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Friday Night Fiddles

I ran a red light and didn’t get caught.

I was walking down Main Street at a good pace—almost 3 miles an hour—when I saw the red light at the intersection. But I just kept going, right through that intersection and on towards the courthouse, then back again.

Yep, I ran that red light two times and the Sheriff didn’t even ticket me.

They say it’s the only stoplight in the whole of Teton County, and it’s not even a real stoplight—just a blinking red light suggesting you stop and look both ways before crossing.

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Teton County, Montana boasts only this single blinking red stoplight in the county seat of Choteau. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Not that there’s any real traffic in Choteau, Montana. More people drive down my city block back home than live in all of Teton County and even with all the out of town guests, this flea-speck town of Choteau can only claim a population of 1,500.

1,500 humans and about that many fiddles, too (it seems). My hotel lobby was stacked with every kind of stringed instrument case—fiddles, bass, banjos and guitars—and behind the closed doors in the hallway I could hear the wailing melodies of musicians, jamming in private before they head down “into town” to jam in public.

The stage was a semi-trailer, pulled in special for the event, open on one side, with microphones teetering on a bare wood floor. The musicians ranged from the youngest of schoolgirls, balancing fiddles as long as their bodies—to John Shelton, two months shy of ninety, who told me he just plays to his cats.

“I mostly fix broken fiddles,” he explained, “that’s why I own so darn many of ‘em.”

John owns (and plays) fifteen different fiddles, and though he’s probably as pro as they come, he’s pure Montana: humble, self-deprecating, and not at all interested in any attention or praise. Last night he came to listen, just to sit in a lawn chair and enjoy the amazing show in Choteau.

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John Shelton, 89, of Choteau, Montana, comes to listen to the fiddle music at the Old Time FIddlers Contest (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

The gathering was easy and informal, like a big family reunion of fiddle addicts. The announcer called out someone’s name, “Where are you? It’s your turn to play!” A few minutes later, the musicians would step up on stage and begin their set. Other fiddlers warmed up in the street, so that walking past, I caught the melted caramel strains of singing fiddles, rolling from one tune to the next, as if all the radio stations in the world were playing fiddles forever.

This is Montana’s Old Time Fiddlers Contest—where fiddlers from all over Montana (and beyond) gather and play to be judged, and yet I didn’t catch any of the competitive side. Instead, I caught a small town caught up in beautiful old music played late into the night.

I may have been to the big-ticket spotlighted concerts of Chicago and New York and San Francisco, but when it comes to American music, small towns are where it’s at. I remember catching a low-key Cajun jam session in western Louisiana, and then in little Choteau, Montana, I discovered the amazing energy of fiddling—folks playing music and not stopping before midnight because it’s fun.

Perhaps most amazing is that of all the Montana fiddlers I asked, not one claimed to ever had any formal musical training.

“Oh, one day I just started playing,” they said, or “I learned by ear”, or “it’s just for fun.”

And it was fun—Friday night in Choteau, a musical Montana moment—my first summer discovery on my journey in a state with so very few red lights.

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Musician Hannah King of Molt, Montana warms up with her sister at the Old Time Fiddlers Contest in Choteau, Montana. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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