and a saloon, a violin and a fiddle are the same four-stringed instrument used with a different attitude. The difference is mostly imagination, Miller said. “If you’re playing at a [cattle] branding, you’re probably playing a fiddle,” he said.

Violin makers like Francesco Ruggieri, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume and Antonio Stradivari are world-renowned — and their crafted violins can cost tens of thousands or more. In contrast, many of the fiddles played by District 2 musicians were handmade with love by Wyoming artisans.

One of the special fiddles played at the concert was handcrafted by Ed Thull of Clark in 1952.

“My daddy liked to make them in the winter ‘cause he couldn’t go fishing,” said Grace Briggs, his daughter and emcee for the night. “He would sit there and work on a fiddle — he liked to keep his hands busy.”

Thull was known as the Frannie ditch-rider and only played the fiddle in public “when he got three sheets in the wind,” said Briggs. “Then he really went after it.”

Briggs brought the fiddle to Byron to hear it sing again. She never learned to play, despite coming from a family of musicians. Her father was one of 14 children and his father, Frank, bought each of the kids a fiddle. Once they learned to play the fiddle, they could choose another instrument — “the piano, the accordion or whatever they wanted,” the octogenarian said.

“On Sundays we’d all gather in Clark and they would get out the instruments and we’d sing while they played,” Briggs said. “I like this kind of music; I was raised on this kind of music. We’d sit in front of the radio and listen to the Grand Ole’ Opry when I was 5 or 6 years old. And that’s the kind of music we played.”

The Thull fiddle was lovingly displayed but not played for 60 years — until the longtime former leader of the local fiddling group, Leonard Torczon, took it up on Sunday in Byron.

“If you put a fiddle in a case and throw it in a closet they’ll lose their sound,” Torczon said. “They need to be played to bring it back.”

Torczon has been playing for more than 40 years, though he’s taken some breaks. When his first wife gave birth to his first daughter, the child would scream every time he picked up the fiddle.

“I put it down for a little while then,” Torczon said.

He was raised on the fiddle music and remembers going to dances down at the “little schoolhouse” on the weekends. Torczon started playing rhythm guitar as back-up to his grandfather’s fiddling when he was 12.

“He told me, ‘I don’t care if you’ve got the right chord, just keep the beat,’” Torczon recalled.

Now he plays five different instruments and is the past president of District 2. He longs for the good old days when the music was dominant in the area. Not only have the venues and dances become more rare, but membership has fallen by about 60 percent in recent decades.

“We used to have 200 members 20 years ago, but now there’s only 70 or 80,” Torczon said.

 

New blood

The group is trying to attract younger blood to the organization. Last year, they offered a $500 music scholarship to the Montana Fiddle Camp to every high school in the Big Horn Basin, trying to draw interest to the music.

“That didn’t seem to work,” Torczon said. “We’ll keep trying. Times are changing and we can only do what we can do.”

There is worry among fans that the music could die, losing contact with new generations that are always plugged in and busy. One sign of the times: The Wyoming Old Time Fiddle Association state contest in Shoshoni was discontinued over the last few years after becoming a stress on volunteers and budgets.

However, Kelly Wells, a fiddle instructor from Deaver, sees a lot of promise for future fiddlers — and she’s made inroads with younger students.

“The kids I have love it,” she said. “I teach songs they can tie into.”

One student was waiting for a ride after his lesson and took the time to practice on the porch; she finds lessons have helped her students.

“In one-on-one lessons, it’s just them learning and not being compared to anyone,” Wells said. “They can stand out in a crowd because not many play the fiddle. It catches people’s eye even more so now that the world is so plugged in. Their parents tell me it helps build self confidence.”

One good sign: This year’s fiddle camp is sold out. It’s not just for kids, either. Wells, after learning chemistry from Martin in Powell, taught him the fiddle. Martin wasn’t into music going into his new passion.

“I teach by ear and the students aren’t limited by their lack of a musical background,” Wells said. “People can play beyond their ability to read music.”

Wells is often able to rope her students’ parents into taking lessons with their children and feels the future is bright for the sounds of old-time music. She currently has 10 students — a full time gig. Wells is a favorite at Cassie’s in Cody on Saturday afternoons and the third Sunday of each month. If you’re interested in lessons, you can reach her at kttwells18@gmail.com.

The District 2 players, meanwhile, will appear in parades across the area, including the Park County Fair Parade. They also play in Byron on the second Sunday of the month, occasionally at Cassie’s on Sundays and in Ten Sleep. For more information, visit www.bit.ly/2v7L2OB.

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