With a twinkle in his eye and kick in his step, Bob Matthews led a group of young fiddlers through the Charlie Daniels country classic “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” in the Wyoming Capitol Rotunda on Saturday morning. It was a fitting send off to the 127th Cheyenne Frontier Days, which wrapped up over the weekend.
Many of the songs Matthews and his Cheyenne Fiddle Orchestra play are from another era and not so familiar to its members, mostly made up of high school students.
It’s safe to say most teens today aren’t listening much to tunes like the 19th century folk song “Wabash Cannonball” or “Orange Blossom Special,” which Johnny Cash popularized.
But the fiddlers take pride in what they do and relish their opportunity to carry on a central piece of musical Americana.
“It’s really cool to be able to experience,” said Andra Wagner, Matthews’ granddaughter.
What songs like these also provide the fiddlers is an opportunity to let loose and have a little more fun with their music than what they would typically experience in a symphony setting.
There’s no better place than the Fiddle Orchestra to learn from than Matthews, an accomplished fiddler in his own right who has won numerous fiddle competitions in Wyoming and nationally,
“The purpose … is to perpetuate the old-time style so it doesn’t die,” Matthews said.
Missa Bersabe said one of her favorite things about playing in the Fiddle Orchestra is learning a type of music far different from the classical music she usually focuses on playing. The fiddle is meant to be played with flexibility and flair and is often accompanied by upbeat singing.
“It’s definitely an experience, but it takes a lot more practice than usual,” Bersabe said of the differences between being a violinist and fiddler. “You got to change up your style because classical, it’s more reserved.”
There is an incredible flexibility to the fiddle, which can bend notes and take on the noise of a train horn, horse whinny or footsteps creeping up a set of creaking stairs.
Cora Kang said there also is more opportunity for freestyling in the Fiddle Orchestra than a standard classical ensemble.
“If you miss a section and improv it, no one is going to know,” she said.
The members of the Fiddle Orchestra have only had a few months to learn their music in addition to practicing together once a week. No one receives class credit or other benefits for participating. They do it out of a love for music.
That’s what they get out of the experience, Matthews told the audience of around 50 people gathered at the Rotunda on Saturday.
When Matthews asked where the spectators watching Saturday were from, almost all said they were from out of state. He told Cowboy State Daily that’s encouraging, as it helps grow fiddle music and promotes Wyoming culture.
In addition to the two performances it gave in the rotunda over Frontier Days, the Fiddle Orchestra also played in some of the Frontier Days parades and Chuckwagon Experience. The group also does Christmas caroling around town during the holiday season.
A Love Of The Music
The orchestra has a bit of diversity to its sound. There is a guitar player and a cellist with the fiddlers.
“It’s because I can’t turn down kids who want to be in this and do it,” Matthews explained.
Matthews taught orchestra for 42 years at Cheyenne East High School. Around the time of his retirement in 2018, he decided to start the Fiddle Orchestra so he could stay involved with teaching youth about a music genre he’s so passionate about.
“I just love kids and it was fun to do,” he said.
Matthews has one daughter and two grandchildren who are members of the Fiddle Orchestra. They are all also involved in a family band that played at this year’s Frontier Days pancake breakfast.
His daughter Lori Wagner and grandchildren Andra Wagner and Bobby Matthews said they grew up playing the fiddle, picking up the instrument almost before they could walk.
Bobby Matthews, 16, said he’s been playing so long he barely gets nervous before performing anymore.
“All my grandchildren have been doing it since they were real little,” Matthews said. “It’s almost like second nature for them.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.