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Jim Brunson of Conway, Ark., leads a group in song. Campers and musicians occupied the campus of Athens State University in preparation for the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention on Friday.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Jim Brunson of Conway, Ark., leads a group in song. Campers and musicians occupied the campus of Athens State University in preparation for the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention on Friday.

They're ready
to jam

Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention gets under way Friday

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

ATHENS — The mournful melodies of bluegrass resonated in the Walker County girl's ears, but it was the glint of the sun on a crochet needle that snared 12-year-old Savannah Busby's attention.

Shade-tree pickin' was under way Thursday evening amongst the campers at Athens State University, home of the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention.

A little crocheting

But it was a woman with thread who awed Savannah.

Sitting in a lawn chair beyond the circle of pickers was 76-year-old Agnes Ritter of Rogersville, crocheting a baby-doll blanket with nimble fingers and a needle.

Savannah, with grandmother Shelia Manasco in tow, shyly approached Ritter.

Savannah watched and listened as Ritter explained how to wrap the thread around the needle and pull it to make the chains that would link and become a blanket.

"A girl at school taught her to make chains with thread at school, but only with her fingers," Manasco said as Savannah watched Ritter create loops with the pastel thread. "She's never seen anyone do it with a needle."

Ritter learned to crochet from her mother when she was 12 or 13 years old.

"The first thing I ever made was a doily out of cotton thread because that's all we had," Ritter said.

Her 95-year-old mother still crochets, and the two often make lap rugs that they distribute at nursing homes.

"I can't remember ever selling anything I've made," Ritter said. "It relaxes me to do it, and I give the items away as gifts."

She's made scarves for nurses and afghans for her grandchildren in their high schools' colors.

And on Thursday, she shared her time and knowledge with Savannah.

"I want to learn to do that," Savannah said. "What she's making looks so pretty."

Teaching music

As one generation influenced another with crocheting, one generation taught another in music.

Jim Brunson, a few days shy of 79, held his 150-year-old fiddle up to the sun so that the light would glint off names carved into the back.

"The light has to hit it just right so you can see them, they've been varnished over so much," he said. "I bought it at an estate auction, and I think they might be the names of conservatory students who played on it."

Brunson used the fiddle to explain to the Hallmark Sisters group of Muscle Shoals what musicians should look for to get a mellow sound from the instrument.

The sisters — Vera Vandiver, Stella Blackburn and Vada Landers, who use their maiden name for their group name — came Thursday to jam with the campers.

There were 12 siblings among the Hallmarks, and all but two learned to play instruments.

"Someone asked our dad how he got all of us to play, and he said he just bought a bunch of instruments, put them in the back room and told us not to touch them," Blackburn said.

Brunson played the sisters' fiddles and told them what was wrong with the design and how they needed to loosen their bows to keep the bows from bouncing on the strings.

"I can blame any bad playing on my instrument now," joked Landers.

The sisters don't compete but play for fun.

"And it helps keep the sisters together," Blackburn said.

Fun pickin' is what brought the musicians — and self-proclaimed grinners like Ritter, who can't play — to Athens as early as a week ago.

The official start for Fiddlers is Friday, and events continue through Saturday.

Craft booths will open Friday morning, and jam sessions will erupt sporadically throughout the day.

Contests will begin at 7 p.m. Friday and resume Saturday at 8:30 a.m. Tickets are $7 for Friday, $10 for Saturday and $15 for both days. They are available at the gate. Children 12 and under get in free with a parent.

Musical comedian Mike Snider will perform Friday at 4 and 7 p.m.

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