Main image: The Fernglen Fiddleheads (front from left) Arlene McLean, Francesca Dancer-Geneau, Carole Gautreau, Valerie Fieldwebster, Dawna Mitchell; (back from left) Tom Hutchinson, Mike Nolan, Bob Mitchell, John Ferguson, and Lisa Duffield (Douglas McLean)
To create any successful band, it takes persistence, perseverance, and determination, but above all a band needs passion and love for their music. To maintain a professional band for more than ten years, it takes friendship, respect and something magical.
The Fernglen Fiddleheads are not only a successful local band but also a group of folks who admire their chosen music and who have found a deep friendship and abiding kinship on stage and off.
Every Monday night, this group of players gather to rehearse and prepare for their up-coming season of fairs, concerts, and festival performances. Practice and honing their musical grace is key to their continued high level of ability to be a perennial crowd-pleasing band.
This is no ordinary combo; this is a full orchestra of five fiddles, bass, piano, guitar, drum and banjo! Their repertoire is comprised of hundreds of songs, which they have to know to perfection. The Fernglen Fiddleheads specialize in a traditional form of music that is remarkably alive and popular within the Huntsville region. Comprised of music from sea shanties to ballads to country anthems and bluegrass, this band’s performances are meant to stir the blood and make you tap your feet.
Their journey as a band began twelve years ago, when fledgling adult students were encouraged to perform songs they were learning from master violin teacher Marion Linton. Marion is a consummate musician and teacher of piano, violin, guitar and mandolin. She is extraordinarily versed in traditional forms of music from bluegrass to jazz, as well as being a remarkable performer and advanced composer. Having left Toronto many years ago, Linton has become a local teacher of students from the youngest to oldest. Several of the members of the Fiddlehead organization met through studying at Linton’s studio in Emsdale.
The impetus for the band did not entirely hinge on their studies because they soon found themselves in the midst of the robust tradition of kitchen parties and family jams. In fact, the original band concept came from Laurie Miller, herself a student, who along with Linton began to play small shows around Kearney and Emsdale. They were soon joined by the late Jack Keith who was an outstanding fiddler, well versed in Irish and Scottish jigs and reels. Along with the late Hilda Allen, on guitar and vocals, and often mentored by the outstanding drummer Skip Taylor, the band was received with broad enthusiasm. So began the career they continue to this date. As it is in all things, the band has evolved through several iterations but the current band members have been playing together for several years.
The appeal of the Fernglen Fiddleheads springs from their unique instrumentation, in particular their fiddle section, which is comprised of Dawna Mitchell, Arlene McLean, Francesca Dancer-Geneau, Tom Hutchinson, and Valerie Fieldwebster. This has been the heart of their sound from their formation, but without the piano skills of Carole Gautreau, the fiddlers would be flying high with no way to get back to ground.
The music is chosen, arranged, and scored by Tom who acts as musical director and has the most developed and longest career in music in general and specifically in traditional fiddle. Tom is classically trained and played for many years in the Etobicoke Philharmonic. He also played with Sandy MacIntyre, the famed Cape Breton fiddler who, along with a few others, is responsible for spreading the delight and vigor of highland music to lowlander Ontarians. Tom is regarded as the Fiddlehead’s secret weapon when it comes to the enigmas of fiddle but he is among an inspired group of violin players, all of whom were drawn to this music for its vibrancy and toe-tapping joyfulness.
In fact, if there is a common inspiration in this band, it stems from the earliest memories each has with the music of their families, community, and childhood. The Fiddleheads’ repertoire is largely comprised of music that some might refer to as old-time fiddle but it is much richer than that alone. Most of these songs are historic, deriving their roots from ancestral homelands. The band accompanies these songs with modern classics.
Each of the fiddlers has received, to some degree, classical training but all were pulled by the old tunes and, above all, the camaraderie they experience in playing with a group of like-minded fiddlers. Dawna and Arlene have been members of the band since its earliest inception, both having studied extensively with Marion Linton. Arlene can often be found playing a wide range of music with other musicians at farmers’ markets and pubs. Dawna carries an added responsibility since she is the band manager and booking agent.
Rounding out the distinctive style of the Fiddleheads are bassist Lisa Duffield; guitarist John Ferguson; banjo, guitar and mandolin player Mike Nolan; and cajón drum/percussionist, Bob Mitchell. Lisa and John often play quite different styles with the other bands that they are in.
In recent years, the band has added vocals to many of their tunes, which has enabled them to expand their appeal through the addition of country, pop, and folk tunes. Bob Mitchell, who discovered the thrill of singing later in life but now expresses his deep love for the gift, sings most of the songs. John, Lisa, Mike, and Francesca often share singing. This combination of both traditional instrumental and countrified songs has given the Fiddleheads a strong capacity to play for almost any audience.
With their strong roots in the local community, the band twice donated a fiddle to Indigenous youth in northern Ontario, in memory of Jack Keith, fiddler and piper, whom the band loved dearly and miss daily.
While the fiddlers are central to the music, other instruments play a significant role in broadening the scope of pieces the band performs. They are as likely to have a banjo bluegrass solo featuring Mike, followed by some guitar picking or stylized percussion. Mike is an avid bluegrass fan and he is always on the lookout for jams and jamborees. The strong driving force of the piano, especially the rock-sold rhythm provided by Carole, is central to the uplifting swoops and swirls that the fiddlers provide, as their music typically builds throughout their set until a final crescendo.
If you are wanting some deep-rooted, inspirational music, keep your ears and eyes open for this thrilling band. They have found that the best music comes in caring about each other, supporting one another, and having fun together. Every single time the Fernglen Fiddleheads get to play, they are with friends and bandmates, and if you happen to be in the audience then you, too, are among friends.
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