Calvin Vollrath. Not a name on everyone's lips, at least not on the eastern side of the Atlantic. On the one hand, that's not surprising: Calvin doesn't have a marketing or distribution machine at his disposal, and most of his activities are confined to Canada, although he is a regular visitor to Europe and has even toured the Shetland Islands. On the other hand, how many unknown fiddlers have over 30 albums and 250 tunes to their credit?
The Vollrath style is an amalgam of country and old-time fiddling, Texas swing and Yankee stomp, plus a big helping of Canadian musical stew Scots, Irish, French and Scandinavian flavours with a hint of native American or Metis spice. From reels to rags, polkas to waltzes, Calvin does it all with skill and spirit.
I first encountered Calvin's name when he was mentioned as a major influence by young Canadian fiddle star Samantha Robichaud. I did a bit of digging on the Internet, and decided it was time we all knew a lot more about this neglected prodigy. Finding a window in the Vollrath schedule (as they say in Canada) wasn't easy, but we managed to arrange a virtual interview. It went something like this:
AM - Tell us a bit about your background.
CV - I was born and raised in Edmonton Alberta, Canada. I am the youngest of 7 children. My father, Art 'Lefty' Vollrath was a fiddler. From as early as I can remember I wanted to be a fiddler. I started at the age of 8 on a half size fiddle. My dad was not a trained musician but played very well. He wanted me to be trained so they sent me for lessons, which I didn't like and quit soon after. I wanted to play like my dad. So I just play by ear. I don't read music.
AM - What were your main influences when you were learning the fiddle? Were there many fiddlers around?
CV - My dad was my main influence, for sure, but we had records of Don Messer, Andy Dejarlis, Graham Townsend, Al Cherny and others. I would learn all the tunes on their records. I also learned how to play guitar and would chord for my dad. My dad played for dances so his music had a ton of feel to it. That's what I grew up with. I didn't realize then the feeling he put into it. I just thought everybody did that. But then you start hearing some others that didn't quite make your feet tap. There was something missing. All the notes might have been there but not as exciting as I was used to. So that was my root. Then I started playing in Country Music bands. Playing back-up fiddle. Lots of Western Swing and country shuffles. In this music I learned to improvise. This is when I started composing my own tunes. The Old Time style, like I grew up with, but adding some different chord patterns. Lots of the tunes we grew up with were 2 or 3 chord tunes. Now I put some diminished and augmented notes into the tunes. But I still try to keep the tradition of the dance feel.
AM - What was the fiddle scene like in Alberta when you were learning?
CV - I started fiddling in 1968 at 8 years old. I never saw any other fiddlers until 1974 when I went to my first fiddle contest. There had to be around 50 fiddlers there. I didn't know a soul. There was one fiddler that was very kind to the new kid on the block. His name was Mel Bedard. I think he finished 2nd. The other fiddlers didn't pay much attention to me. I thought they were all great fiddlers, but not very warm in the hospitality department. Oh well, I was just 13 years of age then. Then we started to go to many contests and started to get to know the other fiddlers. They were all older than I was. I was pretty much the only junior. Then a few years after that a few more kids started getting into the fiddle. Fiddlers all played what was called the Don Messer style. He had a TV Show in Canada for many years on CBC and became a household name and that was the Old Time dancing style of fiddling. That's what we were exposed to and that's what they wanted to hear at fiddle contests. A Waltz, Jig and a Reel. After getting to know the fiddlers much better, I found some were Ukrainian, Scottish, Irish, French, Metis and other descents as well, and they played other kinds of tunes as well. Also some fiddlers grew up listening to American fiddlers. Dale Potter, for example. Probably the first fiddler to play so many double stops. He was a hero to many. Tommy Jackson also influenced some fiddlers in our area. I'm not really sure how fiddlers found out about these American fiddlers because we didn't see them on TV or hear them on radio. I guess they found records of them in some stores and heard the different style that was being played and liked it. I don't think any of the fiddlers in Alberta made their living playing the fiddle, but most of them played in a band and played dances on the week-ends.
AM - How healthy is Alberta fiddling nowadays? Who else is on the scene?
CV - Fiddling is in a resurgence now, I believe. In 1988 I started teaching at the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp. It was the first fiddle camp in Canada. Other fiddle camps have been spawned all over the country now from there. Alberta has two fiddle camps now, I believe, and other acoustic music camps as well. So there's lots of opportunity for young fiddlers. On the professional side, I can probably think of six fiddlers that make their living playing the fiddle. My nephew is one of them. Tyler Vollrath plays in a country band with an up and coming new country artist. So he's not playing much fiddle music, but as a part of a band. Bruce Blair plays with a French Canadian Band backing up a singer. John Calverly plays for a dance group that does international folk dances. Other fiddlers just teach and play dances on weekends and make a living at that. There are lots of bluegrass festivals, country festivals and folk festivals over here, so I would say things are quite healthy. Just to go back to the Emma Lake camp, we had a teacher this year from Inverness, Scotland. His name is Paddy Duncan. What a great player he is. The fiddlers really liked him.
