Fiddlin’ (2019) is the first full-length documentary about one of the greatest oldtime festivals around: The Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia. Directed and produced by two sisters local to the area, the film is an insightful celebration of the music and community that oldtime fans will surely not want to miss. We caught up with director Julie Simone and producer Vicki Vlasic to find out more about the making of this film.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how it inspired you to create this film?
Vicki: Julie and I are two of four sisters and our family has lived in the Appalachian region of Virginia dating back to before the American Revolution. We grew up on a cattle farm and worked in the family’s general store before leaving for college.
Growing up in a small nearby town, the Galax Fiddler’s Convention was something we looked forward to every year and attended with our parents and sisters. Ours was not an especially musical family, but we loved listening to all kinds of music and dancing in particular. Our mom was a great flatfoot dancer and it was through her passion for that and Old-Time music that we got our first introduction to it. Once we were adults living away from the mountains we realized how special our community really was. It’s easy to take for granted something that is always available to you. It was that realization in part that inspired me to join Julie in making this film. I was also motivated to share a picture of the Appalachians that is not often seen in today’s media focusing on the things they are doing right there, the incredible talent, and the beauty of the area.
Julie: After moving away from my roots, I became involved in the film business both as an actress and behind the camera. As time passed, I realized more and more that these mountains I grew up in were extraordinarily special. Returning to the Old Fiddler’s Convention and seeing hundreds of young kids carrying around instruments instead of phones while jamming with their elders really blew me away. I was also struck by the authenticity of the people and their determination to pass down their music and traditions. These were some of my initial inspirations for wanting to make the film as I felt this unique culture should be shared.
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What do you hope viewers will take from the film?
Vicki: I hope that viewers will take away an appreciation for the music in the film if it is new to them and will learn something about its origins in our country. For those who already love the music, I hope it inspires them to continue to support the musicians who are dedicating themselves to it. What I’ve seen in watching viewers leave the theater is that it makes them happy and I’m all for that too. One audience member commented, “It made me love America again” which resonated with me and gave me hope that people can watch a film about a completely different culture in our country and feel a connection to those people.
Julie: I hope some viewers will feel inspired and perhaps decide to pick up an instrument themselves. The Crooked Road Ramblers Old-Time musician Karen Carr says “Music is not a medication you can buy in a drug store”. I think Fiddlin’ shows the power music has in bringing people together and even changing lives for the better. Fiddlin’ may be an outlier in the documentary world as it is a “happy doc” but I think that is a nice change and perhaps timely.
This is the first official documentary of the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax. Was it difficult to get permission?
Vicki: When Julie first came up with the idea to make this film, we knew that it hadn’t been done but we didn’t know that it was because filmmakers had not been granted access. We approached the PR Director of the Moose Lodge at that time and he explained to us that in its then 80-year history they had never allowed filmmakers to document the festival. Our connection, Tom Jones, said he would have to take it before the Moose Lodge for a vote and then asked if we were the “Semones” girls whose grandpa ran Sunny Side Store. As it turned out, not only did he know our grandfather, but he had also sold real estate with our mom. A week later, we had permission to film at that year’s convention. We were incredibly grateful to have that opportunity and in turn allowed the Moose Lodge to host private screenings of the film to raise money for its charitable causes.
We had not anticipated our being from the area to be such an important factor, but there were several times when it wasn’t until people knew we were local that they were willing to be interviewed and appear on camera. Once word got out, we were invited into people’s homes and to BBQs where musicians would gather to play for us and to share their stories. It was an honor to be trusted and so graciously welcomed into their lives.
How did you approach balancing the representation of oldtime vs. bluegrass in the film?
Vicki: I don’t think that there was a concerted effort to balance Old Time with Bluegrass, but at Galax there is plenty of both and we knew we wanted to show both genres and to try and show the differences between the two as most people just refer to all of it as Bluegrass. It was our editor, Janice Hampton, who came up with the idea of opening on Kitty Amaral playing Nine Yards on her fiddle. What works so well is that it grabs you right away with this high tempo tune and shows it being played by a group of 11 and 12 year olds, which is pretty amazing.
Julie: I think something important we did in the film was having the musicians discuss the differences between Old-Time and Bluegrass and, as some pointed out, Old-Time came before Bluegrass. A lot of viewers commented that they now finally felt they knew the difference between the two after seeing the film. The global impact of this sort of music was much more compelling than we ever imagined when we started our journey with Fiddlin’.
Do you feel the film adequately represents the music that visitors will find at Galax?
Vicki: One of the things that makes Galax so great is that you can hear so much really tremendous music. The competition is divided into Old Time and Bluegrass categories for both fiddle and bands which is not only great for the competitors but also gives the audience a taste of both. They also have a folk singing section and, of course, the flatfooting competition. The jam sessions that just happen spontaneously throughout the campgrounds are a definite highlight of the Convention. We could have made numerous films with the quantity of footage we had and of course; there was much that we had to leave out. The film certainly gives a taste of what visitors can expect, but to experience it firsthand is well worth the trip.
Where did you hire your production crew from?
Julie: Fiddlin’ became a family affair with our kids, nieces, and nephews acting as crew while our mom cooked for everyone and our dad set up camp. We hired a Director of Photography and an audio person from North Carolina. I believe the creative process with family and locals involved as part of the team added to the happy tone of the film. The musicians were all also very comfortable in their interviews and I think having locals as crew was beneficial.
