In addition to contestants we must have three qualified judges to evaluate their efforts. To appreciate the responsibilities of the judges view the Contest Rules. Our rules are consistent with those used by the National Old Time Fiddle Contest of Weiser, ID. We generally use a different set of judges each year but not always. This year out three judges were, Junior Marriott from Ava, Missouri in south central MO, Cliff Harrison of Lafayette, IN and Melody Staff Freeman of Vandalia, IL. A brief synopsis of the qualifications of each appears below. Individual photographs are not available but as part of our contest activities we ask the judges to perform several fiddle tunes for the contest audience and that photo appears above.
Cliff comes from a family of central-Illinois fiddle players and old-time musicians. His mom, Ruth Riegel, calls dances and plays a variety of instruments; and his dad and uncles learned to play from their dad. Cliff’s grandfather (after whom he is named) played the fiddle with the Vagabond Plowboys on radio station WDZ when it was located in Tuscola. The elder Cliff’s wife, Pauline, who sang and played the guitar, was the daughter of fiddle player John Mason, of Charleston, who played in a string band with his brother Albert.
Cliff learned to play old-time fiddle and guitar from his dad and uncles during informal family music gatherings. His repertoire consists mostly of tunes collected from senior fiddlers in central and southern Illinois. Beginning in the 1970s, Cliff’s uncle, Garry, and others befriended and recorded these elder musicians, including Harvey “Pappy” Taylor of Effingham, Stelle Elam of Brownstown, and many of the charter members of the Illinois Old Time Fiddlers Association. That collection of Illinois fiddle tunes was compiled into a book and CD set titled Dear Old Illinois (Pickaway Press, 2007).
Cliff now resides in Lafayette, Indiana, and plays fiddle and guitar with the Bum Ditty Barn Dance Band.
Melody Staff Freeman
Melody started playing music when she was only four years old. At the age of five, her parents Floyd and Edythe Staff, now deceased, began taking her to the Illinois Old Time Fiddlers Association. Mr. Staff never missed a meeting, and his wife and daughter only missed a few. Melody, a graduate of Greenville College, plays a total of twelve instruments (strings and keys) and has played in various fiddle contests in the past and was the Illinois Old Time State Fiddle Champion in 1982. She had opportunities to record in Nashville with a bluegrass band, and to be part of several opry shows in Branson and the Lake of the Ozarks, but she turned those down as she was very close to her family. Melody is one of less than a half dozen members who go back to the days when the IOTFA was a just a few years old. She was quite young then and was learning the fiddle.
Melody taught school before her children were born. She played the organ at the First United Methodist Church in Vandalia for 22 years. Later, she became the director of music at the church. She also gave over 50 music lessons a week for many years. At one time, she worked at Piano Network in Effingham. She still sells pianos, organs and keyboards. Also, she is a free-lance musician.
Junior Marriott began playing rhythm guitar at the age of seven for his dad, who played the fiddle. By age nine he was playing bass. At fourteen he began playing the fiddle. By the age of sixteen he won the Missouri State Fiddle Championship, a title he has won several times, including the 2010 championship. Junior has won numerous contests including other state championships. These include Kansas State Fiddle Championship, Arkansas State Fiddle Championship, and Grand Lake Fiddle Festival Champion in 2006, 2007, and 2010. He placed 5th at the 2000 National Fiddle Contest and 3rd at the Grand Masters in 2013.
Junior travels across the country not specific to just competing. Junior is also an esteemed judge, contest organizer and supporter. Major fiddle contests Junior has judged include Missouri State Championship, Arkansas State Championship, Grand Lake Championship, Colorado Fiddle Championships, Bob Wills Fiddle Festival, the Texas State Championship and the Grand Master Fiddler Championship. Contests he has helped organize, include the Branson Fiddle Festival, Mid America Fiddlers Championship, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Fiddle Off. He has presented a workshop Texas style guitar backup at Chris Talley’s Bluegrass Shack in New Athens, IL in recent years.
Junior lives in Ava, Missouri where he owns and operates Marriott Music with his wife, Cathy. He buys, sales, trades, and repairs instruments and offers lessons both in store and on Skype. You can contact Junior at www.marriottmusicstore.com or at Marriott Music on Facebook.
Notice that the other two judges are playing guitar as is Aaron Albrecht, 4th place winner in the Open Division, who was sitting in. This emphasizes the importance of fiddler players also being able to play a rhythm/backup instrument. That additional experience equips the fiddler with a much better understanding of song structure, keys and chord progressions, all of which can enhance their ability to play fiddle tunes correctly and to create variations when they wish to improvise.