Pete McMahan before a concert at Thespian Hall in Boonville, Missouri. Howard Marshall photo.
Players: Pete McMahan, fiddle; Joe Stevens, guitar
From McMahan’s LP “Missouri Fiddlin’ no. 2”
Fiddling ‘Hoedown Style’
HARRISBURG–When he was only 6 years old, Pete McMahan must have wondered whether he was meant to play the fiddle.
His first instrument "was one my grandpa gave me," he remembers. "I was up on a chair, playing away. My feet didn’t touch the floor."
"I fell off the chair and landed right on top of the fiddle."
If that tumble 59 years ago left any doubts, they’ve surely been dispelled by now. The 65-year-old McMahan established himself long ago as one of the top old-time fiddlers in Mid-Missouri and in the past decade has earned a national reputation.
McMahan’s Harrisburg home is easy to find. The mailbox is decorated with a tin silhouette of a violin and a sign reading, "Fiddler’s Dream." What’s inside his modest mobile home, though, is the real fiddler’s fantasy: a wood and glass case with 170 trophies won at fiddling contests around the country.
"He’s the winningest fiddler in the history of Missouri fiddling contests," declares Charlie Walden, president of the Missouri Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association. "He’s tough as shoe leather in a fiddle contest. A lot of people try to emulate his style."
McMahan acknowledges the compliment bestowed by imitators, but he adds, "Every man should have his own style. He shouldn’t try to copy"
"You can learn the tunes from someone, but what makes fiddling great is the way each fiddler puts in variations–plays it to suit himself."
His on style, however, didn’t just spring up out of the foggy blue. Born and raised in Montgomery County, McMahan’s early mentor was one Clark Atterberry, " a great big man, about 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds. Every one of his fingers was like three of mine. Like me, he never read a note of music."
In 1933, when McMahan was 15, he journeyed to St. Charles and entered his first fiddle contest. He won first place. The grand prize: a basket of groceries. Despite his success, it would be 20 years before he played in another contest.
Many of the contests in those days were sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. Henry Ford was a great fan of old-time fiddling. Ironically, the major reason for McMahan’s non-participation was lack of transportation.
"There weren’t any contests right around here I come from," he says. "We were raised awful poor. We didn’t have any way to get to those other contests."
In 1953, he picked up another first place. After that, he says, "I laid my fiddle down and never picked it up until 1965. I was raising my family and, well, I just didn’t have time to fool with it."
During that 12-year layoff, he says, "I forgot more tunes than I know now."
That may be an exaggeration. Walden says one of the things he likes best about McMahan’s fiddling is that he knows so many tunes.
A student of fiddling, as well as a stylist in his own right, Walden has identified 12 distinct styles of Missouri fiddling. McMahan, he says, is the major exponent of what Walden calls Missouri Hoedown Style.
That style, most popular in Boone, Callaway and other Central Missouri counties, is typified by long bow strokes, slurs and chording. Along with Taylor McBaine, Jake Hocklemeyer, and other top-flight area fiddlers, McMahan, with four locally produced albums to his credit, established the unique sound.
But McMahan’s appeal is not limited to Mid-Missouri. In 1982, he traveled to Athens, Ala., and won the Tennessee Valley Fiddle King Championship.
"I’m the only man from the North that’s ever won it," he says. "I’m more proud of that than any other."
"Pete is definitely outstanding," says Spence Galloway, another top area fiddler. "He can hold his own in any contest in any part of the country."
McMahan also placed fifth in the National Old-Time Fiddle Championship in Weiser, Idaho, and is the only fiddle contest judge in the state certified by the board of the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Association.
Also a three-time winner of the Missouri State Fiddle Contest, McMahan has lately been relegated to a judge’s role. Contest officials wanted someone else to have a shot at the state title.
"He’s the fiddler to beat around here," says current Boone County fiddle champion Walden. "I was lucky. I didn’t have to beat Pete to get the title."
–Forrest Rose, published July 1981
Courtesy of The Columbia Daily Tribune