Fiddling About

The Fiddlin' Foresters are at home on the range.

Even musicians who've played hundreds of concerts can usually cite a single show that was pivotal to their careers. The members of Colorado's Fiddlin' Foresters are no different--but their definitive gig certainly was. "One of the big turning points for us that really helped us gel," notes Foresters guitarist Jane Leche, "was when we played the fiftieth anniversary for Smokey the Bear."

Why was this 1994 date so important? Because everyone in the Fiddlin' Foresters maintains ties to the United States Forest Service. Leche and fiddler Lynn Young both work as public-affairs specialists for the organization, and banjo player Jim Maxwell and stand-up bassist Doug Wagner (a 1995 Foresters recruit) serve as a hydrologist and a computer technician, respectively. And while guitarist Tom McFarland, who also came aboard in 1995, makes his living as a local attorney, he volunteers his musical talents to the Forest Service during his off-hours. As a result of these commitments, the opportunity to honor America's furriest firefighter took on extra significance for Foresters Leche, Young and Maxwell, who were part of the lineup at the time. And the location of the show (the pedestrian mall near the nation's capitol) and the dignitaries in attendance made it even more special.

"We played for the secretary of agriculture and the chief of the Forest Service, so it was a big thing for us," Young recalls. "Plus it was the first time we played in uniform as representatives of the U.S. Forest Service."

An indication of how seriously the Foresters take this responsibility is a phrase that's printed on both sides of their self-titled cassette: "The Program Is Morally Good." Thanks to transfers and the like, the act's membership has shifted since its unofficial formation in 1978. But everyone who's performed under the Fiddlin' Foresters banner has been a true believer in Forest Service ideals--and because they are frequently invited to perform at Service events in Colorado and other states, the band has become a unique blend of vocation and avocation.

"Where some people have to give up their jobs to have a career in music, we've made it a part of our job," says Young, a thirty-year veteran of the Service. "And if you don't have to get paid from your music, it simplifies things. Every band that ever broke up argued about money, but we don't have money fights, because we don't have any money." Furthermore, he continues, "if we had to make a living doing this, we'd have to play mainstream stuff. We couldn't play obscure music."

The brand of obscurity most favored by the Foresters goes by the name of old-time music, a term coined by Twenties-era record companies to describe the rustic hillbilly airs that initially took root in Appalachia and the American South. The genre's golden age took place during the Thirties, when bands such as Gid Tanner and the Skilletlickers enjoyed widespread popularity. Young, an amiable encyclopedia of roots-music arcana who befriended old-time pioneer Grandpa Jones during a rangering stint in the Ozarks, describes the style as "folk music before Joan Baez got ahold of it. It's traditional rural music of the plain people, and much of it was handed down by word of mouth."

Old-time eventually gave birth to bluegrass, a format with which it shares a great deal. "The instrumentation is similar to bluegrass--banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass," Young divulges. "But we don't play breaks or anything like that. Old-time is an everyday style. Plus it's simpler in that it stays on the beat, and typically, the banjo and the fiddle play the melody together, rather than a bunch of counter parts and taking turns."

To Young, old-time's key instruments have everything to do with its appeal. "You can't be sad listening to a banjo, and you sure can't be sad playing one," he says. As for the fiddle, he notes, "In the Appalachians today, the fiddle is still called 'the devil's walking stick,' because it leads to frolicking, drinking and good times. The devil is supposed to be in that fiddle, and I'm not sure I disagree. If you consider the things a staunch fundamentalist considers bad, like dancing and jumping around and letting your hair down and having a good time--well, the fiddle can sure do it to you." He adds, "We get so many comments when we play these songs. People come up and say, 'By God, now, that's music,' or 'That's what I grew up with--you just took me home.' All those kinds of things. It's plain old fun."

It's also an appropriate type of music for Forest Service workers to play, since its roots run parallel in many ways to those of the Service itself. "We've got two kinds of shows," Young remarks. "One is just entertainment. But we also do educational shows, where we talk about the Forest Service and its history. And the early forestry service and the conservation movement started at around the same time as much of this music, so we can relate to these songs. 'Fire on the Mountain' and 'Mississippi Sawyer'"--two vintage offerings frequently included in the Foresters' sets--"are forestry terms.

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