Amid the patter of raindrops hitting umbrellas, the high, sweet singing of fiddle music rang clear at Alamo Plaza on Saturday. The fourth annual Fiddle Fest, a free event in commemoration of the 181st anniversary of the Alamo battle and siege, showcased a full day of Americana, swing, bluegrass, and country bands.
Performers included Tennessee Valley Authority, Celtaire String Band, two-time Grammy award winner Ricky Turpin, Frio Dou featuring Ron Knuth, Mario Flores and the Soda Creek Band, and Jason Roberts Band featuring Rick McRae. The event was a part of the 13-day commemoration of the 1836 siege and battle of the Alamo taking place from Feb. 23 to March 6.
Other events during the commemoration include historical readings, a recreation of the ride to deliver the famous “Victory or Death” letter of Alamo commander William B. Travis, and “Dusk at the Alamo,” a memorial service in honor of the fallen Alamo heroes.
Visitors clad in rain jackets huddled under umbrellas, traversing the puddles around the Alamo complex and perusing the museum before stopping to listen, sing along, and dance. The music drew locals and visitors of all ages and showcased the versatility and longevity of the small string instrument famously played by Alamo hero Davy Crockett. The event featured a variety of fiddle music from around the state and the country.
The musicians of four-piece Celtaire String Band travel around Texas to play music of the Victorian and Revolution eras, as well as the 1830s. They started playing at the Alamo battle reenactments 12 years ago and have performed all four years of Fiddle Fest.
Along with the fiddle, their band features unique instruments called limber jacks – children’s dolls from the 19th century that are carved out of wood and attached to a stick – which appeared to dance on a wooden board as band member Betty Peters tapped them up and down, turning the little people into percussive instruments. The band called on the participation of audience members, who sang along to old Americana classics and rattled tambourines to the band’s songs.
Along with his guitarist and percussionist Ray Franklin, Ricky Turpin showcased the versatile nature of his instrument, playing quick-tempo hoe downs and slow, expressive waltzes. Turpin, who has twice held the title of Texas state fiddle champion, and won the World Series of Fiddling and two Grammy awards, had the crowd clapping and laughing even when waterlogged tents became a problem during his set.
The soggy conditions couldn’t squelch the joyful spirits of spectators, but by the end of Turpin’s performance, organizers decided to move the festival inside the Alamo Hall. As the weather outside grew wetter, listeners trickled into the building and gathered around to hear the music.
Inside, Ron Knuth played examples of songs that would be popular in siege-era Texas, including tunes that could have been played by Davy Crockett on his way to Texas from Tennessee.
Mario Flores and the Soda Creek Band performed some recognizable country music favorites, along with their originals.
Fan favorite Jason Roberts Band played last. San Antonio guitarist Rick McRae accompanied Roberts, who has played with Asleep at the Wheel and Van Morrison. The six-piece band featured an abundance of string instruments, from upright bass to steel guitar, violin, and electric guitar. Its smooth western swing sounds capped off the day, drifting out of the auditorium and into the chill, damp air outside.
San Antonio resident Cheryl Balthazor said she came to visit the Alamo grounds and learn more about San Antonio and Texas history. She is originally from Illinois, but has lived in San Antonio 16 years and attended the fiddle festival last year.
“Everyone should learn more about the place in which they’re living, especially when they’re in a city with so much history,” she said. “It’s nice to know about where you live, how it evolved, and how it happened.”
She also gave credit to the talent of the artists who took part in the festival.
“Unlike classical music, with this type of music there’s a lot of improvising you have to do,” she said. “They’re really talented musicians.”
Fiddle music aficionados John and Jeannette Stuart drove three hours to hear the talent and dance along. They danced in the rain until the event moved inside, and continued dancing as they waited for Jason Roberts, their favorite musician of the day, to take the stage.
“We think Jason Roberts is the best ever,” Jeannette Stuart said. “We would go anywhere to listen to him.”
The couple, who met three years ago and married in June, dances at various locations around Texas at least twice a week. This is their second year at Fiddle Festival.
“When there’s music, we dance,” John Stuart said. “In sleet, we dance. In rain, we dance. In snow, we dance. It doesn’t matter. We’ve done it [all].”