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Grand Champion Fiddler Kimber Ludiker
Peter Anick
2011-05-15

The Boston area has always had a bustling acoustic music scene.  In recent years, thanks largely to the string programs at Berklee College of Music, the area has become a magnet for young fiddlers. It was at the 2009 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival that I was introduced to one of the recent fiddling immigrants, Kimber Ludiker. Hailing originally from Washington State, Kimber had recently earned the title of Grand National Fiddle Champion at the prestigious National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest held each June in Weiser, Idaho. A master of Texas-style fiddling, Kimber was now busy honing her bluegrass chops with the Boston-based belles of bluegrass, Della Mae.

At the time of this interview, held during the following year’s Joe Val festival, Kimber had won her second consecutive Grand Championship title. I was looking forward to hearing about her experiences at Weiser and other fiddle contests. Unlike many fiddlers of her generation, she did not start out as a Suzuki violin student. She is a fourth generation fiddler who picked it up the old-fashioned way, playing music with her family. We started out talking about her family’s fiddling roots.

Kimber: My mom [JayDean Ludiker] plays the fiddle. My dad [Tony Ludiker] plays the fiddle. My brother [Dennis Ludiker] plays the fiddle. Aunts and uncles and cousins. Lots of fiddlers. But I’m a fourth generation fiddler. My grandpa played –– my mom’s dad –– and then his dad played, too.

Where were they from?

My grandpa Lloyd grew up in North Dakota. He ended up moving to Washington [State] with his father to start a logging business and then moved the rest of the family over once they got set up. My grandpa Lloyd used to play fiddle for dances during the depression for change. Eventually he stopped playing. He had five kids and then married my grandmother Lois, who also had five kids. So they had ten, and then they had three. My mom was one of those three. So by the time she was being raised, she didn’t know that her dad played the fiddle because he had sort of stopped. But one night when she was little, she woke up and thought she heard something funny. The next time it happened again, she got up out of bed and tried to find this noise. She went to the basement door and listened in and it was a fiddle! My grandpa was playing fiddle in the basement and she had no clue that her dad played at all.

Did you get to hear your grandfather play?

I did. He passed away when I was nine. My very first memories of playing were actually with him. He bought my brother and I our first fiddle. It was a little 32nd size mini-fiddle. We’d always get in trouble trying to pick up my parents’ fiddles, so he brought us this little one and I remember sitting in the dining room of my grandma and grandpa’s house and just playing fiddle tunes with him and my brother.

Did you learn from him or did you learn from your mom?

That’s really hard to say. I didn’t really have any fiddle lessons until I was fourteen and went down to Texas. My mom was a fiddle teacher, so from the second I was born she would teach private lessons out of our home. When I was a baby, my mom’s students’ parents would be holding me while she taught their kids. I grew up listening to fiddle lessons! Constantly.

How do the mechanics [of the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest at Weiser] actually work? Do you get a number?

Yeah. You sign up and then they randomly select what number you’re gonna play. It could be eight o’clock in the morning or two o’clock in the afternoon for the preliminaries. Everybody plays and then they cut to fifteen or twenty. That’s a big cut. That first cut is like winning the lottery.

You have to play three tunes? What are the constraints on it?

Yup. There’s a time limit. You have to stay under four minutes. There’s an eight second grace period. I’ve gone more overtime than I think anybody in the history of fiddle contests [laughs]. I have a hard time cutting up songs. If you try to squeeze three songs into four minutes, you can’t really play a lot of these songs how they were written. You have to chop ’em up. So you see people chopping parts out of waltzes, not repeating [sections]….

Two years ago they changed the championship division and I think they give you more time. And then they do a round robin final round. They take the top five and everybody’s on stage at once and they tell you what you’re going to play right before you play it. So two years ago, it was like, “Okay, choose a song off of this list. Play it as closely to how it was written and then do your interpretation of it.” So you’d play, like, “Old Joe Clark” and then start improvising on it. Last year for the final song, they said, “Okay, everybody’s going to play ‘Happy Birthday’.” I understand why they did it. That’s something you cannot prepare for. But it’s six bars, not even a whole song, you know. So that was interesting! Kind of humiliating but interesting. It seemed like a joke, you know –– Happy Birthday?

Let’s say you were to learn Benny Thomasson’s break for “Tom and Jerry” and play it just the way he played it. Is that a good idea? Obviously, it takes a lot of skill to do that.

There’s people who have won who will learn a version of someone else’s and play it. I don’t have as much respect for that. I think once you’re to that playing ability, you should be able to do something that’s your own. Not to say that you shouldn’t take a Benny Thomasson lick or an Orville Burns lick or a Major Franklin lick or something, but I’m not as into copying something note for note. Originality is important to me.

You’ve got a lot of different rounds to get through, so you’ve got to bring a lot of tunes to it.

There’s six rounds, three songs apiece. Eighteen tunes and they can’t be the same. Most of the people I’m competing against are my friends, so it’s like, “What are you playing before so I don’t play the same thing?” We help each other out in that way and for the show’s sake and for the judges’ sake not play the same songs as everybody else. Although that has been a strategy in the past for a lot of people. In tie-breakers, someone plays that and then you choose to play the same song and try to play it better than them. But I can’t hang with the animosity of it. I hate it. [laughs]

[For the full text of this lengthy interview, purchase the Summer 2011!]

You can keep up with Kimber’s projects at her website www.kimberludiker.com. You’ll also want to look her up on youtube to see some fine examples of her “controlled improvisation” in action.

[Peter Anick, author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” teaches fiddle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]

Photo: Peter Anick