By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
The decision doesn't look quite so crazy now. Seven years after Andy turned his back on a profitable career, Chris became the first woman in history to win the National Old-Time Fiddle Championship--and a few months ago, her band, Chris Daring and the Whole Nine Yards, featuring Andy and their three children (bassist Erick, 15, fiddler Noel, 17, and guitarist Sarah, 18), wowed the dignitaries at the G-8 Summit. Furthermore, the Darings believe that the group's just-released first CD, Chris Daring and the Whole Nine Yards, will introduce many more listeners to an act Chris refers to as "the Texas fiddle Partridge Family."
At the Darings' Arvada home, music is the defining motif. On walls near a framed needlepoint that reads "This Home Is Owned and Operated by Divine Love and Cannot Fail" are photos of the clan's musicians at several stages of their development, as well as a slew of trophies and mementos from many of Chris's award-winning violin students. (She recently left her position as a music instructor at a local private school in order to teach her eighty pupils at home.) Likewise, music tends to dominate most conversations. For instance, a discussion between Erick and Chris about troubles he encountered in registering at Arvada West High School quickly leads to the subject of the school's pops band, in which Noel and Erick hold membership, and the hazing the teens have taken over the years with regard to the old-fashioned music they play.
"My kids have been getting teased from day one, because it's a dorky thing to play the fiddle," Chris says. "They got a lot of crap for that from kids at school. But Sarah used to tell me, 'You know, Mom, the loser group--they're still losers.'" Sarah, meanwhile, has been gigging regularly with the Whole Nine Yards in addition to appearing live with an area ska outfit.
Erick concedes that he, too, once caught flack from classmates about the project but reports that this is no longer the case. "Now," he claims, his fist raised, "they say, 'You're making money!'"
They are, indeed--and the fact that parents and children are doing it together makes for some unique dynamics. At one point Chris reveals that several songs in the band's set will be dropped soon because of Erick's changing voice. Erick reacts defensively to this announcement, asserting, "Well, we wouldn't have to if you guys could transpose."
After taking a deep breath, Chris sternly advises Erick to go upstairs. As soon as he's gone, she declares, "What a dorky thing to say. He's playing all of four notes, while Noel and I are playing 32--and twin fiddles." She adds, more gently, "The way we do things around here is that if any one of the kids, from a parent/child standpoint, does anything dumb, you've got to climb on them. But ten minutes later, you're fine. You take care of it when it happens and then it's over with, so you don't have to deal with a kid feeling like everybody's mad at him for two weeks. That's counterproductive."
As for the Whole Nine Yards, Chris feels that it has been an undeniably positive influence on her kin. "The music is sort of a celebration of our life. We have a good time together, and it's been really wonderful for our kids and all of the students. We've been able to provide a really good, constructive thing for them to be involved in. These teenagers are not going to get in trouble, and they're not drinking or smoking dope--because they know what that'll do to their fiddle playing."
That the Darings' offspring are so devoted to their craft is a bit ironic. After all, when Chris was a child, she had no interest in the sounds she later learned to love. "My dad was always sticking me in front of the TV and Hee Haw and saying, 'Don't you want to play these hillbilly tunes?'" she remembers. "And I'd say, 'No, Dad, I don't want to be Roy Clark when I grow up.' He even took me to Nashville when I was twelve, stood me out in front of the Ryman and asked, 'Don't you want to play here when you get big?' And I'd say, 'No, Dad, I'm going to play Carnegie Hall.'"
It took many years for her to alter her thinking. As an adult, she continued to be interested in the violin, but her first husband objected to this diversion in no uncertain terms. "He forbade me to play," she recalls with contempt. Rather than going into detail about the reasons that she ultimately left him, she holds out her delicate arms and rotates her hands, causing her wrists to grind like a pair of worn-out gears. "That's from him," she says simply. "It didn't take me long to figure out that was not the way I wanted to live."
Andy's first marriage also ended under unhappy circumstances: His wife died of breast cancer at age 31. Because of these shared tragedies, Andy and Chris realize how lucky they were to have found each other. "We've both had to travel really rocky roads to get where we are," Chris admits. "I think that's part of the reason why we're so thankful, and why we've made choices about our lives that most people would probably think are nuts."
Shortly after the Daring wedding, Chris took up music again--and this time she moved in the direction her father had originally suggested. "I was 25 before I fiddled," she says. "I was home for the first time in my life, staying home with my babies, because I didn't like leaving them with somebody else. But after about eight or nine months of watching the kids, I started to lose it. I thought playing fiddle would be a nice little hobby and it wouldn't require nearly as much practice time as the violin. Boy, was I wrong."
