Whether teaching, mentoring, competing, judging, performing, or simply playing for the fun of it, these multi-talented multi-instrumentalists have made music a central part of their lives. As instructors at their own Carwile String Studio in Lexington, Kentucky, as well as at workshops around the country, Daniel and Amy Carwile aim to pass the joy of music onto others –– and according to their many students, they do just that. With their highly-regarded 2007 CD Col Arco, they continue to touch people with their music.
Longtime contest fiddlers who had both become music teachers and performers, their lives seemed to run parallel for many years until they finally met (through a student) at the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho, in 2001. In the pages that follow, Amy and Daniel share some more of their story, their thoughts on competing and teaching, and a few tunes.
Amy, I read that you started learning the violin at age eight. Did you start off with fiddle, or classical?
Amy: I started out playing the fiddle. I am from a family of four children, and it was my middle sister that actually sparked the fiddle fever. One evening while watching the family favorite, “Hee Haw,” and Roy Clark sawin’ away on the fiddle, my sister announced she would like to learn to play. We were very fortunate to have a fiddle teacher in our community by the name of Mabel Vogt. My middle sister started lessons with Mabel and created a domino effect in our family. My oldest sister also started lessons, and a few years later, my brother and I began playing.
How long did it take before you were performing in front of people?
Amy: I started performing in front of people right away –– as soon as I learned my first tunes. Mabel also organized a youth fiddling group, “The Junior Jammers.” We performed throughout the region at community events, county fairs, and nursing homes. It was a great, positive environment that kept me motivated to practice and learn more tunes. Being around other musicians my age was a huge plus and kept me plugged as a teenager.
How long was it before you were competing?
Amy: I entered my first contest six months after I began playing; it just happened to be at the 1985 National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho. I knew only a handful of tunes but was anxious to get on stage and try them out! That same summer I competed in several contests throughout the northwestern United States and western Canada. From that point on, competitions filled almost every weekend from March to October for the next twenty years.
When did your other instruments come in?
Amy: From the moment I could talk, singing was a daily activity. My oldest sister and I would sit at the piano, and we would work out vocal harmonies for hours on end. I started classical piano lessons at the age of five. It laid a great foundation for learning other instruments. I played trumpet in the band program at school from fifth grade through twelfth and participated in the school choir. As an adult I picked up mandolin, bouzouki, and guitar.
Daniel, how did you start out?
Daniel: I had the good fortune of growing up around music. My dad played mandolin in a bluegrass band, and they practiced at the house once a week. As early as three, I would listen intently to the rehearsals. I think the seed was planted there. At age seven, I found a three-quarter size fiddle under the bed one day (my dad was planning to give it to me at a later date) and in no time at all, I began listening to fiddle recordings my dad had on the shelf and started trying to figure out tunes by ear. The more “fishing for the notes” I did, the better I got. By the third year, I knew over 150 tunes.
How did you get started in contests?
Daniel: After four months of playing, I went to my first contest in Anderson, Alabama (about twenty-five miles from my hometown) and placed second in the Beginner Division. After winning that trophy and the money, I was hooked! Over the next twenty-five years, I competed in hundreds of contests all across the country.
How did you become known as a session musician?
Daniel: It takes time. One session basically leads to another. I have played on numerous projects over the years ranging from old time, bluegrass, newgrass, gospel, Celtic, folk, contest-style, and swing, to country and rock. Through these sessions I have worked with some great artists, producers, and engineers from Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee. My first recording was at age ten, so I guess I got accustomed to the studio at a young age. Since then, I have recorded five personal projects as well as five projects with the Celtic band Full Moon Ensemble, with which I played fiddle and mandolin for eight years.
What led to your interest in Celtic music?
