PHOTO BY HAROLD YOUNG
Montana Young. Her fiddle was made by Arthur Connor, of Copper Hill, Va.
Forget bluegrass stereotypes of old bearded men in overalls. Part of the reason bluegrass music thrives is its generation-to-generation permanence. Montana Young, who lives east of the Crooked Road in southwest Virginia, is one of the faces of what some call “young grass.”
Just 12 years old, she’s apprenticed with Buddy Pendleton, who played with Bill Monroe and Joan Baez; she’s performed with Wayne Henderson and Aubrey Haney. She’s just released a CD, “Fiddlin’ Up a Storm,” through the Virginia Folklife Program.
Do you remember the very first time you picked up a fiddle?
I'm not sure about that. I think it was my first violin lesson in Roanoke, with my violin teacher, Jane. Are you recording now?
I'm checking levels as I go. You're fine. Well, tell me about that. How old were you?
I was five, just about to turn six, and it was probably October, November, something like that. I remember I learned a few things that day, but that was just it.
How did you decide that you were going to start taking violin lessons? Did your parents decide for you?
No, actually I did. I went to Galax Fiddlers' Convention, and I was really little, and there was this girl on stage, and she was singing and dancing and playing the fiddle, and she was playing with a band, and I got really mad and I told my parents I wanted to do it. They thought I was just bein' a kid, and it would pass over. They didn't really pay any attention to it, so when I kept asking, they thought I really wanted to do it, so then I got lessons.
And you got mad? Why did you get mad?
Because I wanted to do it.
She wasn't the one who was supposed to be up on stage - you were.
What did you like about how she played, and how she danced - did you like the music she was playing?
Well, I liked the music she was playing, but the crowd really liked it, and they were clapping and I guess I wanted them to clap for me. She was doing all kinds of stuff, and I thought it was really neat, and the crowd too.
So now these days, you're playing for a lot of crowds. What's the biggest crowd you've ever played for?
I'm not really sure about that... maybe... played at the Rising Star Talent Contest. Can't really think of the biggest - probably Galax - it's got a lot of people there. Barter Theatre had a good number of people there when I played.
Do you get nervous?
I still get a little bit nervous, but it seems like I get more nervous when I come off the stage, like at fiddlers conventions, that's when I get shaky.
So it kind of holds off while you're playing, and then...
Well, I get scared, I feel like I'm just about to mess up when I play, and it scares me really bad and I get this weird feeling, and then all of a sudden I don't. But I do get nervous. It holds off completely until the end.
Do you ever mess up?
I have before. It - I really hate when I do, because I'll be on stage and I'll mess up and I'll try to fix it and sometimes couldn't, and I just have to quit, and I get really mad at myself.
You still take classical violin as well as bluegrass fiddle. Is it hard to play both kinds of music?
It's not hard to play both kinds - I don't think there's anything really hard about it, just same instrument, thank goodness, and just different kinds of music. It doesn't seem all that hard.
Well, tell me some of the music you're working on that's classical.
There's ... I think it's Paganini, and it's all on the G string on the violin, um, I'm not really good with names on classical. A sonata, and I'm not sure which one, something, I can't remember. Play some scales...
Now, what are some of the songs you're learning in bluegrass?
Right now, I'm not learning any, but I play "Florida Blues," "Bluegrass in the Backwoods," I play "Jerusalem Ridge," "Back Up and Push" - there's a lot of things, and I can just remember things a lot better in bluegrass than classical.
Why do you think that is?
Some of the names are hard to pronounce, and I don't really pay all that much attention to the names in classical as I do in bluegrass - if not, like, I play, I learn a song, and then I don't really play it for a really long time, in bluegrass you jam, but in classical I don't. [In bluegrass] I'm more familiar with the tunes' names because I have to know it to know what they're gonna be playin.
Which music do you like better?
I like them both, but somehow bluegrass seems - it seems a little bit more fun, but I don't really like one over the other, but I think bluegrass is a little more fun.
Now what about your teachers, they're - they come from totally different backgrounds. Can you tell me about your two teachers?
