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A half century of music: Granite Quarry Civitan Fiddlers Convention keeps celebrating bluegrass

GRANITE QUARRY — Pattie Beaver has been to every Granite Quarry Civitan Fiddlers Convention since the event debuted in 1967.

She didn’t really have a choice. Her father, the late Don Livengood, was one of the original Three Musketeers behind the Fiddlers Convention, along with James Mathis and Clarence Bost Jr.

Livengood came to live and breathe the event. As soon as one year’s convention was history, Livengood was planning for the next. “My daddy worked on it 12 months out of the year,” Pattie says.

The day before he died Aug. 15, his health failing quickly, Livengood sent for Vivian Hopkins to visit him in the hospital’s intensive-care unit so they could go over plans for this year’s Fiddlers Convention. The 50-year anniversary convention will be held Oct. 8 at East Rowan High School.

Six years ago, Livengood brought in Hopkins, current president of the N.C. Bluegrass Association, to help in securing bands for the annual competition. Hopkins’ father, the late bluegrass musician Ralph Pennington, and Hopkins herself attended the earliest conventions.

The Oct. 8 competition will honor Don Livengood and his wife, Margaret, who both died on the same August day, by introducing the Don and Margaret Livengood Memorial Award for Excellence in Bluegrass. The award will go to the outstanding young performer.

Hopkins persuaded Livengood that to increase revenue the convention needed to provide competition for youth, besides the regular adult band and individual categories.

“There are a lot of super-good, young musicians today,” Hopkins says, “and that’s why we do this — to make sure the music continues.”

The Granite Quarry Civitan Fiddlers Convention is known for its quality bluegrass and old-time music, not to mention its barbecue chicken plates. The convention is the club’s longest-lasting fundraiser and its most profitable.

“Fruitcake doesn’t hold a candlelight to it,” Club President Lanny Merrell says. “… Every bit of money we raised we put back in the community.”

You can see the Civitan Club’s imprint everywhere in Granite Quarry and eastern Rowan County. Granite Quarry Civic Park, town welcome signs, a park shelter, the Scout Hut and bleachers, lights and fencing at the Granite Quarry ballpark all benefited from Civitan contributions.

Money raised by the club has gone to support Granite Quarry Elementary, East Rowan Middle and East Rowan High schools. The club has sponsored Junior Civitan clubs at East Rowan High and Rowan Early College, and it has awarded 30 years worth of Civitan scholarships at East Rowan High.

Dollars from the Fiddlers Convention also have helped in paying for football equipment, a track, band uniforms, an activity bus, computers, microscopes, essay contests and citizenship awards.

In addition, the Granite Quarry Civitans have supported Coats for Kids, the construction of a walking track at the Saleeby-Fisher YMCA, Granite Quarry’s Christmas lights, Little League baseball, Rowan Adult Homes, Relay for Life, Special Olympics, Nazareth Children’s Home, Victory Junction Gang Camp, boys and girls homes at Lake Waccamaw and the International Research Center in Birmingham, Ala.

While Civitans have other ways to raise money for their causes — such as selling holiday fruitcakes or trash bags and working concession stands — the annual Fiddlers Convention easily stands as the club’s most recognized activity, even featured with the club once in Our State Magazine.

Before his death, Livengood said the convention “has evolved into a celebration, with many fine musicians returning year after year for great quality family entertainment.”

Since the beginning, that has been a goal. Beaver, who has a huge box of convention-related materials left behind by Livengood, refers to a 1969 program mentioning how the Fiddlers Convention aimed at presenting “family entertainment that could successfully compete with television and movies.”

•••

James Mathis brought the idea of a fiddlers convention with him from Union Grove Elementary School, where he had been principal.

“This one is significant, I think, because it’s a direct spinoff of Union Grove,” son Elliott Mathis says of the lineage behind the Granite Quarry Fiddlers Convention.

It was at the Union Grove school where the legendary Union Grove Fiddlers Convention began, eventually growing to a country Woodstock-type of event on the VanHoy Farm.

Mathis joined the Civitan Club not long after his arrival in Granite Quarry as principal at the school. When a surprise Easter Parade snowstorm put a big crimp into the club’s spring festival, members wondered whether they should try some new fund-raising project.

Mathis suggested a fiddlers convention.

“Nobody knew what he was talking about,” Hopkins says.

Beaver said Livengood, her father, liked to say that in the beginning he didn’t know what a mandolin or dobro was.

