Jason Cowan
The Union Democrat

The Fiddle and Bango Contest is like a snowflake - no one year is the same as the last.

Since the acoustic music contest - slated for Saturday at Columbia State Historic Park - began in 1982, the structure of the competition has never changed. It is the participants who bring about the variation and originality.

"You never know who is going to show up and bring something just delightful and new," said Steve LaVine, master of ceremonies since the Fiddle and Bango Contest began. "A gal getting up in a clown costume and playing rhapsody and blues on a clarinet - you won't find that in your other fiddle contests."

One theme, however, has remained the same throughout the years. The contest has been the starting point for many musicians -most notably Grammy Award nominee Frank Solivan of Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen - as they found exposure and rose to success.

"The strength of it is, there has been a lot of young players who come through constantly. People who have gone on to national prominence have started in our contest," LaVine said. "Just about everybody who is anybody in this county over the years has gone and competed at it."

The event, unlike any other of its kind, is not genre specific. In past years, the Fiddle and Bango has seen clarinet, Irish drum and vocalists among other instrumental varieties win its first-place prize, a golden nugget. Cash and gift certificate prizes are also awarded in each category.

"Most contests you have to stay strictly in the genre. Most fiddle contests have a jig, a reel and some other third choice," LaVine said. "This one, you can get up and play any one you want. If you want to do an old heavy metal song on an acoustic guitar, well you can."

Categories at the Fiddle and Bango include fiddle, banjo, vocal, guitar, mandolin and miscellaneous. Contestants can sign up between 9 and 10:30 a.m. at the park's gazebo.

The contest begins at 10:30 a.m. and goes all day, with a lunch break which will feature a chili cookoff ($5). Cost to enter the music contest is $12, and the event is free to spectators.

In addition, for the second year, the contest will feature a songwriter's contest

"It will be limited to the first half a dozen or so that signup," LaVine said. "There will be a piano on stage for songwriters who want to use the piano instead."

Youth infusion

LaVine believes that this year's Fiddle and Bango event will feature a significant amount of younger musicians.

"Some years are real kid-heavy. I have a feeling the kid-heavy years are coming again. A lot of our people who started out 15 are now 25 and 30 and had kids," LaVine said. "It has constantly been like that. People's children show up to do it, and their children show up to do it."

Schedule conflict

In previous years, the contest would conflict with Hardly Strictly - a free bluegrass festival that features more than 100 artists at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

This year, for the first time, it's being held on a different weekend.

"It was hurt a lot by Hardly Strictly, which is why it has been rescheduled," LaVine said.

According to LaVine, the event typically attracts between 100 and 300 attendees. This year, without the scheduling conflict detracting much of the clientele base, that number could be more.

"We're engineering it toward higher attendance," LaVine said.

The misspelling of banjo in the event's name is an intentional carry-over from a T-shirt maker's misprint in the first year of the contest.