Parts of the film focus on the diversity of people who visit Galax in terms of age, race, nationality, and gender. Was that an intentional decision on your part?
Julie: One of the goals of the film was to break the stereotyping that exists in the region that has been reflected in so many other films and news articles. Our intention was to show how music brings people together regardless of their beliefs or opinions. The people that do descend on Galax for the Fiddler’s Convention are very diverse and it was wonderful to show how they all come together through their love of music and connect regardless of age, race, nationality, and gender.
Vicki: The diversity presented itself, but we did feel it was important to make sure the film reflected what we were seeing and, as Julie said, the negative stereotypes that are often ascribed to people of the Appalachians was something we wanted to contradict and hopefully help overcome with this film.
There are so many young folks in this film. It’s great! Do you believe the music is getting more popular among young people?
Julie: Young people are influenced not only by their elders but also by their peers. Since the introduction of the JAM program thousands more kids are picking up instruments and are connecting with other kids in a way that is exciting. With so many music festivals and the internet more and more kids are being exposed to this type of music and it has become “cool”. It was our hope that Fiddlin’ might encourage some parents to put an instrument in a child’s hand, or the kids themselves will be encouraged to pick up an instrument. One thing that is very special about Old-Time and Bluegrass music is that a total stranger can walk up to a group of people and join in on a jam session. This doesn’t necessarily happen in other types of music.
Vicki: The people in this community have truly helped this traditional music to become “cool” again with the young people. Helen White founded the JAM program 20 years ago and in that time the quantity of youth playing this music and really making it a part of their lives has seen a tremendous resurgence.
The film highlights some of the economic shifts that have occurred over the last few decades. Why did you want to focus on that?
Julie: We wanted to make this an uplifting film that revealed not only the great beauty of the area but the abundant talent, generosity, and joy of the people who live there. Once we got in to filming though these stories of hardship were as much a part of this community as was their music. It was a part of who these people are as humans and perhaps why many had become even more immersed in their playing. Music helps push them through their hardships giving them solace and inspiration. The music is always a constant and the jobs are not. We felt it was important to not only show this other side of life with the economic shifts but also reinforce and demonstrate the power of the music since that has been the backbone and strength of many.
Vicki: The music in these communities has begun to replace some of the economic turmoil that these people face. The creation of The Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail has made music as tourism a viable part of the new economy and particularly throughout the summer months. Visitors can travel throughout the region to see music played in storefront jam sessions, at multi-day festivals and live concerts from some of the top musicians in Old-Time, Bluegrass, and Country music. It was important to show this connection and to show how the musicians have persisted through the difficult times.
The story of Samantha Amburgey seems to point to resistance toward LGBTQ members in the bluegrass and oldtime communities. Why did you choose to include that and how do you feel the community is changing?
Julie: I think there is a resistance in many communities toward LGBTQ members and this is an unfortunate reality. I don’t think it is just in this particular music community. I feel many communities are changing their views and even the Old-Time and Bluegrass community are evolving in this respect as well. I felt it was important to include Samantha as she says how she feels and expresses herself in an honest way. She has a line “love is love” and that really resonated as it is such a true statement. We all feel love for what we feel love for and that is what makes us human and that love should not be judged.
Vicki: We were so impressed by Samantha’s honesty and for putting her heart on the line in such a public way. As Julie said, there is still resistance in many communities towards anyone who chooses a non-traditional path. We hope that by showing Samantha’s humanity that people will stop and think about how they treat others and about “judging” anyone who is not like themselves. Just as we hope to change the judgmental stereotypes of people from the Appalachians, we also wanted to shine a light on Samantha and anyone in the LGBTQ community who share her feelings. So much of the hate in our world today comes from judging others rather than accepting them.
Women in the music, the JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) school program, kids, LGBTQ issues, economic shifts, etc. – the film tries to cover A LOT of ground. Why did you choose to address so many topics in one movie?
Julie: We would like to have made four or five different documentaries as there were so many issues that we felt were important. We initially did not plan on covering so much territory but the story kept evolving. We felt all the issues were integral parts and aspects to the community and to the music. We felt we would be doing a disservice to the film if we didn’t include at least brief conversations about these issues. There is also footage of Doc Watson a few months before he died in Wayne Henderson’s shop, a little history thrown in for good measure, and some mighty fine dancing that will get you out of your chair. Yes, we included a lot in 92 minutes!
Vicki: For me, while we do touch on many different areas, doing this also helped us to show that people that live in these rural, often poorer communities still share many of the same hopes, dreams, and difficulties as people in every community in our country. We all know someone in the LGBTQ community, someone who has struggled with mental illness, economic difficulties, the lack of music in schools, and the challenges that women in particular face in male-dominated industries. Our audiences around the country have connected to at least one of these additional topics and have seen how the power of music helps connect them all.
How can people find out about local screenings of Fiddlin’ and what options do they have if there aren’t any screenings in their area?
Fiddlin’ was released on November 19thon iTunes and Amazon so can now be streamed. We will also be having a DVD release in December. Information can also be found on our website at www.fiddlinmovie.com.