AM - What are your musical influences now?
CV - I still like to listen to fiddle music. Now it's just broader, cause there are so many styles. I love to put on the old records of the fiddlers I grew up listening to. I got to be a big fan of Western Swing music, so I listen to Johnny Gimble from Texas, Wade Ray and Tommy Jackson who played with Ray Price. Also Stephan Grappelli, & Joe Venutti. I just love the steel guitar. Probably my favorite musician is a steel player by the name of Buddy Emmons from Nashville. I try to do things that he does. With a steel guitar, they are bending notes all the time and play wonderful double stops. Double stops are where you play two strings at once. I do alot of double stops and try to create steel guitar type sounds. I picked up a CD of a fiddler while we played in the Shetland Islands last year, by the name of Gordon Gunn. Amazing!! Also the music played at the Shetland dances was just wonderful. I have some CDs of that as well that I listen to.
AM - Yes, I know you were in Shetland last year, but you aren't yet well known on the east side of the pond. Why do you think that is?
CV - Well I never hooked up with a distributor to get my CDs out to the world. I've pretty much done it myself. Selling off stage and just meeting people throughout the country and then a store would call from a certain community, can I get your recording? So I'd sell them some. I never had a manager or an agent or anyone promoting me so it takes a bit longer to get the word out. Maybe it makes my career last longer. I've seen some that get thrown in the spotlight and a couple of years later you don't hear of them any more. Now I sell my products on the Internet and that's how they discovered me in the Shetlands. Ivor Scollay purchased a CD of a Canadian fiddler and read the liner notes and they mentioned that I was their hero. Well he'd never heard of me, so he searched the Internet until he found me. Bought a shwack of CDs and became a big fan and said you have to come and play here. He's an accordion player. No booking agent. But he put it all together and we tied it into a tour we were doing in the Scandinavian countries. We just loved the Shetlands and they seem to have taken to our music as well. We did the Robbie Shepherd show on BBC Radio Scotland when we were there as well. So that's how the word gets out. I've had the website www.calvinvollrath.com up and running for about 3 years now. It's amazing how many people check it out. I'm getting e-mails from folks every day saying they checked out my website and liked it. I'm not sure it has made a difference in bookings, but selling on the Internet has been quite good. Now we actually have it so you can purchase online. It's all advertising, I guess.
AM - The Shetlanders have a taste for North American music, particularly the jazzier side of old-time fiddling, so I'm not surprised they took to your music. How did the tour go?
CV - We played in Lerwick on the first night, at the Fiddle & Accordion Club. We heard a few different fiddle groups there. I can't remember the names of the groups but they were led by Margaret Scollay. They were terrific. Also a fiddler by the name of Bryan Gear. Absolutely brilliant. We heard the Cullivoe Band every night as well. They played for a dance after our show. Bryan played fiddle in this band. Ivor Scollay & Gordon Jamieson on the accordions, and a drummer and a piano player. Our second night we played in Weisdale. Our third night was in Cullivoe on the island of Yell, and our last concert was in Lerwick again at the theatre there. Shetland was just an amazing trip for us. I was worried about them accepting my kind of music, but they welcomed us with open arms. Their love of fiddle music is unbelievable. They were so open to new tunes and to improvising and swing music. I had no idea that would happen. I expected traditional fans telling me I was playing it all wrong. Was I ever wrong. They were so open minded to new stuff. I think I got 4 encores in Cullivoe. There were many tears when we left Shetland. We were sitting on the plane leaving to fly back to Aberdeen and I had tears in my eyes. I looked at my wife, who stepdances in the French Canadian tradition: she was crying. I looked over at my guitar player: he was wiping away tears. It really touched us to play for those folks. What could be better than playing for people that like your music?
AM - You're a prolific composer of tunes. Where does your inspiration come from?
CV - When we travel to different places, and they have a different style of music, I find I write tunes in that style. For instance, I played in Quebec a few years ago. They have a French Canadian style of fiddling. Very rhythmical. I came home and wrote 10 tunes like that. Most of the tunes just come to your head. Driving, walking, golfing, whatever. I always have tunes going through my head. Then I play them and refine them. Also I write tunes for fiddle fans. They don't play but I know what they like. I see their reactions to certain tunes. So when I write a tune, I have a pretty good idea who it's for. I was commissioned to write a tune for the Fiddles of the World Conference in Halifax a few years ago. I tried to write a tune that all could play, and have many types of influences in it. They accepted it and it was played by the 750 fiddlers in attendance. What an honour that was. Mark O'Connor, Natalie McMaster, Alasdair Fraser, Byron Berline, and many others. That was a good feeling to hear all these folks playing my tune
AM - How do you maintain an output of 5 or 6 recordings a year?
