The Wonder of Weiser: 'Jump in and hang on'

WEISER, Idaho (KBOI) -- Forget Nashville. Forget Branson. For one week every year, there's no bigger music mecca than Weiser, Idaho.

With his guitar hanging from his neck like a giant polished gem, Zeke Little says, "I come back every year because it's like New Year's. You start your new year now."

Brad McClanahan, of Ukiah, California, sums up the Weiser experience in more mystic tones: "It's like all the lost tribes of musicians are coming back together and it has this beautiful sort of exodus feeling to it."

If he's to be believed, all roads lead to Weiser and the Oldtime National Fiddlers Contest and Festival.

As the county seat of Washington County, Weiser sits on the western border with Oregon and boasts a landscape dotted with tidy barns, orchards and ranches. And that dictates the rhythms of the place until June rolls around.

Then it's fiddlin' time, with thousands making a beeline past Babe the Bull, right outside the Beehive restaurant, and then a left turn at the big lemon on the festival's midway.

Darlene Clement has been serving up ice cold lemonade for nine years, braving the hot June temperatures inside her bright yellow tin stall and often missing out on the fiddling. But there's an upside to her tiny sacrifice.

"I've had people from all over the world come to the lemon over the years," she says, "Australia, Germany, England. All over the place."

Weiser is a music magnet for young and old. Fiddlers like Julian McClanahan, a 17-year-old California prodigy who's been playing since the age of 3.

He needs no prodding to pull out his fiddle and play a duet with his dad, Brad, on the spot.

"I love the entire community that's created at Weiser," he says between songs. "I've learned a lot and hopefully somebody's learned something from me, too."

Brad McClanahan, even after so many years, is still astonished at his son's virtuosity.

"He plays eight instruments and the fiddle is the main one. And he's keeping up a 4-point-something grade point average and trying to get into a good college."

But for all his talent, young Julian played his heart out on Day 2 of the contest and didn't make the cut. Paul Anastasio has seen this kind of thing happen before.

"There's a lot of 17-year-olds who can beat me up and steal my lunch money," he says with a sly grin.

Anastasio is a former fiddler contest judge who isn't at all surprised by Julian's early elimination. He chalks it up to the contest becoming so popular, fiddlers get just four minutes each to show off their versatility.

Quite apart from the early days, he says, there's a sameness to it now, like the doughnuts frying on the midway.

"So you get these kinds of bloodless, technically-perfect performances," Anastasio says ruefully.

Better, he says, to seek out the jam sessions that spring up in campgrounds at the fringes. And there are many, boasting so many motor homes and campers, the lots look like RV dealers have set up shop.

It's a moveable feast, with music on the menu. Just look around and you will see every conceivable instrument--mandolins, dulcimers, banjos, guitars and, of course, fiddles.

It's the mix of instruments and styles that brings fiddlers like Paul Anastasio coming back year after year.

"Weiser's almost like the key in the lock that opens the door," he says, "and people say, 'Wow, there's more to it. I don't have to play just "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."'

The smart money, though, tends to gravitate to a remote corner of the festival campgrounds called "Stickerville." No map needed. Just follow the thrumming, a curiously low sound, like a thousand birds fluttering their wings.

The vibe here is a bit more serious, and that can be intimidating even for a veteran like Zeke Little.
The guitar player from Alliance, Colorado, finds he has to be on his game, even for jam sessions.

Little is idly strumming his guitar as he says, "You have to make it up on the fly. You might know that song in G, but they're gonna play it in B Flat. Oh, okay, jump in and hang on."

So it's a sweet ride, but a short one.

"This festival," says Little, "has been the best Weiser since last year."