This is the first in a series of articles based on interviews conducted by Gary Eller, well-known Idaho musician, Idaho Humanities Council performer, author of numerous booklets on Idaho history and music, song-writer, teacher, banjoist, collector of tales, nuclear chemist, West Virginia native, and former board member of the National Oldtime Fiddlers’, Inc. Mr. Eller is an extraordinary fellow with many talents and a tireless passion for collecting and preserving the stories and songs that give us a glimpse of life in Idaho’s early days. He captures the lives of fascinating characters from Idaho’s past that might otherwise be lost. Whether in word or song, these amazing and sometimes notorious early Idaho citizens live on in his work. In a more modern vein, Gary continues to work on gathering the stories of fiddlers and other musicians from the earlier days of the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest. His interviews with folks whose successful professional careers have been profoundly affected and influenced by their early experiences at Weiser’s fiddle contest focus on the lasting relevance of this event. During the 67 th annual Fiddle Festival, Mr. Eller, along with assistance from a Utah State University folk life intern, will conduct additional interviews with early day fiddle festival and contest participants. These interviews will be available in digitized format for future generations to enjoy.
Based on Gary Eller’s phone interview of Barbara Lamb at her
Nashville home on 6 February 2019
Barbara Lamb – Fiddler Extraordinaire
“Without Weiser, I wouldn’t be the fiddle player I am today.” Without hesitation, this is what Barbara Lamb said when asked what Weiser had meant to her career. That is a powerful statement from one of America’s most renowned fiddlers, who has performed and recorded with some of the top stars in country and bluegrass music. Her recording, composing, producing, touring, teaching, and performance career includes:
- Musical diplomat for the US State Department, playing and teaching American music in Russia, China, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea
- Founding member of the nationally popular band Ranch Romance
- Member of the legendary Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel
- Member of the acclaimed country band Sweethearts of the Rodeo
- Accompanied best-selling author Robert Fulghum (All I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten) on his Literacy Tour, which included Carnegie Hall
- Founder of the popular Nashcamp bluegrass music camps in Nashville
Barbara also has played and recorded with The John Cowan Band, The Laura Love Band, Lyle Lovett, Riders in the Sky, The Time Jumpers, Peter Rowan, Trisha Yearwood, and Tony Trischka. She has recorded eleven solo and band albums (CDs) for Sugar Hill Records and her own label, Lots of Coffee Records. Currently she is a Nashville-based free-lance musician, performing solo and with bands.
Born in Seattle, Barbara’s interest in playing fiddle music began when, at age 12, she saw the local bluegrass band Tall Timber play. Within a year, she was taking fiddle lessons from fiddle icon and Weiser fiddle champion Vivian Williams, the Tall Timber fiddler.
At Vivian’s urging, Barbara made her first trip to Weiser at age 13 with her parents in 1971, when she competed for the first time in 1971 in the junior division. She didn’t make the final cut, finishing 9th. Determined to do better, she went home and learned a hundred fiddle tunes for the 1972 contest, where she finished 4th in the junior division – the youngest to make cut.
By the time Barbara was fifteen, her parents stayed home and Phil and Vivian Williams watched over her at Weiser. Barbara described Phil and Vivian as the “King and Queen of Cool.” They stayed in tents at a campground and went to the vibrant old-time music and alternative music scene at Mortimer’s Island. Barbara also met and became close friends with fiddle greats such as Oklahoman Dick Barrett and Idahoan Dwayne Youngblood, and was blown away by the “Texas wall of sound” provided by strong rhythm players surrounding the fiddlers.
In 1972 at age fourteen, Barbara began teaching fiddle to the brilliant Mark O’Connor, three years her junior. She urged Mark and his family to go to Weiser, and in 1973 coached him through the contest. Barbara says she was a “nervous stage mom” while he competed. Mark placed 2nd in his division. Then Barbara introduced Mark to Texas fiddle legend Benny Thomasen, who then was living in the Pacific Northwest. The next year Mark won the junior and junior-junior divisions, and the flavor of the Weiser fiddle contest was changed forever.
In 1976 at age 18, Barbara finished 10th in the Grand National category at Weiser. She says she was thrilled to finish that high. She judged in 1977, her last trip to Weiser
After 1977, Barbara got a job in Seattle and never got back to Weiser. However, she learned to be an outstanding bluegrass fiddler, hanging out with Phil and Vivian Williams and other bluegrassers from Seattle and California and twin fiddling with Vivian at shows. Barbara’s conversion from being a very successful contest fiddler to being a good bluegrass fiddler was not easy, as she nicely describes at this website: http://barbaralamb.net/
For ten years, Barbara was busy making a traditional living but never tired of fiddling. She long had yearned to be a Nashville musician and decided if she didn’t make the move before she was forty, it would never happen. And so, on February 3, 1994, at age 35, she quit her day job, packed her belongings in a van and drove to Nashville, arriving on February 8. The very next day she got a job playing fiddle with the nationally popular country band Sweethearts of Rodeo. And before long, she had a mortgage to buy her own house. Barbara laughingly said that in Nashville, “Being a fiddler, you can always get money.” There was no stigma in Nashville in being a professional musician!
Only six months later, Barbara moved to Austin, Texas, and joined the legendary western swing band Asleep At The Wheel. After a year and a half, and recording a Grammy-winning album with that band, Barbara left the tour bus life in Texas, returned to Nashville and co-founded the Nashcamp bluegrass music camps, which still are going more than twenty years later. Since tiring of the life of a full-time road band member, she has stayed closer to home, making her living as a teacher, record producer, and freelance musician. Along the way, Barbara has played with many famous musicians, as noted above.
In retrospect, Barbara said that when she was a young fiddler, Weiser always was the high point of the year, something she dreamed about. She said it was like going to a carnival, fondly remembering the All-American small-town atmosphere with pancake breakfasts, yard sales, parades, martinis at the Country Club – all wonderful memories. Barbara says she’d really like to figure out how to come back to Weiser. Unfortunately, as a professional Nashville-based fiddler, the lucrative festival scene in mid-June has made it impossible for her to return to fiddle week. The Weiser fiddle community hopes that someday circumstances will allow her to return.