Reclaiming History


Matt Downer, the Tennessee Aquarium “Fiddle and Banjo Man”

NAME: Matt Downer

AGE: 38


The city of Chattanooga was abuzz with activity in 1926 — more than 5,000 “old-timey” musicians and listeners packed into Memorial Auditorium for what would be the first Chattanooga Fiddlers’ Convention. World War II and fuel rationing eventually brought the wildly popular event to a standstill, but in 2010, local musician and music historian Matt Downer brought the music back to life. Now in its fourth year of successful revival, Downer is working to pick up the pieces of the past and reclaim an important part of Chattanooga’s history.

❖ I don’t have any formal music training. My dad played some guitar and my granddad played Dobro, the slide guitar, and I started learning guitar and playing background with them when I was 16. I’ve been playing the fiddle and banjo for nine years.

❖ I got interested in this old regional type of music … I attended a revival contest in Fort Payne, Ala., when I was a kid. I wasn’t into that type of music then — most kids aren’t — but something about that event really struck me. I remember it vividly. That’s why I keep the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention free for the kids. I hope to inspire them to appreciate and carry on the tradition.

❖ This type of music originated with fiddle tunes, fiddle and banjo. And back then they didn’t have the genres and classifications we have today — it was just music. We take that for granted now that it’s so accessible. It was a community, a family. It was the people’s music. That’s the approach I try to take — it’s who you are more than something you do.

❖ People confuse this music with bluegrass. The difference between this and bluegrass is that people play the tune together. It’s less about the flash or who can play the most notes in their solo, it’s more of a community. Bluegrass was facilitated by a microphone, where people took turns coming up front to play. With the old-timey music, no one is louder or more important than the other.



Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention


March 9, beginning at noon


Lindsay Street Hall (901 Lindsay St. Chattanooga, TN 37402)


$5 per person, children under 12 admitted free.

The convention will feature both contests and a variety of performances throughout the day. Musicians will compete in four categories, with the top three contestants winning cash prizes in fiddle, banjo, string band and dance. A panel of judges will decide the winners. There is no registration fee for the contests with paid admission.

❖ I knew I wanted to make the event as true as possible to the original. That’s what makes it stand out. There’s no other contest I know that has no amplification and it’s all acoustic like that. I’ll keep it going for as long as I’m around for sure. Any time you can reach back 87 years ago and reclaim a piece of local history, it’s really your obligation to do it. You really don’t have a choice.

❖ I mainly want to keep it going to expose people to the history of it. It’s really a source of pride for Chattanooga to celebrate the history and that music is still alive and it’s there for people to enjoy and be a part of.

❖ [When I’m not playing music,] I like to write. I’m working on a novel… slowly, but yeah. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about some of the musicians I play with. And I’m working on a regional musicians archive with both interviews and music. I’ve collected several hundred hours. I’ve got mine and stuff people have given me.

❖ I started learning music from elder musicians in 1998 when I was 24. I really regretted that I didn’t start earlier. A friend of my grandfather’s would come over and he and my grandfather would play tunes together. I’d been recording them on a tape recorder, and when my grandfather’s friend passed away, his family wanted copies. It boggled my mind that they didn’t have any. I guess you’re exposed to it and take it for granted and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

❖ Whenever possible, I try to contact the elder musicians and play with them. I try to pick it up firsthand because that was how it was passed on and if it isn’t passed on, then it’s lost. Working with the elders definitely brings it to life. I don’t read music. That’s how I learn — from listening. It’s like time travel to go back and play the same tunes that are virtually unchanged from 80-100 years ago.

❖ Looking back, it’s really special to me to have that time with them, and they appreciated having someone young take an interest so it would survive on. Playing music with them is how they live on and how I’ll live on hopefully. They call it the universal language. It’s hard to put into words how it makes you feel and how it affects you.

❖ The oldest guy I played music with was Jess Moore. He was in his 90s. He came to these contests in Chattanooga. One time, he hitched a ride on a cattle truck to Chattanooga to play in the competition. He was learning music before anyone had a record player or a radio. It’s almost incomprehensible for us to think like that today. I think definitely less people play now. Back then, if you wanted to hear music, you had to go to someone who played or play yourself. It loses some of the soul, I think.

❖ I’ve lived in Chattanooga for 28 years. I lived just 45 miles away on Sand Mountain prior to that. I went to school at Boyd-Buchanan and my mom was teaching school here. I love Chattanooga, the size and proximity to so much — even regionally, you can get to so many places. And the pace I like…it’s pretty laid back.