From a small stage, fiddlers, guitar players and a pianist coax couples onto the Shrine dance floor on a Sunday afternoon in February.
For four hours, musicians keep toes tapping and dancers slowly circling with well-loved country songs, waltzes and rags.
The Montana State Old-Time Fiddlers District 4 jams at the Billings Shrine welcomes anyone to play an instrument, dance or just listen to the music that’s easy on the ears and tugs at the heart, from “Five-Foot-Two Eyes of Blue,” to “San Antonio Rose” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.”
District 4 stretches from Big Timber to Forsyth and from the Missouri River to the Wyoming line, said Frank Teeters, district president.
Musicians come to the jam from Laurel, Columbus, Bridger, Joliet, Billings and Terry.
Except for few microphones and a little amplification, the music is low-tech and genuine Americana.
With many members well past retirement age, the group hopes the jams attract younger people so traditional American music will be heard into the future.
The group has plenty of examples of nonmusicians starting to play instruments later in life and now play with the best of them.
Teeters took up the fiddle after he retired 16 years ago from Harvest States Grain Elevators.
When he was in grade school, his parents bought him a guitar that he never learned to play.
“I was too scared to ask for help and left it idle,” Teeters said.
He still loved music and listened to country-western singers like Eddy Arnold and Roy Acuff.
After retirement, Teeters learned to play the fiddle from books and listening to other fiddlers.
Now 81 and living in Bridger, Teeters practices for an hour and a half a day.
Ken Witcher of Joliet is another late musical starter, although he grew up in a musical household. The past District 4 president is 66 years old, which makes him one of the group’s younger members.
When Witcher was a child, his father played the fiddle and his mother the piano.
“We had music all the time in the family,” he said. “Someone might knock on the door at midnight and we’d go to a schoolhouse near Cooney where my parents would play music until dawn.”
Those impromptu musical sessions were common at a time when there wasn’t much prefab entertainment and people looked forward to barn and harvest dances.
His father’s warnings to his children not to touch his fiddle discouraged them from playing instruments themselves.
Witcher ran Ken’s Auto Service in Billings for 30 years before retiring in 2005. He now works as an irrigation ditch rider during the summer.
Witcher started playing the fiddle when he was 49 years old, taking lessons from local fiddlers Willard Ferch and Harvey Chell.
Perhaps because music was in his DNA, Witcher quickly took to the fiddle, winning the novice category at a fiddler’s contest less than a year after he started.
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His sister May Magnus took second place at the same contest.
Magnus, who is District 4 secretary-treasurer, started fiddle lessons after moving back to Laurel when her husband retired from the United States Marine Corps.
Longtime musicians also fill out the Old-Time Fiddlers’ ranks.
Gladys Burns is a quadruple musical threat playing fiddle, guitar, mandolin and piano.
She started piano at age 13. She took up the fiddle 20 years ago after retiring as a telephone operator.
Playing “keeps the brain working,” she said, adding “I love to dance, too.”
The oldest musician at the jam was James Smith, 94.
His only concession to age was sitting down as he plays the guitar.
Coming to most of the fiddle jams, he plays any song others play “as long as it’s within reason,” including hillbilly music.
One thing beyond reason for Smith is rock 'n' roll. He doesn’t like it and won’t play it.
Although many members of the group are in their 70s and 80s, music seems to have shaved a couple of decades off their chronological ages.
That was true of 85-year-old Neil Logan, trimly dressed in a black cowboy hat, brown cowboy boots and a striped western shirt.
Logan was on stage several times, including singing, yodeling and playing his guitar through Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now.”
When Logan wasn’t playing music, he twirled his wife, Lois, around the dance floor.
At the other end of the age range was 5-year-old Jasmine Denizeri, May Magus’ great-granddaughter.
While Magnus fiddled “Mockingbird Hill,” Jasmine tapped out the rhythm on her knee with spoons.
Then the little girl confidently sang “You are My Sunshine,” accompanied by Magnus.
If the musicians loved playing the old tunes because they remind them of music their family enjoyed, that’s true of those who just came to listen, too.
Paddy Moore, a Billings resident who is well below retirement age, came to the jam because the music reminded her of her grandfather’s music.
As a young child, she remembers dancing in her family’s kitchen as her grandfather, who was of Métis descent, played the fiddle.
Moore now plays bluegrass bass and was looking for a fiddle player for her group.