Fiddling About

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.

"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."

Nonetheless, the Foresters wowed their fellow rangers, earning several standing ovations. "It was probably the most spiritually connecting experience for the band," Maxwell says, "because here we were, playing for the folks who touch the land--who represent what the Forest Service is all about."

At the conclusion of the band's set, the Foresters played "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and the response from the crowd came as a huge surprise to the bandmates. "They joined hands and made a big circle and started circling around the room while singing the song," Maxwell remembers. "It ended up as one big ol' family.


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