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Stringing Along

May 19, 2000|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Southern California, a region that values the new and takes pride in being a trendsetter, traditions are sometimes hard to come by. But the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest qualifies.

In 40 years, it has survived six governors and eight presidents, not to mention wars, earthquakes, rock music, rap, recessions and the wrath of county bureaucrats. The family-oriented music event has never missed a beat.

Even the weekend after the L.A. riots in 1992, the event went on as scheduled.

On Sunday at Paramount Ranch in Agoura, the contest rolls into the new millennium with the same music but a new energy and a new generation of leadership.

"It's very exciting that after 40 years, we're still on the planet and promoting an event for the bluegrass and folk music community," said Chuck Tipton, a member of the contest's board of directors.

Besides the contest itself, Sunday's event will feature performances by three professional bands--the Witcher Brothers, Highway 52 and Growling Old Geezers--plus storytelling, folk-dancing, workshops and folk-art vendors.

And, as they have for 40 years, attending musicians will find many opportunities to perform the music they love.

The contest started in 1961 in Topanga Canyon, attracting 26 five-string banjo players, five fiddlers, four judges and an audience of about 500. This year, more than 120 contestants will compete and about 5,000 people are expected to attend.

The contest was forced out of its home in Topanga in 1970. An L.A. County ordinance, passed soon after the Rolling Stones concert-turned-tragedy at Altamont in Northern California in late 1969, severely restricted outdoor music events.

The Topanga contest first moved to Santa Barbara, then to Santa Monica, to UCLA and to El Camino Community College in Torrance before finally settling at its present location in 1990.

Tipton credits the music for the contest's durability. "It started with the folk-music craze of the 1960s," Tipton said. "In the '70s, '80s and '90s, a core group of people kept it going."

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The event faced a leadership crisis three years ago, as septuagenarian husband-and-wife team Dorian and Dalia Keyser informed the board they wanted to retire after leading the contest efforts for more than 24 years. Under their leadership, the contest had expanded to include dancing, folk arts, cowboy poetry and storytelling. With Tipton and other new board members, the contest enters the new millennium with some fresh blood and also for the first time a Web site: http://www.topangabanjofiddle.org/.

Over the last 40 years, contestants have ranged in age from 4 to 98 and in ability from accomplished amateurs to promising novices. While still in his teens, recording artist David Lindley won the fiddle competition four years straight in the 1960s. It's been reported that contest officials then made Lindley a judge in order to give other fiddlers a chance.

Other well-known musicians who have either performed or competed at the contest include Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, John Hartford, Byron Berline, Dan Crary and even banjo-toting comic Steve Martin.

Dennis Witcher, mandolin player of the Witcher Brothers bluegrass band who will also serve as a master of ceremonies at the contest this year, started coming to the contest to jam.

Witcher and his sons--fiddler Gabe and Dobro-playing Mike--form the nexus of the Witcher Brothers band, which includes Andrew Paddock on bass, Kevin Gore on banjo and Tony Recupido on guitar.

"Gabe started competing at Topanga when he was 5," said Dennis Witcher. "He won the advanced fiddle category for the first time when he was 11. He went on to win it two more times."

"It's all about the music," Tipton said. "We're not in it for the money."

DETAILS

The 40th Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest, Sunday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., at Paramount Ranch, Cornell Road, Agoura. $5-$9, free for ages 10 and under. (818) 382-4819.

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