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The Fiddler's Convention - Bluegrass and Old Time Music Festival

It won't be long till lovers of bluegrass music and old time Appalachian folk music gather at Athens State University in Athens, Alabama for the 56th annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddler's Convention. Known locally as simply the Fiddler's Convention, it is a big event for Athens, and is always held during the first weekend of October. The event is a musical extravaganza.

From the late 1700's into the late 1800's immigrants came to America from Europe and settled in the southern Appalachian mountains, bringing their music with them. That "old time" music later blended in with American country music and became know as "bluegrass". The Fiddler's Convention is dedicated to the recognition and preservation of both old time music and bluegrass music. As such it is a very Americana type of event.

three men playing instruments, fiddle and banjo
A group from Tennessee playing hard in a jam session at the Fiddler's Convention

The Unofficial Start

The Fiddler's Convention is simply fun. The crowd starts arriving in their campers and RV's on the Sunday or Monday before the official start date. They get started doing lots of visiting and informal "jam sessions" all week long.

Many of those early arrivers come from hundreds of miles away. Some come from states like Ohio, or Iowa, or Texas, or other states - or maybe just down the road in Alabama. They spend the week visiting with the old friends that they haven't seen since last year's convention. A couple of times a day they get out their guitars and banjos, mandolins, dobros, and fiddles and do what they love - play bluegrass, gospel, and "old time" music, and even mix in a little bit of old country music.

The Official Start

On Friday night into Saturday of the event competitions will be held for 24 different categories, with many designated either "Old Time" or "Bluegrass" music. For example there will be Old Time Banjo competition and a separate Bluegrass Banjo competition. The fiddle competitions will be divided into Old Time Fiddle or Bluegrass Fiddle and each of those diveded into different age groups. There are different age groups for Buck Dancing. But my personal favorite is the culturally rich Old Time Singing competition on Friday night.

Here is a link to the Contestants page of the event website:

The old time singing event is unique to the point that it is hard to describe. It is held in McCandless Hall, a small and cozy, but beautiful playhouse on campus. Guests relax in comfortable theatre seats and get an up close view of every performance. Each act is either one or two people. One or both people sing. They may have one or two instruments, or none at all. Each act will sing one song. Judging is done based not only on the quality of music and presentation, but judged heavily on being original old time Appalachian folk music.

Some of those old time songs are light and comical, but most are ballads or historical. They sing about a tragic shipwreck, or a battle in the war, or simply tell of a broken heart. Performers often wear costume true to that period. A viewer can watch the performance and easily be carried back to the 1820's and a small mountain cabin where the family and neighbors sit around and talk in the near-darkness and sing their favorite stories. That is not a typo, they would sing stories.

It is hard for us to imagine the way for life for those settlers back in the early 1800's. There was no internet, there were no computers. There were no radios or televisions because there was no electricity. When night set in, darkness was the routine, touched only by the fire in the fireplace or a candle or lantern. And it happened every night, not just a weekend get away or a fun camping trip.

Sitting in the room watching the performances at the Old Time Singing event, it is not so hard for me to imagine that long ago setting, because I know that those songs are real and those times were real. This is not a Hollywood performance or someone performing from a script. These are genuine common people paying humble tribute to the humble people of days past. Those singers reflect American culture in a big way.

two men with instruments on stage singing
A young man sings in the Old Time Singing competition as his father plays bass

But rather than old time songs, some acts will sing old gospel songs from that period or bluegrass from more recent times. Usually between 20 and 40 acts will perform. While spectators looking for light hearted entertainment may not like the Old Time Singing event, those who want a view of old American culture and a different way of life, the Old Time Singing is a rare special event, and is very Americana.

Just a few years back the Fiddler's Convention organizers added a free show on Thursday night from a professional bluegrass band, That free show is plenty of fun and a chance to hear good bluegrass, often from young and upcoming talent in the world of bluegrass. The award winning band "Flat Lonesome" played the Thursday show in 2018. In 2020 the band Volume 5 played the Thursday show and earned what one local fiddler called "the best band that has ever been on this place".

This year, the organizers have added an additional free night. On Wednesday, October 4th, 2023 the gospel bluegrass band Appalachian Roadshow will play at 7:00 PM.. Then on Thursday night the 5th, Clearview Bluegrass will start a free show at 6:30 PM.

Starting on Friday, entry into the event requires admission. The music and dance competitions start on Friday night, October 6th, and continue on Saturday morning and into Saturday night. Those competitions cover skills with different instruments, or singing, or buck dancing, or - well just a lot of things. Bluegrass Band competition starts on Saturday afternoon with finals on Saturday night. One can hear some high quality music in the Bluegrass Band competition. Also on Saturday night the competitions will halt long enough for shows from big-name performers from the world of bluegrass. Later that night, the overall Fiddle Champion will be awarded.

In 2023 the total prize money awarded in all competitions will be 47,350 dollars spread out over 24 different competitions. No wonder people come from all over the country to compete, including Nashville and that surrounding area.

The attendance for the event will normally be between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand visitors spread out over two days.

And the Big Crafts Show

For those who may not be musically inclined the festival is also home to a big crafts show of approximately 150 booths featuring traditional crafts and art from all over Alabama and middle Tennessee. Admission to the crafts show is covered by the same ticket for the musical events on Friday and Saturday.

And yes, the Fiddler's Convention does have a web site.

This bluegrass and old time music festival is a large does of American culture and the history of American music. Proceeds from the Fiddler's Convention go to Athens State University, primarily to the scholarship fund. So mark your calendars and start making plans to be on campus at Athens State University during early October. See you there!

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Frederick Patterson
Frederick Patterson
Aug 18, 2023

Hope to make it this year.

Aug 18, 2023
Replying to

Hi Rick. Thanks for signing up to Picture Americana!


Aug 18, 2023

A great overview of the Fiddlers' Convention!

Aug 18, 2023
Replying to

Thanks a lot !!

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