If you aren’t already familiar with Megan Lynch Chowning, then I’m delighted to introduce you! She’s a six-time national fiddle champion, touring musician, recording artist, teacher, singer, and flatfooter. She’s toured with a host of top-tier country and bluegrass acts, and has come to Bellingham several times to teach workshops. Originally from Redding, California, she now lives in Nashville, where she directs her own FiddleStar Youth and Adult Fiddle Camps.
Also? She recently introduced me to the Instagram hashtag #fiddlerswhocook, which is pretty much my favorite.
I’m delighted she agreed to let me interview her for you guys! She’s super genuine and really knows her stuff. Keep reading!
KB: What’s your story? How did you get into fiddling in the first place?
MLC: My kindergarten teacher, Diane Knapik, sent a note a home to my mom explaining that because I already knew how to read that I was getting bored in class and that maybe I’d be interested in joining the school’s string program. (Ah, music programs in the school – now the unicorn of public education…) Through an amazing stroke of good fortune, the teacher was an inspiring, broad-minded Doctor of Education whose own daughter had just won the Grand Masters Fiddler Championship in Nashville that summer – the first woman and youngest ever to do so. We learned Minuet in G and then Old Joe Clark. And then maybe Gavotte followed by Arkansas Traveler. It was an incredible start. And we’re still good friends with that kindergarten teacher, as you can imagine.
KB: You’re very active in both the Texas style and bluegrass worlds. How would you describe the relationship between these genres?
MLC: There are certainly some similarities but probably more differences between Texas style and bluegrass. I really enjoy doing both – they speak to both sides of my personality.
Texas style is a genre borne of old-time tunes combined with swing guitar playing which resulted in different, bluesier, jazzier note choices within the traditional tunes. Texas style fiddling doesn’t really exist without the proper guitar (and/or piano, and/or bass) accompaniment. When you put swing chords behind old-time tunes like, say Arkansas Traveler or Cripple Creek, it changes the way you, as a fiddler, decided what notes to play. The chords don’t just have the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of the scale, as normal chords do. They might include the 2nd, or flat 7th, or 6th notes in the scale and therefore your ear grabs those sounds and translates them into improvisations that expand the tunes into what we now know as Texas style versions of the tunes. However, as a jam/group activity, Texas style is very fiddle-centric, in the sense that almost always, you’ll have just one fiddle in a jam, playing tunes as long as the fiddler chooses, with several rhythm guitar players and maybe a bass player and/or tenor guitar player in the mix. The fiddler is the only melody player in the group.
Bluegrass is a different animal, both musically and systematically. Chords are more standard. Not a lot of swing chords, certainly, and note choices are more based on standard one, three, five, chord notes. Everyone in the jam or band has the opportunity to take a solo/lead/break during the song. And of course there is a singer to contend with, and a fiddler has to focus a lot of time on learning how to support a vocalist.
Texas style is my background, but bluegrass has been so good for me. Texas style taught me how to play the fiddle, but bluegrass taught me to play music. I can’t imagine not having both in my life.
KB: How does your Texas style background inform your work in other genres?
MLC: Texas style has trained my ear to accept all kinds of note possibilities and that has been so beneficial to hearing the subtleties of all the other genres I love. I think that the weird mix of old-time and jazz that is Texas style prepared me to be open to hearing what works in so many other genres. It was a great way to start my fiddling career.
KB: As a California native, how do you think about the role of non-Southerners in promulgating Southern musical traditions? What have your experiences been collaborating with Southern bluegrass and Texas style players?
MLC: I think we live in a global fiddling society these days and although there is some notice of people’s backgrounds when it comes to their musical journeys, I think it’s less obvious or relevant than it used to be. I worried about it when I moved to Nashville – oh here comes the California girl to play bluegrass, what does she know?! – but I have found that, generally speaking, it hasn’t been an issue. Learn your history, listen to the masters, and as we say down here, cut your gig. That’s all that matters.
Side note though: weirdly enough, I have noticed that the further you get away from the birthplace of the music, the more protective people seem to be about the tradition. In California, as an example, the bluegrass community is really committed to playing what they see as “real bluegrass” and I have seen some venom directed at anyone who dares to stray from the Bill Monroe path. But in Kentucky, and Virginia, and North Carolina etc. people are quite welcoming to the evolution of the music. Maybe it’s easier to let go when you have always been surrounded by, and had the opportunity to play, bluegrass music. People who converted later in life always seem to be more intense!