“I heard Daddy say many times that they didn’t know anything about that stuff,” Beaver added.

But club members learned quickly, thanks to Mathis.

Livengood was pegged as chairman of advertising and publicity. Mathis and Bost were charged with securing the bands.

Others with important roles were Chuck Barringer, ticket sales and gatekeepers; H.T. Smith Jr., registration; Jim Trexler and Rembert Gunter, stage committee; Doug Peeler, judges chairman; Herman Blakeman, building and grounds; and Larry Trexler, parking.

•••

The first Granite Quarry Civitan Fiddlers Convention was held Oct. 7, 1967, and the competition drew an astounding 30 bands. Mathis said later Civitans made $300 that first year from the convention itself and a $33.80 profit on food.

Admission to the first convention was $1, and a standing-room-only crowd — more than 800 people — filled the auditorium at Granite Quarry Elementary School.

The emcee was J. Price VanHoy from Union Grove. A trophy and $50 went to the winning band, which was Al Wood of Statesville and the Smoky Ridge Boys. Other prizes included $25 to second place, $15 to third and $10 to fourth. Individual awards of $5 went to the best fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin players.

Civitans paid VanHoy $25 for emceeing. They rented the school for $25, and gave $30 to the three judges.

Today, the Fiddlers Convention offers a $400 prize and trophy to the winning band and $50 and a trophy for individual musicians. Tickets are $8.

In the early years, the convention extended well past midnight into the early-morning hours.

“I remember going, sitting and waiting for it to be over,” says Elliott Mathis, who was an eighth-grader at the first Granite Quarry Fiddlers Convention.

Hopkins was 13 then. In those days,, she was traveling everywhere on weekends, competing in buck dancing. But at the first Granite Quarry convention, the decision was made to bring in a clogging team.

“One team, just for entertainment,” Hopkins recalls.

As the years went on, the quality of competition at the Fiddlers Convention went beyond the organizers’ expectations. The event earned a solid reputation among the musicians from the start.

Mathis worked tirelessly, going to all the others conventions and festivals in the Carolinas and Virginia, talking to bands and handing out business cards printed up with information about the Granite Quarry Fiddlers Convention on them.

In promoting the convention, James Mathis or his brother, Charles, also would send out press releases each year.

At the 1992 convention, Civitans honored James Mathis for his outstanding and dedicated service to bluegrass and old-time music.

Though he didn’t play an instrument, James Mathis loved the music, Elliott says. It went back to his boyhood, growing up in Yadkin County and listening frequently to an old-time fiddler.

•••

Mathis died Dec. 17, 2000. Livengood and Bost then took over Mathis’ job of trying to drum up interest among musicians for the Granite Quarry Fiddlers Convention.

“He always had something in the van to pass out,” Pattie Beaver says of her father.

It’s easy for Hopkins to list individual musicians and bands who have competed at the Granite Quarry Fiddlers Convention through the years. Members of the Harmon and Lucas Brothers Band of South Carolina were longtime performers and hosts in the early days.

Other performers have included names such as Paul Hill, Dewey Farmer, Bob Shue, John Hofmann, Ron Hatley and the Hatley Family, Steve Kilby, Tom Isenhour, Garland Shuping, Chick Martin, Wayne Benson, Terry Baucom, Carrie Webster, George Pegram, Gina Britt, Tiny Pruitt, J.D. Benfield and Jim Sizemore.

Since 1976, when the convention moved from the elementary school to East Rowan High, the convention has taken time out to honor an individual — a musician or friend of bluegrass and old-time music.

Until recently, the convention was always held the first Saturday in October. But now that date conflicts with the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass event in Raleigh, so the Granite Quarry Civitan Fiddlers Convention is held on the second Saturday in October.

Sale of the barbecue chicken plates at the convention started in 1976. The Civitans sell upwards of 800 to 1,000 plates.  The most one year was 1,100.

Because youth categories have been added to the Fiddlers Convention, registration will start this year at 4 p.m., and performances start at 4:30 p.m.

After James Mathis’ death, Livengood continued on as convention coordinator and chairman. His daughter, Pattie, said he gained an appreciation in seeing young people carry on the tradition of bluegrass and old-time music.

So it’s fitting that new award for young performers is named in honor of her parents.

The Fiddlers Convention will seem different without them, but the music goes on.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

 

 

 

 

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