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The Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships 1981-1990:

A Community Tradition

The Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships: A Brief History

by Mike Rundle
Martha Haehl at the Fifth KSF&PC
Martha Haehl at the Fifth KSF&PC
Lawrence Journal-World Collection,
Kansas Collection,
The University of Kansas Libraries

The first local Fiddling and Picking Championships was ushered in on the shirttails of the U.S. Bicentennial. The LawrenceBicentennial Commission asked Ann Evans to organize a chautauqua in 1976. The event was underwritten in part by a grant from the Kansas Arts Commission and was organized primarily by Ann Evans with Brian McKinney of McKinney-Mason Music as technical director. Gloria Throne was asked to organize a fiddling and picking championships. The chautauqua took place over a three day period (July 2-4, 1976) on the west side of Massachusetts Street in South park. A large tent held the performance activities including the Douglas County Fiddling and Picking Championships and a smaller tent held craft displays. The first DCF&PC was held from 6-8 p.m. and had 20 contestants competing in four events. All entrants had to live in Douglas County.

According to Steve Mason, that small contest inspired a vision of all Kansas counties running similar championships with the winners meeting somewhere in a state contest The idea was unrealistic - there were just not that many musicians in Kansas.

The Second DCF&PC--1977

The Second Annual Douglas County Fiddling and Picking Championships were sponsored by the Kansas Folklore Center, directed by Gloria Throne, and funded by 10 local merchants and a grant from the Kansas Arts Commission.

There were 22 contestants the second year and several hundred spectators.

Rain forced the second county contest to move to the nearby Community Budding at 1lth and Vermont streets - one of only two years this has happened.

Because many local musicians played more than one instrument the second championships added a high-point trophy to encourage musicians to enter more than one contest.

The second county championships were promoted on KANU's Flint Hills Special and that promotion may have drawn Larry Lintner, the first out-of-county contestant. Lintner, from Kansas City, Mo., won the 1977 Guitar Championship. One explanation for a nonresident winning is (bear with me on this, now) that the Douglas County resident restriction remained in place but no “residency requirements” such as living in the county for a minimum of six months, applied. Lintner pledged membership-for-the-day in the fraternity of his friend Nat M. Kline, who was himself a banjo picker. Basically, the contest organizers were a softhearted lot.

The Third DCF&PC--1978

The Third Annual Douglas County Fiddling and Picking Championships were opened to all comers, but not without reservations from Gloria Throne. One of the purposes of the contest, she said, was to recognize and encourage local musicians.

As a compromise, an award to the best Douglas County contestant was added to the third championships which were held at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 16, 1978. There were 48 entries.

The increase over the previous year was attributed to the replacement of the Miscellaneous Stringed Instruments contest with the folksinging contest in which there were 20 entries.

The championships were sponsored again by the Kansas Folklore Center As far as I can tell the Youth Award, given to the contestant 18 years old or younger with the highest score, was added that year. Presently contestants 16 years old or younger compete for this award.

The Fourth and Fifth DCF&PC

 In 1979 rain again forced the contest into the Community Building. The July 9 event was jointly sponsored by the Kansas Folklore Center, Lawrence Parks and Recreation, and the Lawrence Arts Center and showcased 24 contestants.

The fifth and last DCF&PC was held at KU's Marvin Grove, July 13, 1980, in cooperation with the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art's exhibition of works by Thomas Hart Benton. This was the first year the event was organized with the assistance of a committee. A crowd of about 300 endured temperatures over 100 degrees.

The dream of a state contest still lived. In 1981, with all the humility they could muster, the local contest organizers said, It might as well be us," and the Kansas State Fiddling & Picking Championships was born. The contest was moved to the end of August where it has remained.

The First KSF&PC--1981

According to the Journal World, there were 57 contestants in that first KSF&PC on August 30, 1981. The contest apparently took place on one stage and began with a call to the judges to please “retire to the Winnebago." The 90 degree day certainly was not the warmest KSF&PC Sunday, but the judges - Mike Allen, Billy Spears and Gloria Throne--sure felt the heat.

