George Portz sees his fiddle contest as just being part of Americana.
On April 9, 20 fiddlers entered his 37th Annual Fiddle Contest & Bluegrass Show at the Knights of Columbus Hall in O’Fallon.
As Portz sees it, bluegrass music has no age barriers.
“It’s fun music that is part of our American heritage,” he says and smiles.
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Take his latest show, for instance. Entrants ranged in ages from seven to one being in his mid 80s.
“It’s an all ages thing,” Portz says. “It’s a good family event.”
“...And the young kids love picking up that fiddle.”
Today, the bluegrass industry is skyrocketing in popularity as a result.
In fact, there is even a Sirius radio station solely devoted to bluegrass music.
Much like in all of Portz’s previous fiddle contests in O’Fallon, there were several big jamming sessions taking place in the K of C’s basement.
“That’s where all the fun is,” Portz says.
“I have heard some comments from musicians saying they never made it upstairs (to the fiddle contest),” he says.
Portz was only nine years old when his grandpa introduced him to the fiddle.
He hasn’t put it down since.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Portz, now 63.
Portz sees his local fiddle contest as being a stepping stone, where young music artists are stepping onto higher and better things.
He likes to brag 17 players that have played in O’Fallon have gone on to play at the Grand Ole’ Opry in Nashville. The latest one is Bobby Minner. Minner is a compelling acoustic guitarist who has been an integral member of country superstar Tim McGraw’s band the Dancehall Doctors for two decades. His multi-dimensional flatpicking talents are at the heart of the band. He also writes his own music and his recent solo album There and Back and Back Again highlights his seemingly infinite fluency and range in the bluegrass genre. In addition to the acoustic guitar.
Alison Krauss even won Portz’s fiddle contest in 1982. She was one of the first music artists who entered the competition and went on to star at Nashville, Tenn. Her most recent triumph, the certified-platinum Raising Sand, her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant and producer T Bone Burnett, notched up a total of six Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Song of the Year, bringing her unsurpassed total to 26.
“Alison was just 10 or 11 years old when she played in our contest,” Portz says. “She is so competitive. If she were a softball player, she would have been a state champion. She just has the persona she’s going to be the best at whatever she tackles.”
When Portz now talks with his crowds, he always asks them to predict which play or players will be the next to start at Nashville or Branson.
It might be Beth Davis of Carbondale. Last year, the 12 year old won the show. This year, she finished in second.
Or, it might be 11-year-old Devan Mahale of St. Louis, this year’s grand champion.
It might also be Caleb and Josiah Kanoy of Troy. The 15 and 12 year old brothers brought the sold out crowd to their feet with their third and fifth place finishes, respectively.
But the fiddler contest is more than a contest. It’s a friendly competition.
It’s also a time where Portz can reflect on his grandad. In addition to his grandfather, Portz’s mother played the fiddle. His two children play the fiddle now.
“You can’t beat the country folk,” he says. “It’s sort of like a homecoming, where you see you friends come and go.”
Portz believes his grand dad would be happy to see his son’s show being a success today.
“He would be impressed we produced so many players,” he says and smiles. “It’s our Americana. And it won’t die out. Ever since I was nine years old, a fiddle has been a big part of my life.”
Mark Hodapp: 618-239-2688