Missouri fiddling champion Pete McMahan passed away February 11, 2000, in Columbia at the age of eighty-one. Pete had been in declining health for several years and hung up his violin more than a year ago. McMahan was well-known nationally, both as a champion Missouri-style fiddler and as a respected judge at major contests. Looking over some of the facets of his life and career is like a survey of the story of fiddling in much of the 20th century in Missouri. Visited and recorded by countless musicians, students, and collectors over the years, many would agree that Pete McMahan ranks with the giants of the 1970s and '80s.
75 Years of Making People Want to Dance
McMahan's family came from County Cork, Ireland, to North Carolina in 1734 and family members eventually moved across the mountains into central Kentucky. Two McMahan brothers came further west to the Little Dixie region of central Missouri in about 1820, among the first pioneers here. Pete was born November 18, 1918, to Homer and Dorothy Whitlock McMahan. He was one of eight children in an Irish Protestant farm family near Bluffton in southwestern Montgomery County in the hills above the north bank of the Missouri River. His mother and several sisters played the violin, and his mother specialized in the reed organ and played backup for fiddlers at local dances.
Pete started playing fiddle at age six with legendary local dance fiddler Clark Atterbury, learning everything in chorded A or D (his first tunes were "Rye Whiskey" and "Ta-ra-ra-boom-teay"). He played at countless dances in the 1930s. While working as a laborer in a stone quarry, he won his first contest in St. Charles, Missouri, at age fifteen. The prize was a sack of groceries, typical of fiddle contest winnings during the Great Depression in the Midwest. In these early years, Pete also played tenor banjo and guitar, learned to call square dances, and sang tenor in the Methodist church choir. He had a fine singing voice.
McMahan was a natural musician with a very quick mind and enjoyed the company of fiddle players no matter what their personal styles. He used to say that he could learn something from every fiddler he met.
In 1937 Pete moved to nearby Columbia (a regional hub and college town), and a new world of fiddling opened up to him. He began playing complex hornpipes and reels in F and B-flat under the influence of Boone County greats like contest and radio fiddler George Morris, as well as Ed Tharp, Aaron Oliver, Jones Cuno, Emmet Heath, and others. Like most other fiddlers, Pete also listened to nationally-popular fiddlers over the radio and on records. Central Missouri's fiddle style and repertory were affected by the ability of people here to tune in AM radio stations from such distant places as Canada and Texas, as well as Chicago and Nashville. Pete's favorite nationally-known fiddlers were Howdy Forrester and Georgia Slim Rutland, both of whom Pete knew and traded tunes with at various times (though he did not meet Forrester until the 1970s or '80s).
McMahan served in the Army in the Second World War as a fighting infantryman in North Africa and Italy. At the end of the war, Pete found himself in the Alps serving guard duty on the Austrian-Italian border, trying to catch Nazis fleeing to the south. One of his more intriguing narratives described his unit's taking an Italian hill village held by the German army, where some buddies in his platoon found several "old, old fiddles" hidden away in "a castle" (July 1988). Pete saved one of these old Italian violins and played it in small country music shows he and his friends put on for the local troops, but it was eventually confiscated by a shrewd supply officer. One wonders where those violins wound up. Pete became close friends with an impoverished, displaced Italian family and, at the request of the children's mother, tried to adopt one of the children, but his request was rejected. As he boarded the troop train to leave the Alps, the child's mother presented Pete with a baked chicken for his trip home the family's only laying hen.
Pete won his first big fiddle contest in Columbia, Missouri, in 1945 while home on leave, playing "Money Musk" and "Zig Zag Hornpipe," with a piano and tenor banjo as his backup (common fiddle accompaniment of that era in Missouri). In the early post-War years, he played fiddle in a local dance band that featured two guitars, electric bass, piano, and B-flat saxophone. That honky-tonk dance band experience, playing everything from Hank Williams songs to swing and big band hits in clubs like the Brite Lights, Jug Head's, and Breezy Hill, increased Pete's ability to play anything they wanted, including many tunes in the flat keys.
Pete married Sarah Ronimous in 1952 and they had several children. The family moved to Arizona and Pete stopped playing music from about that time until 1965 in order to make a living for his family.
The Champ Emerges
When they heard Pete was back in Boone County in 1965, Pete's old friends and contest rivals Cleo Persinger and Taylor McBaine talked him into once again taking up the violin. Pete did so, but he concentrated on the revived contest scene rather than returning to the role of dance fiddler. (Pete often spoke of the differences between playing for dances and playing in contests.)
He was successful, and went on to compete at the Weiser, Idaho, national contests and judged there for several years. Several Missourians had been successful at Weiser in the middle 1960s, and Pete took fourth place in 1968. He won and then judged many contests after that. At different times in the 1970s and 1980s, he won major competitions in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, South Dakota, and elsewhere.
During this time, as McMahan became a devotee of contest fiddling, he methodically "dressed up" various tunes for the competition arena. This is an important skill for the successful contest fiddler. McMahan was a master at making familiar tunes stand out under his personal touch. In his later years, Pete told me he played contest tunes like "Tom and Jerry" (he said on many occasions, "That tune's won me more money than any other tune"), "Grey Eagle," "Flowers from Heaven," and "Bitter Creek" in a style he called "semi-progressive." He learned "Bitter Creek" from Texas champion Vernon Solomon during a trip to the Grand Masters contest in Nashville in the 1970s.
Pete was careful to explain that his way of playing these tunes in big contests outside the state of Missouri ("where progressive is not popular") is "not really old-time" style (Sept. 1996). At one point (Dec. 1995), Pete went so far as to say he played these tunes in major regional contests "Texas style." On these and other occasions, Pete sought to explain his ideas about fiddling styles (a topic that would fill volumes). In his own playing, Pete McMahan reflected the tensions between the emerging national contest style (some call it "Weiser style") and the more regional central Missouri style he perfected in the 1930s and preferred.
McMahan recorded four private-label LP records in the 1970s, and his hard-driving style carried far and wide. In the 1980s, the Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association produced two cassettes of his fiddling (one with new material, Ozark Mountain Waltz, and another that was a reissue of an LP). Pete was four-time Missouri State Champion and an instructor in the Missouri Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and at various fiddle camps. In the 1980s, Pete was a powerful force at any fiddle contest and thoroughly dominated the scene in Missouri, a state with forty to fifty fiddle contests annually.
Pete performed at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife, National Folk Festival (Lowell, Massachusetts), the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes (Port Townsend, Washington), and many other festivals. At these big national events and other important program appearances in the 1980s, McMahan's favorite colleagues were the great Missouri fiddler Charlie Walden (now resident in Evanston, Illinois) and the backup guitarist Kenny Applebee (Rush Hill, Missouri), as well as John Griffin of Millersburg, Missouri.
McMahan received countless awards and honors and has been the subject of many articles. He was a featured fiddler on the 1989 project Now That's A Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling, which was a Finalist for two Grammy Awards.
Pete will be warmly remembered not only as the man to beat for many years in a fiddle contest, but also as a gentleman who liked teaching young people some of the mysteries behind his amazing drive, accent, and powerful style. He used to say that "you're not playing the fiddle unless you make people want to dance." His special style of fiddling is being carried on by several talented younger men, including Charlie Walden, John Griffin, and his last student, eighteen-year-old John Williams of Madison, Missouri. Many of his big contest tunes, while rendered in subtly different stylings, are part of the contest repertoires of Missouri champions like Kelly Jones, Travis Inman, Junior Marriott, and Matt Wyatt.
For several years, it was my distinct pleasure to spend many pleasant hours traveling to fiddle contests with Pete McMahan and hearing his stories about the old days and fiddlers of former times. I am grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the company of this giant of American fiddling.
[Howard (Rusty) Marshall is from a long line of fiddler players going back to the 1830s in central Missouri. He loses regularly in contests and has judged for 25 years. His 1999 CD on Voyager, "Fiddling Missouri," with John Williams and Arkansas Red, was nominated for two Grammies. He welcomes mail about Pete: firstname.lastname@example.org.]