Overall though, I think we should all have an opportunity to play the music that moves us. It’s important to be respectful and as knowledgable about the history and traditions as we can, and then go for it!
KB: How would you describe the relationship between Texas style fiddling and the contest circuit?
MLC: Ugh. Yes, well. It’s two different styles of music at this point. Contest fiddling has its roots in Texas style but contest fiddling has become its own thing. There are overlaps, but the time limits and sequestered judging have created an entirely new set of priorities. Contest fiddling is more technical, more precise, and generally more planned in advance. Texas style fiddling is more raw, more improvisational, and the tempos are generally slower. I like them both. Forgive me.
KB: What’s it like to judge a contest? What do you listen for?
MLC: It really depends on the contest and whether the judging is sequestered or we’re sitting out front watching the fiddlers play. Overall though, I’m listening for a solid groove – a feel of rhythmic mastery where the fiddler and guitar player are locked in together and making real music. But that’s not all. I also really care about whether or not the fiddler is playing in tune and making musical choices within the tunes. Sequestered judging tends to make me focus even more on tone. When you can’t see the fiddler and the speaker is just blaring the fiddle right at your head and you’ve been sitting there all day with only a donut and a Diet Coke, a beautiful tone can get really important really fast. But I take issue with the idea with you can’t have it all, when it comes to playing the fiddle. Being super cool and rhythmic doesn’t preclude you from being in tune and having sweet tone. Strive for great music, all the way around!
In terms of “what it’s like”, I can only say that things never sound like you expect, and you are constantly surprised by what you think and how you perceive someone’s playing. I think that if you’re doing it right, you’re constantly second guessing yourself and trying to make sure that your points reflect what you really feel. And you can only hope you’re doing the whole process justice. As a teacher, you know how hard everyone works to get there and you never want to disrespect that. When I see other judges giving the exact same score for every category for every tune or putting a score down before a tune is over, or not writing comments, especially for the little ones, I get so frustrated! What is the point of the whole thing if you’re not getting honest feedback and advice for improvement? There are tons of contests, especially out here in the Southeast, where score sheets aren’t given out to the contestants. How weird is that? We’re supposed to be getting something useful out of this incredibly stressful, challenging experience.
KB: What’s your #1 piece of advice for brand new fiddlers?
MLC: It’s two fold. I can never pick just one thing… First, have heroes. Identify fiddlers who inspire you with their playing and listen to them constantly. You don’t know how to get better if you don’t know what to shoot for. Second, get out and play, every chance you get. Even if you feel that you’re going to be the worst player in the room or that you don’t know the first thing about the first thing, go anyway. Chop, play some long bows, squeak your way through Old Joe Clark, whatever you can do. But get out there. Take notes about what happened there and work on those things and try to incorporate at least one new thing the next time. That’s how you get better!
KB: What’s your #1 piece of advice for more experienced fiddlers who are just getting started with jamming?
MLC: See above… But more specifically, get out in the world and just experience a bunch of jams. Even if you don’t play in the beginning, you have to go and get a sense of how things work. Jams are just musical conversations and the best way to learn how to converse is by standing around with a bunch of people and listening to how they talk to one another and then slowly but surely, start jumping in and contributing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But you learn a little every time and pretty soon you find that you can talk to just about anyone about just about anything. Don’t get intimidated by a bunch of stuff about “jam rules”. Those things are meant to be helpful but more than anything, they’re divisive and scary. Just watch, observe, and be respectful. Ask questions and try. Everyone will appreciate that.
KB: What’s your pet peeve musically?
MLC: Not listening. People who aren’t listening in a jam or band setting are just taking from the music, not contributing.
KB: What do you think is the hardest thing about learning music?
MLC: Getting out of our own way. Especially as adults, we over think most everything. Not to mention the proliferation of forums and internet sites where people get together, virtually speaking, and talk about playing music. More playing music, less talking about playing music!
KB: What’s going on in the FiddleStar world that we should know about?
MLC: The most important thing I’m doing lately is, with my husband Adam, working on creating a real community of music learners through our Nashville Acoustic Camps. Throughout the year we open our home to players of all levels and of many different instruments and styles and help them improve their skills by connecting them with kind, patient teachers. And it all happens in Nashville, TN, where music is just in the air. It’s magical and I’m really lucky.
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Bluegrass vs. other genres: what makes it bluegrass?
Salt Creek: 1, Kat: 0, and what you can learn from my epic fail.
What to play when you don’t know what to play.