CV - I have my own studio so I record when I feel like it. For the past number of years I had enough new tunes for 2 new CDs each year, and then I would record some old traditional, gospel, country, or a house party. I record on a Roland VS 1680. This is a digital hard drive recorder. I start the recording process by bringing in my piano player. The arrangements are on the fly. We play the tune with the fiddle and piano. Usually with a click track. Then we go back and listen. This is when I hear let's change this chord, or add some syncopation here or whatever and keep on going. Then when we have the piano done and are happy with the arrangement we move to the next tune. Some of the more old-timey tunes might not need any fixing. Maybe we nailed it the first time and that's just fine. Some we will work a few hours at before getting what we want. So each song goes through this process. When we've done all the tunes, and there have been times when we recorded 80 tunes in a 4-day period, then the piano player goes home. I then grab my bass guitar, and start with the first tune and play exactly what the piano player played with his left hand. This will take me between 10 minutes and half an hour, depending on the difficulty on the tune. Then I grab an acoustic guitar and play a rhythm guitar track. Then another rhythm track. Then I'll go redo the fiddle if it needs redoing. If the tune needs some improvising, varying of the melody, I just do that on the fly. I never pre-determine solos. If the tune lends itself to guitar solos, I will leave holes where the other solos will be. All of this stuff is decided at this time. So then I'll try playing a solo on the guitar and if I can't get one that's decent, I'll bring in another guitar player that I know will play something appropriate. Then decide if the tune needs fiddle harmony. After I get all that stuff done I will then decide if it needs some percussion. When I say percussion I mean clogging with my feet or spoons. When I'm happy with what I have, I mix it to 2 tracks and listen to the mix and then move on to the next tune. A tune can take as little as an hour to do, but some tunes have taken me two days. I've left certain things on recordings that I really didn't want to play, but I felt the over all feel was very good and didn't want to mess with what I had.
AM - What musicians do you work with?
CV - I have a few different musicians I work with now. Since 1988, Trent Bruner has been playing the piano with me. He's in much demand in Canada, so the last few years I've had a piano player from Quebec, Paul Dacier fill in when Trent can't make it. I also use a guitar player by the name of Freddie Pelletier. He's is a great musician. Lots of my tunes are a bit different so you can't just throw anyone in on the piano or guitar. They pretty much need to know the stuff. I rarely draw up a set list. I always like to play off the cuff.
AM - How do you divide your time between concerts, recording, writing, and the rest of your life?
CV - For the last 8 years or so, since I've just been back to playing fiddle music, touring usually starts about June and goes through to October. Sometimes it will last into November. Then I'm home and this is when I start recording. The last few years there have been more gigs come in the winter months so that makes recording a bit tougher, but I love to perform. A call comes in, and away we go. Last year I only released 3 CDs. People say how come only 3? Well I was too busy to do more. Writing happens at anytime. I've written as many as 6 tunes in one day in a car going to Vermont and performed them that night. The piano player was in the car with me so he heard me humming them and had a good idea how they would go. I love to golf in the summer, and I like going to movies in the winter time, when I'm home. Can't beat the big screen and a bowl of popcorn. I have a beautiful wife named Rhea and 3 wonderful daughters that are all grown up now: Tanya, Jessica and Jaclyn. I don't have much down time. I never complain when it's too busy because I remember the times when it wasn't and rent had to be paid at the end of the week. Yikes...
AM - What happened eight years ago to bring you back to fiddle music? What were you doing before that?
CV - Well it's not that I stopped fiddling. I couldn't make a living just playing fiddle tunes so I joined a country band, that I played fiddle in, where we played country clubs all over the country playing country music. It was in these years that I really learned how to improvise to tunes. Around 8 years ago the country music scene started changing. This new country thing became very popular. Not much fiddle in those new tunes. Clubs were closing down as well. Harder to make a living playing in a band. So I thought I'm gonna try getting more work playing fiddle tunes. I think through my recordings and the exposure I've gotten over the years most fiddle fans in Canada knew who I was. Contest started hiring me in to judge and entertain for them. Fiddle camps have been popping up all over the place, and I'm getting hired at quite a few of them. That's how I got back to playing fiddle tunes for a living.
AM - What are your plans for the future?
CV - I just want to keep on doing what we're doing. Things seem to be going good. Going to more places all the time, but still getting hired at places I've been doing for years. I teach at many fiddle camps as well and it's nice to pass on knowledge to the next bunch of fiddlers. With my studio I've also recorded other performers. Mostly fiddlers but some singers too. I really enjoy that as well.
AM - When are you likely to be over in Europe again? Do you have plans to go back to Scandinavia, or Shetland, or Scotland?
CV - I sure hope we can come back to Shetland again. I'm sure it will happen sometime. If we do Shetland, then we'll try to add others to the tour as well. We hope to go back to the Scandinavian countries as well. We played the folk festivals in the those countries and they don't hire the same acts year after year, but will bring back the odd act that went over good, maybe on special anniversary years. So we hope to come back to Norway and Sweden in a few years' time.
Alex Monaghan - 4.6.03