Like all performers and teaching musicians, Tricia Spencer’s life looks a lot different this year. While she’d typically be in the middle of festival season and travelling to oldtime camps around the country to teach and perform alongside her musical collaborator and husband Howard Rains, her days at home in Lawrence, Kansas have lately been filled with gardening, making art, teaching online lessons, parenting, and playing music in the backyard. Tricia, who is probably most well-known for her rich style of seconding on fiddle, has deep musical roots. She grew up in a musical family in Big Springs, Kansas, and learned fiddle from her grandpa Vernon Spencer. Tricia spoke with Ben Smith at Clifftop last summer about her experiences growing up in rural Kansas, competing in fiddle contests around the Midwest as a kid, and her approach toward seconding. Below is a Q&A with Oldtime Central contributor Rachel Krause.
Like many musicians, your schedule dramatically changed with COVID-19. What have your days looked like during the pandemic? Has it opened up new things for you?
A great majority of my time is spent learning and teaching music, which hasn’t changed, but I always wanted to make better videos and now I actually have the time to learn. When I was touring, I never felt like I had enough time to make art or to hone in on some painting skills and now I can do that. In some ways, this moment in time has been freeing as long as I trust that I am doing what I was meant to do and doing it with integrity. This time at home has allowed me to be a student of the music again and relearn tunes that remind me of wonderful friends I have met through old-time music.
How has the pandemic affected your perspective as a musician?
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I find myself not focused on the performance part of my music at all. I still maintain the songs, but I have felt free to explore some other sounds and that has been fun and inspiring. Two of my kids have been quarantined with me and I have enjoyed playing bass so much that I often hand over the fiddle reins to the kids. It has been very enjoyable making music with them just for fun and pulling out old jam tunes.
Lucy Pierce, a fiddle mentor and friend from Kansas City, KS, passed away this year. What can you tell us about Lucy and the impact she had on you?
Besides my grandma, Lucy was the most prominent female musician I was able to hang with as a young girl. I knew a few other women musicians at that time, but Lucy was someone I ran into very often and she was good friends with my grandparents. Lucy was a pretty amazing musician, came from a fiddling family, and picked up the fiddle later in life. I find it remarkable in some ways that she was so driven to get better at the fiddle and learn as much as she could. The world of old time music was much different in the 70’s for women, and especially the contest fiddling world. It required dedication for a self-taught individual to make progress and she was obsessed with it. She passed away at the age of 99 and even during our last visit, she talked like a fiddler and wanted to hear me play tune after tune. “That’s a good tune, right there,” she’d say. Now I feel like it is my turn to work as hard as I can for the next generation while still respecting the generation that came before me.
You’ve been hosting a community teaching jam at Beautiful Music Violin Shop in Lawrence since 2013. Why has that been important to you?
The first time I went to the Indiana Fiddlers’ Gathering, I heard and fell in love with tunes I never knew existed. I had no idea this type of festival existed as I had only attended bluegrass get-togethers and fiddle contests. When I opened the car door and heard all of these fiddles playing beautiful tunes I had never heard, I was immediately hooked and wanted to learn everything I could about the music. My new old-time friends sent me my first batch of “source recordings.” I loved these new, but familiar sounding melodies. I loved the communal aspect of old-time music sessions. I wanted to share this with others in my hometown, hoping that some would love it as well and want to play it with me. JJ Hanson, the proprietor at Beautiful Music Violin Shop in Lawrence, Kansas had a similar vision and made sure that I had a place to host and share these tunes. Before the pandemic, we would meet monthly at his shop where I would teach a new tune and play the tunes we had learned previously. Through my research, I have found some tunes now that are regional and feel it is important to pass them on to other Kansas fiddlers. The monthly jam allows for all of that to happen.
You grew up learning fiddle from your grandpa Vernon Spencer. Now there’s been the formation of the Spencer and Rains Family Band with your kids in the household playing and performing with you and Howard. What is that like having that tradition continue on?
Making music with my family is really fun and rewarding. Because the kids are at different levels, it isn’t always the best sounding music I’ve made, but it is the most fun. I understand now why my grandparents made sure I had instruments and took the time to teach me when I was ready to learn. It has given the kids some confidence in something real, it is something that we can all do together, and it allows us to travel to places and share in experiences and have friends in common. Making music with the family and passing it on to them is probably the most important thing I have ever done as a musician.
We’ve talked a little bit in the past about gender in the context of music and old-time. Those conversations can feel messy in that I think we agree we want to do our part to raise up non-cis male musicians who often have to work harder to get the same traction, but also we want to feel recognized for our own skill and not for our gender. How do you navigate these conversations? What are some things that you’ve come to?
This is messy and sometimes I can’t always get my thoughts straight about what I want to convey. Personally, I don’t ever think about my gender and occasionally become annoyed when it feels like one must identify with one. However, because I am female in the traditional sense, it does seem that many individuals expect something different from me just because of this. Historically, women teachers have been outnumbered by men teachers in old-time, but I would like to be hired for music jobs because I am good at what I do, not because I represent a gender. I don’t really fit into the typical mold. That being said, as a woman fiddler who has experienced challenges because of my gender–but who thinks of themselves as non-binary–it is important for me to convey to anyone that I strive to be safe company and a safe teacher.
Are there some people you’d like to shout out as far as their role in the tradition and your own fiddling?
Here is a shout out to all of the women that made music before me and the ones that are still doing it, and to all of the other kind individuals who keep this tradition alive.
You spend a lot of time making art and journaling. What influence does that play into your day to day life and as a musician?
I love taking a simple idea and exploring everything about that idea that I can. One of my favorite things about learning a tune is this melodic path that is needed to present the tune. Once that path is established, I can start exploring the nooks and crannies of the tune and create a beautiful work of art. It doesn’t mean I will be able to execute everything I would like, but I keep trying and keep trying to gain the skills needed. I do this with my art as well. It isn’t good or bad, it is just what I do.
Anything else you’d like to add or talk about?
Traditional music is a living and breathing thing and each person is a temporary vessel to express it. I find that one of the most important roles I play in it is transferring it to another person. Fiddling represents knowledge, joy, creative expression, and community, among other things. It’s a gift that has been shared with me that I now want to share with others.
You can support Tricia and Howard and gain access to their fiddle, back-up guitar, and seconding resources by becoming patrons on Patreon.
Check out a few tunes with Tricia and Howard recorded at Clifftop 2019 below: