Best fiddler in the county

Here’s an observation from Kurt Vonnegut:

“Moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions.”

This is something I’ve thought about a lot, and occasionally raised in my own words by pointing out that we no longer have the concept of “best in the county,” whereas not so long ago it was a common way of describing a musician. When we played music around Adair County, older folks would often ask if I knew of Casey Jones, the best fiddler in the county in the 30s and 40s.

Now we might talk about the best fiddler in Nashville, or the country, or of all time, because we can experience those fiddlers through easily obtained recordings. And fiddlers at that level are astonishing.

But we still give up something when we do all our listening in that way, namely the first-hand experience of good playing. For the most part, the fiddling an average person is likely to hear first-hand (by which I mean completely unmediated, even by a sound system) is not very good—because the good fiddlers have left the county in search of national fame.

I’ve been fortunate enough to sit very close to good fiddlers—not world-class, merely good—and the experience is qualitatively different than the one you get from listening to a CD or a performance at a festival, even when that fiddling is the best of the best. That experience used to be a common one, being that the only way to hear music was unmediated by technology, and consequently the player had to be in close proximity to the listener.

Chris and I are doing what we can to bring this back for the folks we encounter. Do yourself a favor and seek out opportunities to hear skilled acoustic musicians up close and personal. They may not be as good as the ones who have earned national or global fame—but they are often good enough to give you a direct experience of music that can’t be obtained by a CD, video, or even a live performance to a large crowd.