At first the Darings had separate musical agendas. Chris and Andy joined forces with numerous country-flavored combos in the Denver area, while Sarah, Noel and Erick formed their own act, appropriately dubbed I.D. Required. The latter often opened for the elder Darings at casinos and private gigs and frequently upstaged them, much to the delight of their parents. As the kids and their playing matured, Chris and Andy called on them to fill in when members of their ensembles left the fold. Finally, in 1993, Chris says, "I got tired of trying to find other people to play with--especially when I could find great musicians right at home." Shortly thereafter, Chris Daring and the Whole Nine Yards was born.
Many great performances followed, but the Darings speak most fondly of the G-8 Summit event that found them performing for Bill and Hillary Clinton and seven other world leaders at the Fort restaurant. As the brass entered the eatery's dining area, Andy says, "We were playing a song called 'Black & White Rag,' and the Clintons walked right over and stood about two feet in front of us and watched us play. Chris was playing, and she passed the lead on to Noel. Now, this kid doesn't get shook up at anything, but I could tell he was a little worried about blowing it in front of the president."
Later, the First Couple came over to introduce themselves and talk. "When they got to Erick," Andy reports, laughing, "they asked him how old he was--and he couldn't remember at first. He'd had a birthday a few weeks before, but suddenly he couldn't remember if he was fourteen or fifteen."
Noel made a big impression on another leader in attendance. According to Andy, "Any time [Russian president] Boris Yeltsin would walk by, he would stop and listen, especially if Noel was playing, and applaud him." Such enthusiasm didn't wane after he sat down to eat. According to Andy, "During dinner, they were having their conversation, and at one point Chris finished a song and Clinton interrupted the conversation to applaud. A little while later, Noel finished playing a song, and Yeltsin did the same thing." He would repeat this gesture a few more times before the night was through, adding luster to a once-in-a-lifetime memory. "I told the kids that one day you're going to be sitting around with a bunch of musicians and one of them will say, 'I played a gig for 18,000 people at Fiddler's Green once,'" Andy recounts. "And you'll get to say, 'I played this gig for eight guys and their wives. Beat this one!'"
Still, the Darings are not about to rest on their laurels. All of them practice incessantly, trying their best to improve their already impeccable techniques. On this day, Noel is in the kitchen preparing for the state fiddlers' tournament in Summit County (he went on to place third) in the company of Chris, Andy and a pair of family friends, Lisa Barrett and her 79-year-old husband Dick Barrett, a Montana resident who led Tex Ritter's band during the early Fifties. To Dick, the trick to old-time music "is learning to play for people who want to hear it."
As the others laugh, Lisa makes a more serious point: "If there's a rule, I guess it's that you should always be able to tell what tune you're playing at any given time. You can play these measures a variety of ways, but it still needs to be recognizable."
Within these guidelines, however, there's room for infinite permutations. The Whole Nine Yards specializes in progressive old-time, a blend of blues, Texan pre-swing and Appalachian mountain stomp. To illustrate the differences between the Daring approach and a more standard tack, Chris hammers out the familiar barnyard riff at the heart of a vintage traditional, "Boil That Cabbage Down." She turns up her nose as the song screeches to an end. "That's enough of that," she exclaims. "Doesn't that bug the hell out of you? I could teach you that in three minutes."
"And the sad thing," Lisa points out, "is that audiences in this country are so poorly educated about acoustic music that you could buy them with that one thing."
Moments later, Dick demonstrates what more can be done with the song. His version of "Cabbage" is sweet and spritely, exhibiting a joyous, giddy verve that ascends into the upper registers before dipping back into the low end. The sound is a close cousin to Western swing, a fluid, lyrical hybrid that's a far cry from the more redundant, stripped-down style generally associated with old-time. It's no less venerable, though. "You can call this 'progressive' if you want," Dick says. "But I'm older than just about everybody in this room put together, and I heard this kind of music, just the way I played it, all my life."
Thanks to the Darings, the method will live on well into the next century. Before the day is done, Chris calls for Erick to grab his bass and join a kitchen jam session. As the crowd of pickers launches into a bluesy, swinging number, Chris delivers nimble, goosebump-producing notes, a smile on her face, as Noel shadows her with similarly tasty licks. Erick sings a verse, sounding mature and soulful, as the pickers punctuate their parts with shouts of glee and whoops of encouragement. After Chris calls out, "Let's go home," the grinning musicians bring the song to a stately close. Erick offers an apt assessment: "That was awesome."
The expression on Chris's face makes it clear that, in her mind, leaving the nine-to-five world behind was the right move to make. "I'd do it again--twice," Chris confirms. "The money was nice, but all that buys you is a little freedom.
"You get one shot at life," she goes on. "And at ninety, nobody ever says, 'Gosh, I wish I would have worked more.' They say, 'I wish I would have spent more time with my kids,' or 'I wish I would have had the courage to do what I wanted for a living.' So I have no regrets.