Texas is a damn big place, but most traditional music lovers think of one thing when they think of Texas fiddling: “Contest Style.” Howard Rains was no different.
Rains had played fiddle as a boy in Sherman Texas, but he was focused on guitar when he moved back to Austin in 1998. Around that time he met Matt Gordon, who introduced him to old time Appalachian fiddling. “I didn’t make any distinctions,” Rains says today. “I was playing traditional tunes from all over and I just like the older sounds.”
That got Rains thinking about the bowing and he became interested in deep-rooted styles. He traveled to Appalachia to learn tunes from Kentucky-style fiddler Bruce Greene and learned tunes from West Virginia fiddler Jimmy Triplett.
But when Rains played some of his “new” old fiddle tunes for Texas music icon Mark Rubin, Rubin asked him a question that would propel Rains back through a century of Lone Star musical history: “Why don’t you play Texas tunes?” Rubin said. Rains recalls, “Mark Rubin played me Benny Thomasson, and I was stunned. I loved it!”
Soon, Bruce Greene mailed him Texas field recordings of Library of Congress tapes from the 1930s. Learning about Benny Thomasson led Rains to other great Texas and Oklahoma players: Eck Robertson, the East Texas Serenaders, Gary Lee Moore, Orville Burns, and Stafford Harris.
Rains sensed he was on a new path. Soon, an Austin fiddling friend named Tim Wooten mentioned his own grandfather: Thomas Jefferson Wootan.
“Duck” Wootan (he spelled his name differently than his descendants) was a subsistence farmer who lived a hardscrabble life near Junction in central Texas and played for dances and parties – although he never formally recorded.
But his grandson Tim mentioned to Rains that the family had kept some homemade tapes.
Rains says, “Those Duck Wootan tunes were really the first to start me on this path. Knowing his grandson Tim and Tim’s wife Angie had a huge impact.”
Rains had been indocrinated, but he still wouldn’t be able to explain what actually had happened to him – until he met a fiddle player named Tricia Spencer.
Tricia Spencer had been a highly-regarded contest-style fiddler. She grew up in Kansas, but it was in Brownsville, Nebraska, that she took third place in her first contest as an eight-year-old. “I got thirty five silver dollars,” she says, “and I thought, wow, this is great.”
She’d started out learning the tunes of her grandfather, Vernon Spencer, but contest fiddling pulled her away from her roots.
Some of Vernon Spencer’s tunes, which he played from 1920 up to 1970, couldn’t even be used in contests or dances – they were crooked, twisted, and varied from the accepted standard versions. Vernon’s tunes fell out of the granddaughter’s repertoire. “I became a Midwestern-style contest fiddler,” she admits.
From a distance, Spencer’s musical career seemed a great success. She kept winning, and she played in several popular old- timey and bluegrass-style bands. “But I was still into bluegrass and contest fiddling,” she says, “and I’d work for hours to get my version down to win. But it was very much a solo event, and not communal.”
That sense of community was what Spencer felt most at the Indiana Fiddlers Gathering the first time she attended in 2007. “I was shocked!” Spencer recalls. “Being at Battleground and hearing old time made me reconsider Kansas fiddling and my grandfather. And that was the beginning of how I lost my passion to play contest tunes. Old time was more social, it was dance music that had a lot less to do with contests.”
Tricia Spencer’s long journey back to Vernon Spencer took a detour a few years later when she found herself at an event called Milfest in Kennard, Texas, in the Davy Crockett National Forest.
“I showed up in Kennard with my kids,” Spencer recalls, “and I was exhausted but desperate for a jam. I didn’t know where the campers were jamming, but I saw this guy leaning against a tree while I was playing my fiddle.” A short time later, Howard Rains walked up and joined her on a tune.
Rains recalls, “We played ‘Texas’ [an A tune from seminal Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed] and that’s how we met, playing that tune. And we played all night, shared tunes and stories.”
Howard’s passion for old-timey Texas fiddling set something off in Tricia Spencer. “I love the West Virginia tunes I’d been playing,” she says, “but we’re both outsiders to Appalachia in a way, as welcoming as everyone has been.”
It was hearing Rains talk about Texas that got her thinking even more. “I’m passionate about the stories,” Spencer says, “but my own grandpa was an old time fiddler. Why wasn’t I playing his tunes and keeping them alive?”
She went back to the home recordings of her grandfather, something she hadn’t done in years. Now Spencer could really discern between his older style and what she had been winning contests with. “My grandfather’s bow arm kept him an old-timer. And at one time I must have felt I had to get away from his bow arm. Now I’m going back to that.”
“It’s all about connections to the music,” Rains says.
[To read the rest of this article, purchase the Spring 2015 issue
Here's a link to Howard Rains and Tricia Spencer playing "Stumptown Stomp," from The Old Texas Fiddle, Vol. II:
[Rus Bradburd is an old time and Irish fiddler, and the author of “Paddy on the Hardwood.”]
Photo: © Jenny DeMarco Photography http://jennydemarco.com