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Fiddling About

The Fiddlin' Foresters are at home on the range.

"The first rangers could all shoot and ride--and I can imagine them also playing fiddle and banjo and singing around the campfire at night, for the same reasons we do. And they played some of these same songs."

In fact, the most recent number the Foresters play is the Smokey the Bear theme, which was penned in 1952. It's an unsophisticated little ditty, but to Leche, it's one of the most meaningful in the Foresters' repertoire. "I just talked to 75 kindergarten kids, and I taught them that song," she reveals. "And when I sang it to the kids for the first time before teaching it to them, all the teachers sang it with me--they all knew it. It bridges gaps."

Regional forester Elizabeth Estill, who oversees the work of Leche, Young, Wagner and Maxwell, believes that performances like this one demonstrate why the group is so valuable an adjunct to the Forest Service. "Individually, they all contribute through their regular jobs, and they do super work," she insists. "But on top of that, doing the Fiddlin' Foresters thing is just an added bonus and a terrific public-relations tool for us." In her view, "You've almost got to have a hook to get an audience to listen to you--and they provide that hook. They're a unique and different way for us to get an audience that we normally might not reach."

Young concurs. "We're a morale booster for the Forest Service--and we put a face on the faceless bureaucratic establishment. Keep in mind, we're the feds. We're government employees, which means we're right down there with journalists, used car salesmen and lawyers. We're part of that government that we all like to complain about."

When crowds catch a Foresters show, however, Young believes that they get an opportunity to view the Forest Service from a new perspective. "We're a bunch of people who are having fun, doing something that requires some talent and work, and we're real people. People can see that. We think that's an important thing." During the shutdown of the federal government a couple of years back, Young acknowledges, such sentiments seldom occurred to the average citizen. "Some people said, 'Good. They ought to just stay home.' Well, that was a real hard time for us, because we think what we do is a very important job. It's important for the health of this country, for the environment and for the economy. So we felt like nobody knew who we were or what we do."

At a recent show in Broomfield, an appreciative audience found out. The setting was perfect: Rather than appearing in a bar under hot lights in a fog of cigarette smoke, the Foresters performed under the clear blue sky near enough to a series of horse stables that the aroma of manure was easily discernible. (Fortunately, the Fiddlers have experience playing under such circumstances: They provided musical accompaniment for the appearance of a Forest Service mule team at the Great Western Stock Show last year.)

With green pastures spreading out before them and the snowcapped Rockies in the distance, the players presented a delicious array of tunes that ranged from giddy rousers like "Cluck Old Hen" and "You Ain't Talkin' to Me" to tearjerkers such as the stirring "Vacant Chair," which features lush harmonies (all the members sing) and Young's lonesome harmonica playing. "We think that's a real pretty song," Young tells the crowd, in a whopping understatement. Just as memorable were "Banks of the Ohio," a haunting standard that finds the Fiddlers wrapping their angelic voices around a grisly tale of love turned to murder--a frequent old-time motif--and poignant numbers of the West like "Song of Wyoming."

Throughout the set, the effusive Young hooted and hollered in a gloriously rough-hewn voice and danced an occasional jig between fiddle parts. Meanwhile, Maxwell knocked out an earthy claw-hammer-style banjo, McFarland delivered tasty acoustic guitar, Wagner provided steady bass-playing and Leche contributed dependable strumming and gutsy vocals that lent heavenly grit to the whole affair.

By the time the Fiddlers closed with a rendition of "Mountain Dew," those in attendance were clapping along with great fervor--a credit both to the Fiddlers themselves and to the material they choose. "There's a reason 'Mountain Dew' has been around for so many years," Young states. "Because it's simple, it's a good tune, and you can stomp your feet to it. And it's about a subject, moonshine, that's sort of romantic, too. Plus it's a song that everybody can play. It's not Yanni or anything like that. That's why these tunes have gone so far and wide. They've been passed down like a good joke."

The Foresters are doing their bit to keep these songs circulating--and if the reaction they received at a performance in Estes Park earlier this year is any indication, their efforts are appreciated by their peers. The band was invited to play at a meeting of district rangers from the five states that make up the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region--a group that, in Leche's words, "could make us or break us if they didn't like us." Making the musicians' mission even more difficult were the circumstances of the show. The Foresters were slated to perform on the last day of an intensive, week-long session of policy-and-practice meetings, and Leche recalls that her colleagues "were tired and stressed out--and they'd been away from home for a week. A lot of them didn't want to even be there."

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