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FiddleFest Returns to Hollins Campus Next Weekend

A group jams during last year’s FiddleFest.
A group jams during last year’s FiddleFest.

“I’m a player, ” explains Mike Conner in his office at Williamson Road Service Center in northeast Roanoke, recognizable for the giant Paul Bunyan figure standing outside the center’s front door.  By player, Conner means he’s a bluegrass musician.  “I fix cars so I can eat and I play bluegrass for a living,” said the Bent Mountain resident. Growing up with bluegrass at home, Conner started out playing piano at a time when electronic keyboards were unheard of.

“You couldn’t go to a jam session unless it was in a building somewhere with a piano.  So I wanted to start playing guitar.”  Conner’s musical passion progressed from there to the point where bluegrass “has just always been my first love.”

Since 2001, Conner has been involved in the planning and staging of FiddleFest, which will be held this year on the campus of Hollins University  July 31 – August 1.  This year’s program will be a mixture of old and new features.

“This is the first year that we’ll have Tony Rice there,” says Conner, “[and] the first year that Mountain Heart will be there.”  The latter musical act will feature a new lead singer who hails from Martinsville.  Other new performing acts will be Balsam Range, based in Carolina, and Blue Moon Rising, which Conner describes as a “new, very, very popular group.”  Back for this year’s FiddleFest will be the Country Gentlemen, led by Randy Waller, who picked up the baton from his late father, Charlie Waller.

“We’ll start each day with our workshop series,” said Conner. “It’s an opportunity for learning musicians, or even advanced musicians, to sit down with professionals,” whose livelihood comes from making music or singing, “to pick up some tips from them.  You get to spend an hour-and-a-half each day, and if you buy a two-day pass,($45) it’ll get you into everything.”

This year’s afternoon show  (August 1) will be held in a new, much larger location, Babcock Auditorium.  The afternoon will feature what Connor terms “Pro-Jams,” where professional musicians “just kind of get together on stage and do what they do.  There’s no format, there’s no show . . .They just get up there, somebody hollers out a song and they take-off.”

The evening performances will be held outdoors at “Tinker Beach,” a grassy area behind Tinker Hall on the university campus.  “It’s a natural amphitheater,” says Connor.  “It’s just a beautiful area.” Conner believes FiddleFest affords Hollins University the opportunity to forge a greater connection with the Roanoke Valley.

“They want to bring people on campus that may not, for any other reason, come onto the campus to see what the facilities are, what’s available there, because maybe they feel like they’ve been a little closed off – even though they’ve been here since 1842. This is kind of their chance to open up to the community in another way.”

Further information about FiddleFest can be found at roanokefiddlefest.org.  Tickets can be purchased at the website by credit card, or by calling 777-1418.

By Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.
[email protected]

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