Since 1934 the Texas Fiddlers Contest and Reunion (often also called the Athens Old Fiddlers Contest and Reunion or simply the Old Fiddlers Contest and Reunion) has been held on the Henderson County courthouse lawn in Athens, Texas. One of the oldest, continuously-running fiddler’s contests in the country, the contest is produced by the Texas Fiddlers Association and is devoted to the preservation of the style of music that once brought courage to starving troops at Valley Forge and continues to entertain millions today. The Texas Fiddlers Contest and Reunion provides opportunities for fiddling friends to catch up with one another at the reunion, while the contest provides them with a chance to showcase their talents.
The Texas Fiddlers Contest and Reunion originally began in 1932 as a climax to a farmer’s study course. A fiddle is an early version of the violin, a medieval instrument with a long neck, rounded shape, and three to five strings with tuning pegs to loosen or tighten the strings. This first fiddler’s contest was held in Bethel, Texas, with fourteen different string bands, and the event attracted an estimated 900 people. After the success of the contest in Bethel, civic leaders of Athens conspired together to lure the festival away from Bethel with promises of larger crowds and prizes. In 1933 the fiddlers contest was staged at Athens High School. Beginning in 1934 and continuing into the 2010s, the contest has been held on the Henderson County courthouse square. In 1941 attendance swelled to an estimated 50,000.
The fiddler’s contest is the main attraction of the event, with music consisting of bluegrass, polka, and country. Held the last Friday of May each year, the competition is broken down into five divisions: ages 18 and under, ages 19 to 29, ages 30 to 65, ages 66 and above, and an open division for all ages, with five prizes awarded to each division. Competitors are judged based on their bowing techniques, tune, tempo, and most importantly, how closely their sound approximates old-time fiddle music. A playoff occurs at the end of the day between the first place winners of each division. The winner of the playoff is crowned the grand champion. Additionally, in 2012 the event also introduced an acoustic guitar contest open to all ages. Those not participating in the contest set up blankets and lawn chairs and enjoy listening to the music and reminiscing with old acquaintances. Concession and novelty stands line the sidewalks, and a carnival is set up off the square. In the evening after the contest, a professional country western band plays for a street dance.