Copyright 2018 Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention
The Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention has roots in the cold winter days of early 1995. Richard Nichols, maintenance engineer at Alleghany Memorial Hospital, and Dr. Jack Cahn, family practitioner, brought up the idea one day at work, said Nichols. Both are string musicians.
“We got to talking about it, how we ought to have a fiddlers convention. We had a good fairgrounds, a good place to have it, and we just needed to get a group together to get it going. Raising money for the fairgrounds, that was the intent to start with,” Nichols said.
The county-owned Higgins Agricultural Fairgrounds had opened not too long before and money was needed for improvements. The two men were also concerned about keeping interest in old time and bluegrass music alive.
Nichols invited other Alleghany musicians and members of the fairgrounds board to join a committee to launch the first ever Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention. The first meeting was held in February 1995 in the Alleghany Memorial Hospital solarium.
“It got kicked off real well because we had a good team put together,” said Nichols. A standing date was set: the third weekend in July.
The committee raised money to cover prizes and expenses by selling advertisements for a printed program and signs in front of the stage. In the beginning, the signs were hand painted.
Stables were among the first improvements to the new fairgrounds.
Prize money and a schedule were set, and committee member David Sturgill, a judge at many conventions himself, was appointed to acquire three judges.
The format for this convention was a bit different from others in the area, with the intention of making it easy for musicians to participate. Individuals and bands may compete anytime they want to Friday night and Saturday during the day. Saturday night is reserved for a band playoff.
The first convention was held Friday and Saturday, July 21 and 22, 1995, with a free gospel singing on Sunday, July 23.
At the time, advanced registrations were accepted by mail. Evelyn Farmer and Jesse Lovell of Fries, Virginia were the first contestants to register for the Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention.
Emcees were radio personalities Sonia Joines and Harold Mitchell.
At the first convention, the grandstand was uncovered. Proceeds from the convention have helped pay for larger covered seating, among other improvements.
The convention was a success as a fundraiser from the beginning. The committee made a $10,000 contribution to the fairgrounds the first year.
In the second year, junior band competition was added to help encourage young people to carry on the music. The gospel singing was dropped in favor of having a full day Sunday to clean up the fairgrounds.
The third year, a noncompetitive children’s dance category for ages 8 and younger was added. Each child who dances gets a blue ribbon. Harmonica competition was added the fourth year.
In the fifth year, 1999, junior individual categories were added for fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass. At the time, no other conventions in this area had separate competition for youths, although several have added it since. Duet categories were added in 2018.
Contestants backstage at the first convention.
Proceeds from the convention have helped pay for new turnout gear, airpacks, fire hose, and other firefighting equipment.
The fire department reserves the fairgrounds for two weeks before the convention and holds work details to set up big tents, put the stage in place, line off camping spaces, assemble the dance floor and a host of other chores.
Beginning with the 2010 convention, the fireman accepted reservations from people who wanted to keep the camping space they held the previous year.
“I hope to get to see a lot more of them,” Nichols said. “You wouldn’t believe the people who have told me how much they enjoy the fiddlers convention in Sparta, especially the young ones who are going to carry on our music for years to come.”
The fiddlers convention draws between 40 and 60 bands and more than 200 individual contestants each year.