For our final December issue of 2015 we featured an interview with a leader in Celtic fiddle playing – the great Bonnie Rideout!
by James A. McQuiston FSA Scot, USA
EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve long been proud to say that I’ve met and shook hands with some of the best Celtic fiddlers in the world, from Natalie MacMaster to Alasdair Fraser, from Jeremy Kittel to Melinda Crawford. Now I get to add one more to my list, and what an add. I met Bonnie Rideout at the Edinboro Highland Games by a sheer twist of fate, and heard her blow the audience away with a wonderful song she had written. Now I get to ask her a few questions. Let’s get to it!
CG: Welcome, Bonnie, to the pages of Celtic Guide. I’d like to start the interview with this question – What possessed you to take up the fiddle, and at what age?
BR: I was eight years old and I found a fiddle in my mother’s closet. Both my parents are musicians. My mother still teaches piano. I grew up in a musical family but realized early on that piano wasn’t my instrument. The violin was more tactile and I fell in love with it at first sight.
CG: Who or what has been your inspiration to carry fiddle playing to such a high and precise level?
BR: Again - my parents were a big part of this. Both play the Scottish music of their heritage. We didn’t have a TV, so music was one way to entertain ourselves as a family. I also enjoyed playing by ear with my teacher in the one room schoolhouse in Maine where I attended for part of the year, each year growing up. The other part of the year we lived in Michigan, where I was fortunate enough to participate in orchestra and private lessons. Being able to read music allowed me the ability to delve deeper into the fiddle tradition, since so much Scottish fiddle music has been written down for centuries.
For many years I spent summers in Scotland playing with fiddlers such as Ron Gonnella and Angus Cameron, and in several different Strathspey and Reel Society fiddle orchestras.
A farmer (and fiddler) named Jim Falconer was an important early influence. There were no such things as “workshops” or “fiddle camps” back in the late 70s/early 80s, so I pretty much just played along with people and picked up the style that way.
I felt it was crucial for me to live in Scotland and work in rural areas in the North East and the Western Isles if I was to play Scottish fiddle music. Eventually I moved to Scotland. There is something very important about being physically in the landscape. The landscape is in the music, particularly in piobaireachd, and it was important for me to immerse myself in it (as well as the Gaelic language and culture), in order for me to fully grasp where the music comes from.
I definitely feel I’m only the medium for the music which passes through me...it doesn’t start from me...it’s much bigger than that.
CG: I know you’ve been involved in many fiddle competitions, both as a contestant and as a judge. Can you tell us about a few of the most significant honors you have received through contests or in general?
BR: In general, I’m not a big fan of competitions. They have their downside. But the upside with competitions is the opportunity to teach what I know and I like that.
I’ve always told the contestants that my adjudication sheet is more important than the outcome that particular day.
Also, competitions are obviously a resumé builder for young musicians getting started....they need something in their bio that can be used to publicize their gigs and so on. Winning at the national level can be a boost in that area.
I used to win competitions throughout the U.S. and Scotland, both nationally and regionally. I guess I have enough silver to put on a fancy dinner party - but it was truly the comments of the judges that was the real gold for me and my reason to compete. I stopped competing by the time I was 21. I became an adjudicator shortly after that.
This year (2015), I heard the highest level of playing at the U.S. Nationals than I’ve ever heard before.
CG: As a judge, what do you look for in a contestant – is it skill, is it soul, or something else?
BR: All of the above and more. Obviously the basics such as rhythm, intonation, technical skill, etc. are important. But I also want to hear a contestant who has a full grasp of the genre – one who can play with a lilt, propel a dancer with their bow, or make one shed a tear with their lament. I look for feeling and authenticity.
I like when a fiddler embraces the tradition but knows just how much of himself/herself to put into the music to make it their own. If there are two fiddlers whom I feel are equal in such capacities, a tie- breaker could be something as simple as who is having more fun and trying to connect with their audience....it is a performance after all.
CG: You’ve just returned from Scotland, and have traveled all over the world. Do you have a favorite place, or maybe a few favorite places?
BR: Yes of course, I have many.
I have three children whom I will send on three different quests with my divided ashes. This will be known to them when I’m gone, but let’s just say mountains and sea are involved.
I used to live on the Isle of Skye and miss it every day.
I always enjoy the audiences and the hiking opportunities in Alaska.
I spend a lot of time volunteering in the mountainous region of Copan, Honduras where my husband and I have built almost thirty primary schools since 1998. We started a non-profit called the CELTINO Foundation to help the rebuild in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country. It is a beautiful part of the world where there is much need. We also use the schools to provide medical and dental brigades several times a year.
CG: I’ve asked this of other musicians, with surprisingly different results. Your music is so soulful. Do you ever get lost in the music, as if your mind is somewhere else, or are you focused every second on every note and motion?
BR: I totally get lost in the music - once, I dropped my bow in the middle of playing a piobaireachd I was so relaxed and lost in the music.
If I am singing from within, it will come through my fingers and also help my phrasing. (I have a tendency to not give enough breath at the ends of my phrases when I’m feeling anxious). If I think too much, I’m more likely to play less musically.
During more difficult technical passages I naturally need to pay more attention to what my fingers are doing.
I use imagery often, sometimes just colors enter my mind. Like meditation, it is nice when words leave the mind.
CG: How deeply do you study the history of the events or instances that inspire your songwriting – for instance, the story of the horses of Uist?
BR: Study and research are a big part of my music and my recording projects. Sometimes, as with my piobaireachd “The Lament for the Horses of Uist,” I am driven by a story I hear and let the music tell the story. Other times, such as on my recording “Harlaw - 1411,” an event is represented in music.
It took three years of research and coll-aboration to create the story of Harlaw through music. We added a narration disc as well. My producer, John Purser, is a well- known anthropologist and scholar (and author of the definitive book, Scotland’s Music).
He had already done a tremendous amount of research on the subject and we found amazing musicians to contribute their renditions of the music we uncovered.
CG: What are the greatest challenges and greatest joys you’ve experienced as one of the world’s great fiddlers.
BR: Delving deeply into the music has been a rich experience. It’s always a challenge to compose in an antiquated format such as the piobaireachd. It is a great joy to reach people through music and hear someone say they “have never heard anything like that before.” It’s my hope that my playing will stimulate people to get in touch with something that is truest to their own understanding of self and soul.
The most difficult part of my occupation is not the music. It is the music industry. Navigating the business side of things has been a roller coaster, especially since the invention of the Internet. People don’t want to pay for music any more, and downloaded music is played more than CD’s now.
Unless one has lived the life of a touring musician, it would be hard to know how truly exhausting it is.
CG: What’s on the horizon for Bonnie Rideout?
BR: I have two recording projects in infancy stages and will relay more on my website as they develop (www.bonnierideout.com). One is another historic project along the lines of “HARLAW.” The other will feature more fiddle/dance tunes – a departure from the intense fiddle piobaireachd I’ve devoted myself to over the past eight years.
CG: Finally, what is the one thing you’d like our readers to know about you, that might perhaps even surprise them?
BR: Well - here’s three:
• I love to escape through baseball and I attend a lot of Washington Nationals games.
• I’m an avid gardener and love to cook.
• I married into a very large Latino family and for over 25 years they have all enriched my life beyond measure.
CG: Thank you, so much, for being with us for this issue of Celtic Guide.
BR: My pleasure.