By Maddie Denton | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
My immediate answer to the question of what’s on my music stand would have to be dark chocolate. That’s been my most constant practice companion, and I like to keep some on hand as a little reward. I didn’t always love to practice my fiddle, and sometimes I still don’t (the chocolate is for morale), though my passion for the music runs three generations deep in my family. My granddaddy, Clyde Lewis, played the fiddle, and he passed his love for the instrument down to my mom, Marcia Denton, who shared it with me. My parents bought a quarter-size fiddle when I was five years old, and they never once pressured me to play it. They showed me where they’d stashed it in the closet and made sure it was within my short arm’s reach. It didn’t take long before I decided to venture into the closet in search of my tiny fiddle, thus beginning a journey that has been an incredible ride.
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Player: Fiddler and recording artist Maddie Denton is winner of the 2016 Grand Master Fiddle Championship, the 2009 National Junior Fiddle Championship, and 14 state championship titles. She now spends most of her time on the road playing bluegrass fiddle for East Nash Grass and the Dan Tyminski Band. Her own debut album, Playin’ in This Town, was released in 2021.
Title of Work Being Studied: “Jenna McGaugh”
Composer: Maddie Denton
Date Composed: August 20, 2022
Name of edition studied: Madison Denton, BMI
As a middle Tennessee native, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for fiddle tunes. My granddaddy was one of the only fiddlers around in rural DeKalb County, Tennessee. Money was scarce in these communities, and the work was hard. This was before TV or the internet, so after the day’s work was done, folks would entertain themselves in the evening by dancing to fiddle tunes. They’d gather at someone’s house, push all the furniture to the side, then let their troubles drift away as they danced to the sweet melody of the fiddle. These types of house dances didn’t exclusively happen in middle Tennessee, but they are certainly a unique part of my history. I am proud of this heritage and the important role my granddaddy played as the house fiddler. I know he was tired after long days of carpentry in the Tennessee sun, but he was honored to provide the music that cleansed the pain of the day for his friends. What a heavy load Granddaddy bore, and he carried it so effortlessly. Every time I pick up my fiddle, I’m reminded of my grandfather and what a privilege and responsibility it is to be the house fiddler, whether my “house” is a jam session with friends at home, a music festival with East Nash Grass, or a concert hall with the Dan Tyminski Band.
I joined East Nash Grass as its fiddler in the summer of 2018. Throughout my tenure, I have seen personnel changes and instrument swaps (yes, our guitar player and mandolin player traded instruments after our first record!). Watching this band blossom into something of our own has been a treat sweeter than chocolate, and I am delighted about the release of our second album, Last Chance to Win, in August 2023.
This collection of songs came together in a really special way. We didn’t have group discussions about it. Rather, we each brought tunes we liked (mostly originals or songs written by our friends), and we realized there was an earnest undercurrent that they all shared, along with an old-time vibe that we’d previously not explored collectively. Everyone contributed wonderful tunes, but there was an important piece that was missing: an instrumental. So, I chose to represent the three generations of fiddlers in my family by writing a fiddle tune for the project. “Jenna McGaugh,” named after two Gallatin Road staples (a nod to our beautiful home in Madison, Tennessee), is the fifth track on the album, and it’s a tune I wrote in the van during my shift driving the band home from a gig in Wisconsin. I came up with a basic melody in my head and tried not to forget it as I drove. When we got home, I grabbed my fiddle and recorded a demo of it. I brought it to the band the day of the session, and I was pleasantly surprised by the warm response it received. The band learned it on the spot and even devised some clever chord substitutions, thus bringing “Jenna McGaugh” to life.
I’m excited about this tune because I think it’s danceable, which is ultimately my goal anytime I play a fiddle tune. I wrote this one in the key of C because I liked having access to the open E as a drone to the melody, which falls largely on the A string. I played the tune in first position, but it occurred to me after we’d already recorded it that second position might have been the better choice for added texture. The second chord of the song, a 6 major, is what Granddaddy would call an “off chord,” and we introduce it quickly on the fourth beat of the tune before returning to the tonic in the second measure.
The B part of this two-part breakdown begins in F, and to contrast the A part, falls to the 6 minor instead of the major. After the solo section, we took some chordal liberties and reharmonized the entire song on the penultimate fiddle break before restating the melody and original chords on the final pass. Though there are no lyrics to this song, I hoped to evoke a story through its spunky tempo and curious chord changes, leaving listeners to ponder who Jenna McGaugh might have been and how her tale is chronicled on this album of desolate tunes.
It is an immense honor to get to do what I love alongside musicians that I respect. East Nash Grass is comprised of Harry Clark (mandolin, vocals), James Kee (guitar, vocals), Gaven Largent (resonator guitar, vocals), Cory Walker (banjo), and Jeff Picker (bass). The album features original songs by Harry, James, Cory, and me, in addition to our friends Christian Ward, Jarrod Walker, and Theo MacMillan.
I often reminisce about my childhood and the time I spent learning to play the fiddle. As the years pass, I am increasingly thankful that my parents valued my unique heritage when my young mind was too distracted to grasp how extraordinary it was to be a third-generation fiddler. I didn’t appreciate my family’s musical history until I got older, and I wish I had realized how special it was to share this bond with my mother and grandfather before he passed away. The days of giving Granddaddy a hug or telling him how proud I am to be his granddaughter are over, but I will always cherish his memory and try to honor him with every note I play.
What Maddie Denton Plays
Fiddle: John Silakowski #10, 1993 (acquired from Adam French of French Violins)
Bow: D. Silveira (but I’m on the waiting list for a Tyler Andal bow)
Strings: Thomastik-Infeld Peter Infeld or Superflexible
Case: Bobelock Half Moon
Rosin: Larsen Amber