Sequestered in what the newspaper called a "more-than-warm" camper, the judges sweated for more than 7 hours. The experience definitely etched itself in Allen's memory.

You could have gone into a crematorium to cool down," he said.

There were 22 entries in the folksinging contest that year and Valerie Mindel holds the distinction of being the first contestant of the first KSF&PC. I think this was the year the folksinging contest had a few kinks. The rules allowed contestants to sing two songs, but many of the songs were long--one reportedly lasted 15 minutes. When that soloist launched into his second number, the audience erupted into loud groans. The next year, as is true today, folksingers were allowed to sing as many songs as they wished, but they had to fit them into a six-minute time frame.

It was also difficult for judges to distinguish among the vocal soloists; so winners of the singing contest were more likely to be duets or small ensembles. The added richness and challenge of elements of harmony singing and intonation in ensemble singing led to the elimination of solo singing at the third KSF&PC in 1983.

Steve Mason, who had placed in at least one contest throughout the Douglas County Fiddling and Picking Championships, disappeared from the rankings in 1981. However, he received the first Best Overall Musicianship award, apparently based on the total number of points awarded by the judges.

The first KSF&PC consisted of five contests: fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and folksinging. As you can see from the listing of winners over the past nine years, the range and number of contests have evolved.
Paul Luckan of Baldwin at the Second Annual KSF&PC Paul Luckan of Baldwin at the Second Annual KSF&PC
Lawrence Journal-World Collection,
Kansas Collection,
The University of Kansas Libraries.

The Second KSF&PC--1982

At the second KSF&PC, sponsored by the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Kansas Arts Commission, finger-pickers were split from the flat-pickers, a move Steve Mason likened to separating apples from oranges.

This separation caused an additional contest for Miscellaneous Stringed Instruments held from 1982-1984 and again from 1986-1988. In 1988 a new category of Miscellaneous Nonstringed Instruments was added to include everything from harmonicas to bagpipes and saxophones. In 1989 miscellaneous nonstringed and stringed instruments were combined into the Miscellaneous Acoustic Instruments Championships.

Also in 1982, mountain dulcimer fans requested the addition of that contest. They raised the extra money and rounded up enough contestants to make the contest a permanent part of the Championships.

According to the Journal World, a crowd of over 1,000 was entertained by about 90 musicians. This may have included performances by area bands as well as contestants.)

1983 and After

The Championships were underwritten by grants from the Kansas Arts Commission and Coca-Cola Bottlers of Lawrence in 1983. There were 62 contestants and a crowd estimated at 3,000.

Except for Lawrence Parks and Recreation in 1984 and a Kansas Arts Commission grant in 1985, the KSF&PC has been sponsored by a varying number of local businesses since 1984.

Since 1982 the contests have used two stages and have included performances by many bands from around the state. Hot weather also has been dependable fare. The size of the crowd has varied according to newspaper reports from “1,000 at any given time" in 1984 to 2,500 in 1988. Entries during that same period have run between 50 and 80.

KSF&PC's organizers think the contests showcase some fine musicians, but you don't have to rely on our opinion. A number of KSF&PC winners have gone on to place in the national championships at the Walnut Valley Festival held each September in Winfield. Kansas champions have other achievements to their credit as well. Fiddler Greg Allen, for example, played for a time with the Dillards.

This year the Walnut Valley Association has officially accredited the KSF&PC, and the winner of the Kansas Fiddle Championship will receive free admission to the festival and free registration for the national fiddling contest.

CrossCurrents has graciously co-sponsored KSF&PC this year, which has been essential to the success of this exciting weekend. We are deeply indebted to CrossCurrents and to the individual members who pitched in with the work.

Sources for this brief history include interviews, newspapers accounts and KSF&PC archives, all of which left some gaps. We ask our readers to provide necessary corrections and additions and to accept our apologies for any inaccuracies.

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