The 15-year-old was jamming with other musicians at a music festival, when a stranger carrying an old fiddle approached his mother, Robin Netherton.
“He said, ‘I got this at auction and came here to sell it, but I heard your kid play and I want him to have it.’ He stuck it in my hands and vanished,” said Robin, of Creve Coeur. “He didn’t care that I didn’t even know who he was."
Roger, a junior at , has been playing fiddle barely four years, but people assume he's an old pro.
“People all think he’s played since he was 6 or 7 years old,” Robin said. “I hear from the other fiddlers that he plays like a 70-year-old who’s been playing since he was a kid.”
The teen plays a music style that was a forerunner to bluegrass. It’s called old time. He picked it up when his mother brought him to a free, open jam session Folk School of St. Louis in Maplewood.
Striking a chord
Roger placed third in the 2011 Old Time Fiddle Championship at the renowned Walnut Valley Festival in Kansas in the fall. He played the fiddle given to him by the stranger. Along with a trophy, he won a Heinrich Gill violin worth more than $2,000.
Renowned musicians such as Grammy award-winning fiddlers Alison Krauss and Mark O'Connor have competed at the Winfield festival, now in its 40th year.
“Some people play their whole lives but they don’t ever quite get the style of playing down,” said Geoff Seitz, an renowned local old time fiddler and owner of Seitz Violins in St. Louis.
Following his ears
“Roger has a knack for picking up the style,” Seitz said. “All of us who have been in this a while agree that Roger is something special.”
It was at the Winfield festival where Roger first took interest in playing the fiddle. He had been playing the piano “for as long as I can remember,” Robin said. But when Roger heard bluegrass music at the festival, he gave up the piano to dedicate his time to the fiddle.
“I went to the bluegrass room and didn’t know anything they were playing,” Roger said. “But I heard them playing something I knew in the old time jam.”
He followed his ears to the old time room, and soon he was hooked.
“Frankenstein of an instrument”
Roger uses the Heinrich Gill violin he won in Winfield in orchestra at Pattonville. But he has genuine affection for his fiddle, the instrument the stranger thrust into his mother’s hands, and he uses it whenever he fiddles.
They brought the fiddle to Seitz, who told them that only the back was original to the fiddle, a Civil War era import from Klingenthal, Germany.
“Every other piece on it has been replaced, probably in somebody’s barn or home shop by hand, by nonprofessionals,” Robin said. “There wasn’t a standard measurement left on it. It’s all local Appalachian woods. It’s out of Kentucky and was probably imported for somebody who plays fiddle, the same way Roger plays now.”
Parts of the fiddle look crudely crafted, exactly as though a farmer attempted to rebuild it in his barn.
Seitz said, “It has a good tone. You get a certain neat sound from it. But violins like these have limits to them.”
He said at some point, Roger may want to pick up a more refined instrument. But that doesn’t seem to be anytime soon.
Robin said a colleague of Seitz’s “took a look at this Frankenstein of an instrument and said, ‘This will never be a proper violin.’”
Roger said, “I don’t need a violin. I need a fiddle.”
When Roger plays old time fiddle, the sound is infectious. Toes begin tapping and hands itch to clap along.
“The natural response to old time music is dancing,” Seitz said.
Some of Roger’s affection for the imperfect instrument may come from the finger grooves worn in it by a century and a half of fiddlers. His fingers slide easily into the grooves as he plays, tying him back to the roots of old time music and old time fiddlers.
“It has a different sound. This is a very unique fiddle that probably has a million things wrong with it, but that’s what makes it so great,” Roger said.
Playing by ear
Whenever someone asks Rober the difference between a violin and a fiddle—which basically are the same instruments—he usually responds with a joke.
His favorite is, “A fiddle has an extra string so you can hang it on the wall.”
There are a few differences. While violins typically use synthetic strings, a fiddler will use steel strings. In an orchestral setting, a violin has to blend with other instruments, so it needs good resonance. A fiddle needs a sharp, almost scratchy sound, Roger said.
The fiddle is imprecise and played by feel, just like old time music itself.
“You don’t want to learn an old time tune out of a book because it’ll be wrong. Everybody plays it differently. If you learn it from a book, you’ll play it the same way every time,” Roger said.
He knows about 150 old time tunes by heart, such as "Turkey in the Straw" or "Arkansas Traveler." He can play many more tunes once someone else starts them, he said.
Following the fiddler
Roger often plays gigs around his community, or jams at the Folk School in Maplewood. Other times, he and a few other players head out to The Loop in University City to play.
“You see everything from grandparents to parents with small children, and these hip-hop kids,” Robin said. “They come down the street dancing to this stuff because you can hear it a block away.”
She said The Loop is a great place for musicians.
“They didn’t come to hear you play, when they toss in a buck or two, it’s because they choose to and it’s a really big compliment to a player,” Robin said. “But he doesn’t get as many tips now that he’s getting bigger.”
Roger has always been small for his age. He also born near the start of the school year, so he’s always been younger than most kids in his class. Plus, he skipped a year through Pattonville’s Program for Exceptionally Gifted Students (PEGS).
“In old time, the fiddler is the lead, the only lead,” Robin said. “The fiddler decides what the tune is going to be, and everyone else follows. They may be four or five times his age, but they follow him.”
Roger said, “The fiddle is the melody instrument in old time. You can’t have a dance without the fiddle.”
Old time is Roger’s element. While he plays his part Old Country, part Appalachian fiddle, it’s only natural that we dance.
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