Daniel: Very simply, after learning hundreds of tunes in the old time and bluegrass traditions, I began to tease the possibility of a connection between those tunes and tunes from Ireland and Scotland. In many cases, I discovered tunes from the Celtic tradition in American old time and bluegrass music (some with different names but almost identical melodies). In addition, from a theory point of view, I found the use of certain scales such as the Mixolydian scale and its chordal implications to be a common thread in these styles. Of course, by the late ’80s and early ’90s, I started listening to great Celtic fiddlers such as Aly Bain, Kevin Burke, Alasdair Fraser, Martin Hayes, and others and started to imitate what I was hearing.
You’ve competed in almost every major fiddle contest in the country, have been a U.S. Grand Master and World Series of Fiddling Champion, and you’re a seven-time winner of the “Fiddle King” title at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. Do you have a favorite contest?
Daniel: That is a hard question to answer. Every contest has a different vibe. Some are formal and others, informal. I remember one contest I competed at in Athens, Texas, where the judges stood on stage directly behind me and “discussed” my playing while at the same time, the M.C. was chiming in asking the crowd to “make me feel good” by giving me a hand of applause! Formal contests are my preference. By formal, I mean contests with 1) closed judging –– where the judges cannot see the contestants; 2) at least five judges, preferably from different parts of the country (stylistic variance); 3) judging using the Olympic system –– dropping the highest and lowest score; 4) multiple rounds; 5) three tunes each round –– breakdown, waltz, and tune of choice (something other than a breakdown or a waltz); and 6) cumulative scoring. Though this type of contest is not perfect, it is the best attempt at objectivity I have encountered over the years.
Amy, do you have a favorite contest?
Amy: I would have to say the national contest in Weiser, not necessarily for the competition itself, but for a week set aside for nothing but fiddling. As a child, it was the week I looked forward to all year long. It was often a ten-day event for my family. We would camp on the football field at Weiser High School and listen to jams literally all day and night. I would often go home with fiddle tunes ringing incessantly in my ears for days. After twenty-two years of attending and meeting people, it is more like a family reunion now.
You’re both multi-instrumentalists… Is fiddle your favorite instrument?
Amy: Absolutely. The fiddle is such a wonderful, versatile, and portable instrument. You can create so many different colors, textures, and grooves crossing all stylistic boundaries. Fiddling has provided Daniel and me with many opportunities we would not have had otherwise. We have met some super people and have traveled to amazing places with our fiddles on our back.
What have been a couple of the highlights of your careers?
Daniel: Getting to play on the Grand Ole Opry several times, playing for the Olympics in 1996, performing with Alabama on the Country Music Awards Show, and playing on theMoody Bluegrass CD and show at the Ryman Auditorium with The Moody Blues. Winning the Grand Master Fiddle Contest along with the World Series of Fiddling was pretty cool, too.
Was competing an entirely positive experience for both of you? Do you think everyone should aspire to it, or at least give it a try?
Daniel: Overall, I would say it was a positive experience. I did not always win but won more times than not. I guess that kept me motivated. Being compared to my peer group several times throughout the year was extremely motivational and helpful. You knew you had to improve in order to win. We all knew that. Consequently, everyone got better. I know some folks are against competition, and I understand their reasoning to a degree. However, like it or not, competition is a fact of life. With that said, I do not encourage students to compete more than four or five times each year. Competing more tends to encourage stylistic singularity. Too much time is spent perfecting twelve to eighteen tunes –– four to six rounds (that is optimistic) at the expense of increasing repertoire, building harmonic knowledge, and exploring the many different styles of fiddling on planet earth.
Your parents were willing to take you around to competitions. What would you recommend to students who don’t have the opportunity to travel to contests?
Daniel: I would certainly encourage them to go to as many jam sessions as they can in their area. Actually, jamming with other musicians is really more important than competing. The point of it all is to communicate with others! Along the way, you might meet someone who is into competitions and would be more than happy to give you a ride. I got a ride to Texas one time that way!
[For the rest of this interview, and transcriptions of Daniel’s tunes “Amy’s Waltz,” “The Trinity Jig,” and “The Mull of Kintyre,” purchase the Summer 2008 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]