Warm Fiddlin' from Frigid North Canada
by Kara M. Bachman
It gets COLD in northern Canada, and fiddler and songwriter Calvin Vollrath will tell you just that. When you live up in Alberta — about two hours northeast of Edmonton — you spend quite a lot of time indoors during winter. This winter in particular — because of social distancing — Vollrath has kept busy at home, making new music and managing to bring other artists on board to share in his recent burst of creativity.
Vollrath started playing at age eight when he got his first fiddle. He never looked back. He’s TWICE been crowned the Grand North American Old Tyme Fiddle Champion. He’s so prolific as a songwriter, it’s mind-boggling. He’s written over 800 pieces of music, from traditional fiddle tunes to music he created for the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. He has released so many albums, it can almost make your head spin.
“I released my 71st album in 2020,” Vollrath said.
“I’m a composer, so I compose music all the time,” Vollrath said. He’s a self-taught musician, and everything he composes is by ear. He said if it needs to be written down, he’ll have someone else do the musical notation.
Before Covid-19 hit, Vollrath said he was “booked to tour all across Canada.” Then the pandemic arrived, most things got canceled, and there was no choice but to hunker down at home. By fall, he’d gotten a bit stir-crazy and needed to get his nose back to the grindstone.
“In October, I went down to my studio and said… I gotta start playing again,” Vollrath explained.
One of his ideas that took shape this fall, and winter is an original concept that wildly inspired not just Vollrath, but other performers he knows and respects. He came up with a unique idea, a new way of collaborating with other fiddle players, bass players, and guitarists. The idea was this: Vollrath would write the first half of a song, then send the recording to a musician who would write the second half. When he talks about this in-process project, the excitement is clear in his friendly, warm voice. It is easy to see that he loves what he does.
“That [first] day, I wrote the first 13 tunes,” he said. “I had people in mind as I was writing these tunes. It was kind of magical…it happened so fast.”
“Everybody said yes, I’m in, send me what you got,” Vollrath said.
It seems counterintuitive, but Vollrath said completion of songs started by someone else didn’t result in weird compositions. He said so far, the 17 or 18 people who have sent back completed numbers have created songs that flow well and sound great.
“Everybody that sent something back, I’ve agreed with it,” he said. He made a few tweaks here and there but kept the basics of what the other musicians sent him. Ten songs are finished now, and the work continues; he hopes to release it all as a full CD, perhaps as early as May.
In addition to composing music, Vollrath teaches. He’s got a wealth of experience behind him and passing this knowledge to others is a natural passion. He’s been running a fiddle camp for 15 years, but right now, it — understandably — only takes the form of virtual Facebook workshops.
He recently did an online workshop for a whole bluegrass group. Vollrath also produces a podcast — “The Story Behind the Tunes” — which gives a peek into the creative process. A new episode appears every Sunday afternoon; they can be found at his website, Calvinvollrath.com.
“I’m having a lot of fun, I’m learning lots,” Vollrath said, of his time spent at home due to social distancing rules. “We’re finding a silver lining in everything.”