By Howard (Rusty) Marshall
I am sorry to convey the news of the death of Leroy Canaday. Leroy and Betty had moved to the Houston, Texas, area in 2005 to live with their daughter, Kathy Kadletz, and family. Leroy had been in failing health for several years; Betty died in 2006. Local services will be held in LaPorte, Texas.
When I was growing up in Moberly in the 1950s, Red Canaday was “the” fiddler in our town, performing successfully across the spectrum of venues, from live radio shows to dance halls and fiddlers’ contest. Known for his grace and character, even my watchful mother liked Leroy, and she would have encouraged me to get acquainted and learn his music.
The famously red-haired Leroy Francis Canaday was born in 1928 on the family farm on Otter Creek in northwestern Monroe County. The family was English on the Palliser side (from Illinois) and Irish on the Canaday side (from Iowa), and came to Missouri after the Civil War. Leroy obtained his first violin at age seven; lacking a bow, he used a Model A Ford choke rod for a bow. He began fiddling at jam sessions in Cox’s country store in Maud, a hamlet three miles from the Canaday farm, and he listened to records and Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts (admiring, especially, the fiddling of Curly Fox). The storekeeper, Mr. Tipton, played fiddle and hosted music parties (as jam sessions were called in our area) on Saturday nights, events that included everyone gathering around the store’s radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Tipton provided free candy bars and soft drinks to the musicians. Tipton encouraged young Leroy to play fiddle music, offering the lad free “sody pops” as he sat on a chair and experimented with learning tunes.
Leroy won the first contest he entered, in the county seat of Paris in 1939, fiddling “Old Dan Tucker” with his older brother Orville (Rooster; he also had bright red hair), playing guitar second. Leroy eventually moved to nearby Moberly (Randolph County), and in 1949 married Betty Ransdell, niece of the well-known fiddling coal miner in Huntsville, Clate (Peggy) Ransdell, a contest champion who had lost a leg in a mining accident and was famous for tapping out rhythm with his wooden leg while fiddling.
Canaday became an awesome competitor, winning the big state contest in Columbia in 1961 sponsored by MFA Oil. The contest was notable for having regional preliminary rounds, from which five top winners were selected for the finals in the Missouri Theatre in Columbia. Canaday played “Black Mountain Rag (chorded),” “Mocking Bird,” “Satan’s Nightmare” (“Devil’s Dream”), and “Wednesday Night Waltz.” Canaday was offered a chance to move to Nashville to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, but declined for personal reasons; family meant more to Leroy than fame, and he disliked the reputation of wild nightlife associated with the country music business. Around 1949, Leroy had declined, for similar reasons, an invitation to audition for Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys. In the 1962 MFA contest finals in Columbia, Leroy Canaday won second place; first was LeRoy Haslag (who had won second the previous year).
As fiddlers’ associations evolved in the 1950s and 1960s, and decided to ban his favorite contest “winners” (“Black Mountain Rag” and “Listen to the Mockingbird”), Canaday increased his involvement in country dance bands, performing on live radio shows, and then became well-known in the bluegrass festival circuit in Missouri, often accompanied by his son, Norman (guitar) and daughter Kathy (bass). He returned to contest fiddling in the 1980s, competing successfully in many competitions in Missouri and elsewhere, and often being asked to play “Mocking Bird” to entertain the audience after the contest.
In 2001, during a memorable period when I was performing with Leroy (second fiddle, banjo), I produced a CD of his fiddling, with Norman Canaday (guitar) and Forrest Rose (bass) for Voyager Records, “Old Dan Tucker was a Fine Old Man.” I provided old-time frailing banjo on a few tracks on that CD. The CD includes Leroy’s first tunes as well his favorite contest pieces and his only composition, “Betty’s Waltz.”
I always admired Leroy Canaday’s approach to fiddle music, emphasizing “clean” playing and the accent and “drive” famous in central Missouri. Canaday was particularly adept at playing complex waltzes with powerful, rich double-stops that was a characteristic of most top-tier fiddlers of his generation in central Missouri.
It was my privilege to know Leroy Canaday as a friend, and he was among the most gentlemanly and generous people I have known in my life. May he rest in peace.