Well, Jane Wong, she teaches me classical, she comes from Taiwan, and she plays in the symphony and she lives in Roanoke. I used to take from Timmy Martin - he plays bluegrass music, he plays by ear, he doesn't read music, but Jane does, and the [Virginia] Folklife [Program] - the Apprenticeship program - Buddy [Pendleton] taught me a little bit. He - I don't think he reads music either, and he plays by ear.
Are there things that Buddy might teach you that might apply to classical music, and are there things that Jane teaches you that you would apply to bluegrass - does that make sense?
Yeah - some people say that you need to use more bow in classical, but you really need to use more in both of them, and there are some things you can relate...
What about using more bow - how does that impact the playing?
I don't know - it's like you, in classical, you have to do things like you hold out the note and you play it clearly - you need to do that in bluegrass too, but it applies to both.
Well, what about your practicing? Do you practice every day?
Yep. I try to practice every day, but sometimes I can't 'cause I'm really busy. I used to practice a whole lot more than I do now - practice hours - but now I've got it down, so I can kinda - I practice probably more when I'm out of school 'cause I've got more time.
So then on average, how long do you practice a day during school and then when you're off school?
Probably about 45 minutes, close to an hour, but used to practice two.
And you still do that when you're not in school?
Mm, sometimes. I get lazy sometimes.
Besides music, what do you like to do?
I like to dance, I like to swim, I like to play tennis, I like to be with my friends a lot. I like to go to parties and I like to do a lot of stuff.
Do you have friends your age who play bluegrass or who play classical?
I've got friends in both, but I've met a lot more people in bluegrass than in classical. Met Wayne Henderson, Gerald Anderson, Spencer Strickland and Debbie Robertson - I've met a whole lot of people through bluegrass. I've got some friends that take from violin teacher, and they're all really nice people.
Why do you think you meet more people through bluegrass?
I get out places and play more with that kind of music than I do with classical stuff. I get to meet more people. Pretty much with classical, I practice at home, I go to [Jane's] house and I see people at group lessons and at recitals, so, it's not really big chance to meet people yet through that kind of music.
You know, when you're at jams, or when you're playing for festivals, are you ever intimidated by playing around these folks who've been doing it for years and years and years?
I don't guess. I know that they're a lot better, but I look it as a way to learn so you can learn different styles, since they've been playing they probably know more, so, I can learn from them.
Now, a lot of people you know in school are probably listening to totally different kinds of music - what are they listening to?
Ho! They listen to completely different things. Some of them listen to country, but it's kinda related, and they listen to rap and pop and rock and a buncha other things. I listen to all kinds of music though.
Do they ever say, "well, why do you play that bluegrass stuff? what do you like about it?"
They've asked me that before, and some of them say it stinks and they don't like it, but some of it think it's really cool, and I really like it, and I'm glad I'm doing it. I really don't care what they say!
What musicians do you look up to - either ones you've met, or ones you've just listened to recordings, or concerts?
I like to listen to Jason Carter that - I think he used to play with Del McCoury - I've met him at the Blue Ridge Music Center. I like to listen to Aubrey Haney and Kenny Baker, Scotty Stoneman - there's a lot of them that I look up to.
Is there one that you would just love to meet and play with sometime, you hope you get to?
I think I'd like to meet Kenny Baker - I've met Aubrey Haney.
Do you ever feel like you're not taken as seriously because you're younger?
Actually, I'm really going through that - I feel like I don't take it as seriously, like I really don't like to practice and feel like sometimes I just don't worry about it, but I should take it more seriously.
Do you think this is what you want to do for a career, or what do you think you want to do when you grow up?
I'd really like to have it as a career, whether it be performing or being a teacher and teaching others kids.
If you don't do music, what do you think you might do?
Something like a doctor, or like, an optometrist, or something of the sort. Or an artist, or... anything.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I got my fiddle from Arthur Connor in Copper Hill, Va. - he made my fiddle, and he's a really good guy.
Why do you like it better than other fiddles you've played?
It's got a different sound quality that sounds a lot better than others I've played, and um, I don't know - it's just - it seems like a really good instrument.
How do you describe the difference in tone - is it brighter, or warmer, or what?
Some of them, the tone is like louder, and it's more warm and more ... I don't really know how to describe it.