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Bob Wills Fiddle Contest

Armed with twin fiddles, bows at the ready, husband-and-wife team Joey and Sherry McKenzie seize every opportunity to spread the gospel of old time fiddling and Western swing music. The stage is their pulpit. The genre is their bible. The audience is their congregation.

“My wife Sherry and I joke that we aren’t very well-rounded,” says Joey McKenzie. “We love to play traditional style fiddle music and Western swing. When we aren’t playing it, we’re listening to it or talking about it.”

The McKenzies are directors of the Bob Wills Fiddle Contest, one of the highlights of the inaugural Bob Wills Fiddle Festival & Contest, which runs Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 in downtown Greenville, Texas. Outstanding fiddlers will be competing for more than $8500 in cash awards and trophies.

There are seven divisions: Jr Jr (ages 12 and under), Jr (13-17), Adult (18-59), Senior (60 and up), accompanist, Bob Wills (in which hopefuls perform tunes associated with Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys), and Open. Each contestant can enter two divisions – their age group or the open category as well as the Bob Wills division.

The contest preliminary rounds performances take place at the newly and beautifully renovated Texan Theater Saturday, Nov. 1. The finals and the awards presentations will be at the Greenville Municipal Auditorium Sunday, Nov. 2. For all of the contest rules, descriptions and registration application, please visit twinfiddleproductions.com.

“Bob Wills had done so much during his career to further fiddle music and expose people to Western swing music,” says Joey McKenzie, “and it continues to this day. We want to create the premier event in Greenville to hear some of the greatest musicians in the world. The fiddle contest is a direct connection to Western swing. Bob Wills played in a lot of fiddle contests as a young man. Combining a world class fiddle contest in a festival honoring Bob Wills seems long overdue.”

The fiddle contest judges are Jimmie Don Bates from Austin, Texas; Calvin Vollrath from Alberta, Canada; Tonya Hopkins from Porter, Texas; and JayDean Ludiker from Spokane, Washington.

“They are a dynamic group of musicians with multiple talents who are highly respected for their creative fiddling abilities,” says Sherry McKenzie. “Each brings a high degree of expertise in the area of contest judging and is well-known and appreciated in the fiddle community.”

The McKenzies are no strangers to fiddle contests. Joey McKenzie, 50, has won more than 100 fiddle contests. He picked up the fiddle when he was 17, so his love affair with the instrument now spans 33 years. He also plays mandolin and tenor guitar, a four-string guitar popular in Texas fiddle music.

Sherry McKenzie is also a veteran of fiddle contests, having been crowned a National Ladies Champion and a World Champion of Fiddling. With her husband, Sherry McKenzie owns and operates McKenzie’s Fiddle Studio in Burleson, Texas. Opened in 2012, McKenzie’s Fiddle Studio is a continuation of McKenzie’s String Shop, which they owned and operated for 15 years in Mansfield, Texas.

The McKenzies have been teaching music for more than 25 years. In addition to the lessons, they restore, repair and sell stringed instruments such as vintage guitars, mandolins and fiddles.

Joey McKenzie spent 15 years as the guitarist and musical arranger for Fort Worth’s lauded Quebe Sisters Band, a wonderfully rootsy ensemble specializing in blending Western swing, old-timey country, bluegrass and swinging jazz. The three Quebe siblings, Grace, Sophia and Hulda, were students of both Joey and Sherry McKenzie.

With QSB Joey McKenzie performed throughout North America and Europe highlighted by shows at Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium, the Kennedy Center, New York City’s Lincoln Center and many more. The band shared stages with luminaries such as George Strait, Asleep at the Wheel, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs and Merle Haggard.

Sherry McKenzie is a certified Suzuki method strings instructor. Suzuki combines a classical style of music teaching, with a strong focus on ear training and technique, along with the philosophy that students will learn with the right environment and that this environment will build character.

“We teach students of all ages and levels, and do start students from scratch,” says Joey McKenzie. “It is not strictly the Suzuki method, but it is definitely part of what we do. It is one way to help expose young people to fiddle music.”

At the cornerstone of that fiddle music legacy are contests. “Texas has a rich history of old-time fiddle music, and fiddle contests have played an important part of that tradition,” says Sherry McKenzie. “The Bob Wills Fiddle Festival & Contest will showcase many of the best fiddle players in the United States competing for cash prizes and the coveted title. Combining The Time Jumpers featuring Vince Gill, several other first-class Western swing bands, a world-class fiddle contest, and all the amenities and hospitality the City of Greenville, Texas has to offer, we think this will be the premier event of its kind in the United States. Bob would be extremely proud!”

He sure would be. For Joey and Sherry McKenzie, that not-so-well-rounded couple with the passion for old-time fiddle music and Western swing, all roads lead to Bob Wills. He remains the benchmark, the fountain of inspiration from which all fiddlers find the fortitude to raise their bows in unison.

“Bob’s spirit lives on in every Texas fiddle player,” says Joey McKenzie. “It’s really fun to watch everybody play and add their own style and take on the music. Everybody has their own personality. Fortunately we have put together an ‘A’ list team of judges as this is going to be an extremely strong group of fiddle players. The judges will have their work cut out for them and the audience is going to be in for a real treat!”

— By Mario Tarradell