Fiddlers contest showcases diverse talents, musical styles

The annual event brought fiddlers of all ages and backgrounds together to compete and share their talents.
Winners Steve and Donna Bing perform. Photo by Abbi Miles.

NELSONVILLE, Ohio — Dust went flying and feet were tapping on the Stuart’s Opera House stage this past Friday, Aug. 18 at the 2023 Ohio State Old Time Fiddlers Contest.

The annual event brought fiddlers of all ages and backgrounds together to compete and share their talents before an audience of 100. Fiddlers competed in four age groups for cash prizes, plaques and medals. They performed two songs each round: a hoedown in 2/2 or 2/4 time, and a waltz in 3/4 time. 

Judges Paul Brown of Chillicothe, and Brad Oviatt of Mount Vernon, faced away from the stage,  judging only by ear. Only age categories, contestant numbers and song titles — not names — were announced. A total of 22 fiddlers competed, only two of whom were in the 12 and under category.


The judges listened and awarded points for traditional fiddling ability and authenticity, rhythm and timing, clarity and tone, expression, and difficulty and mastery.

Oviatt is an accomplished fiddler himself, having previously won the Pennsylvania State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Contest, Great Lakes Regional Bluegrass and the West Virginia State Bluegrass Fiddle Championship twice. He’s played in 48 states and 74 countries on three continents. 

This year marked Oviatt’s third time judging the contest at Stuart’s. Having played fiddle since he was 5, Oviatt was trained classically, he said. While attending Ohio University, he discovered blues, then country, and ultimately old time and bluegrass. He cited Tommy Jackson as a major musical inspiration, “the man when it comes to playing fiddle.”

In judging, Oviatt said he listens for music that is moving — irresistibly so. 

“It needs to make you want to dance, because fiddle tunes are dance music,” Oviatt said. “And if you get so involved in playing the notes and playing the notes right that you lose a great rhythm or it flexes — it’s got to be danceable. It’s got to have that infectious sound to it, so that it makes your feet itch. If it does that, you’re fiddling it right.”

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Oviatt noted that the fiddle transcends region and culture, playing an important role in Celtic, American, Canadian, Métis and other musical traditions.

“But it’s all dance music — it’s all dance-driven,” Oviatt said. “It’s funny — whenever I feel like my rhythm’s flexing a little bit, I’ll go to an old time jam because the rhythm is just locked in.”

Suzanne Ragg, who has volunteered to coordinate the contest since 2018, said it’s fulfilling to see contestants improve their skills over the years, as well as the friendships that form from the annual event.

Once held during the Ohio State Fair, the festival is now sponsored by Parade of the Hills, which provides the prizes. Ragg estimated that the contest has been going on since 1968, though it’s unclear; Nelsonville resident Betty Jo Parsley has been keeping time for the event for at least 45 years. This year was no different. 

“Something I have noticed is that the fiddlers are happy to see each other do well,” Ragg said in an email. “They like to help each other with encouragement as well as with providing accompaniment for each other.”

This year’s 55 and older champion, Steve Bing, of Cincinnati, told the Independent that this was his sixth or seventh year competing in Nelsonville. He estimated that he’d been playing fiddle for 50 years. 

“It’s part of my heritage,” Bing said. “My family’s all from West Virginia and I’ve heard music since I was a kid … so it’s in my blood.”

Bing, who primarily plays old-time music, was accompanied by his wife, Donna, on guitar. 

“We do a lot of fiddle contests around the country,” Bing said. “I just go into the fiddle contest hoping to just have fun. If I get number three, that’s good; number two, that’s good. I don’t go in looking to say I want to get number one. And you meet a lot of great people who want camaraderie — and that’s what it’s all about.”

In Bing’s opinion, what makes a good fiddle player is practice. 

Albany resident Marissa Sementilli competed in the 19–54 category. She’s been playing fiddle a little over a dozen years, she said. However, her musical ambitions predate her own memory.

“I don’t remember this, but apparently when I was 3, my grandpa had [a fiddle] under his bed,” Sementilli said. “And he’d try to sell it at a yard sale at one point, and I kept going over and stroking saying ‘Oh, it’s so pretty.’ And I tried to buy it. So they shoved it back onto the bed like, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll need it someday.’ And fast forward to when I was like 14, 15 or so, I kicked it out from under the bed and I started playing it.”

Sementilli said she took lessons, self-taught for a couple of years and learned by participating in jams. She’s been competing at Stuart’s since 2015, she said. For her, a good fiddler is one that leans into their skill set, as each fiddler is different. Personally, she enjoys playing bluegrass and Texas style.

Jakin Bass, also of Albany, competed in the 13–18 category. She’s been playing fiddle for a little under a decade, beginning with classical violin. The fiddle is her primary instrument, she said. Her interest in fiddle tunes began after attending jams.

“I really like it, it’s really fun, especially when I accomplish a song, but the journey there is really hard — like kind of any instrument,” Bass said. 

Willa Cable, of Glouster, placed first in the 12 and under category. Cable said she’d been playing fiddle for the past four years and likes to play old time style, as one of her favorite artists is French Carpenter. She’d competed two previous times and enjoys the spirit of the event.

“I think that it encourages you to do your best,” Cable said. Over the years she’s made friends with fellow contestants, she added.

This year’s first place winners were:

  • 12 and under: Willa Cable, Glouster.
  • 13–18 category: Owen Hoopes, Malvern.
  • 19–54: Kerry Varble, Salem.
  • 55 and older: Steve Bing, Cincinnati.

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