The official e-newsletter of The Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Association (CGMFA-ACGMV)
Interview with Cathy Sproule, former CGMFA President
interviewed by James Steele
Conducted at Ness Creek, SK
August 19, 2023
James: Cathy, how did you come to be involved with fiddle music ?
Cathy: My mother started fiddling in her sixties. My mom got hooked on fiddle music late in life, and got my nieces into fiddle. I was already an adult by then but I saw them fiddling, and thought “that looks like fun.” So I went to the Emma Lake fiddle camp, in Saskatchewan, in 2003. From the minute I stepped on the dance floor at the camp for the first time, I knew I want to do fiddle. Gord Stobbe was calling that square that night. I just thought, I cannot believe how fun this is.
James: For those outside of Saskatchewan, how do you sum up the atmosphere of the Emma Lake fiddle camp?
Cathy: It was right up there at the apex of fiddle music at the time. All these amazing instructors. I remember Patti Kusturok being there, and I remember her playing slow jams and helping beginners know that they also could learn a tune. There were people there like Jerry Holland, Calvin Vollrath. All the fiddle legends made their way through Emma Lake at one time or another.
James: What do you love most about fiddle music?
Cathy: For me, it is being able to play music with others. It was also the social aspect that I loved. I didn’t love soloing when I played music, I loved playing music with other people.
James: It's 2023 now, you have worn a lot of hats in the past in the music world. What are you currently doing in the fiddle world?
Cathy: Right now, just trying to keep my fiddle camp going at FiddlyNess, a fiddle camp that takes place here at Ness Creek, Saskatchewan. I ran a winter fiddle camp in Saskatoon, called Shivering Strings. We are going into year 14 in that camp.
On the playing side, I gravitate more to doing piano accompaniment, as I am more trained in that area. I am doing a lot of playing right now with JJ Guy. We were doing a weekly series on Facebook over Covid. I play a lot with Joseph Desjarlais, a player from Saskatoon.
James: Tell me a bit about Jamming with JJ?
Cathy: I am good friends with fiddle JJ Guy. When Covid hit and we all went into lockdown during Covid, JJ was out in BC with Gord Stobbe. All of a sudden, due to Covid, they had no gigs. I was still employed and I was able to work from home at the time. I suggested to JJ, why don’t we do something online? He looked at me and said “what do you mean”?
I said there is this thing called Facebook Live. I had been watching some fiddlers from Scotland doing a thing each day on Facebook. I said “lets just try it, and see what happens.”
JJ came over to my house around April 4, 2020. He had his microphone setup and we figured out a few things to livestream it. And we just started playing, and each Sunday we did this Facebook jam and it caught on like crazy.
James: Tell me about the range of the geographic audience that you get for Jamming with JJ?
Cathy: Lots of people from across Canada, lots from BC and Alberta. JJ is already well known in those provinces from doing fiddle workshops and camps.
We had people from Minnesota, New York state, Scotland, California, and lots of east coast people too. There are regular watchers who tune in almost every week.
James: Have you guys had the chance to have an in-person reunion with the people who grew to watch your Facebook jam?
We did have a reunion in September of 2022, in Saskatoon. It was organized mainly by some fiddle fans from BC, who wanted to get together in person now that Covid was dying down. There were up to 50 people there that weekend at some points, and we just jammed.
James: Is there any plan to wind down Jamming with JJ?
Cathy: For this summer season we have wound down the Facebook jam, as JJ is travelling a lot for music this summer. Once Covid began to wind down, JJ hit the road again. If JJ was on the road with Gord, he would still broadcast on Sundays from wherever he was. We will probably start up again in the winter.
The sense of community that we were able to build was really meaningful. We got to know so many people so well, even though they were participating virtually. Having that community every Sunday at four o’clock meant so much to us.
James: Tell me about the first time that the CGM competition came to Saskatoon:
Cathy: The context is that back in 2011 or 2012, I was in Ottawa for the fiddle AGM for the CGM. The CGM was having its annual general meeting at the Fiddles on the Rideau camp, which was held the week before the CGM competition.
I was sitting in the back of the room beside Calvin Vollrath. The organizers were talking about how to keep the CGM competition rejuvenated. I turned to Calvin and said, have they ever thought about moving it to another location, so that someone else could host it?
Calvin spoke up and said “hey, have you guys ever thought about moving it”? There was a lot of surprise and people had not really considered that idea. It took some time, but people eventually began to come around to the idea of moving the CGM competition.
The organizers didn’t know me, but Calvin knew me, and he gave everyone confidence that we could pull it off. We put together a committee in Saskatoon and the rest is history. It was a great event, and the event sold out in Saskatoon basically. Everyone loved it.
Since then, the competition has been at a lot of cities, since then. Next year in 2024 it will be in Whitehorse.
James: Right now we are doing this interview while you and I are both at Ness Creek, for the August bluegrass festival they hold here at Ness Creek, Saskatchewan. Here in northern Saskatchewan it is lush, green, wilderness, full of gorgeous forests. Tell us about the site at Ness Creek, and how the bluegrass festival at Ness Creek got started.
Cathy: I started tree planting in 1988. I had never really been in the forests of Saskatchewan before, as I was raised in southern Saskatchewan on the prairies. I became friends with Gord Olson who lived up at Ness Creek.
Long story short, we started a festival at this site in northern Saskatchewan. We picked a date to start a music festival. I remember we picked a date on the third weekend in July. We had 150 people the first year. We lost money that first year. We were going to do the festival as a private enterprise, but we realized we needed grants. We formed a non-profit and it took off from there.
The next year we had 450 people, and each year it kept growing. The July Ness Creek musical festival (which is a distinct festival from the Bluegrass festival) peaked at 2017 at around 2,400 tickets sold. There are now so many music festivals in Saskatchewan.
In 2006, I started the separate August Northern Lights Bluegrass festival and music camp. This festival has been going strong ever since.
James: Where do you see yourself going in the next 10 years with fiddle?
Cathy: I am 62 years old now. I am trying to make the most of my good health while I can. I definitely have good number of years left of being really active and traveling. I am very interested in Nova Scotia Cape Breton music. I am going out to the Celtic Colors Festival in Cape Breton this fall.
Here at home, I get to play piano for some great fiddlers in Saskatoon. I remember Gord Stobbe telling me just to have fun with music. So that is my goal – I don’t practice 4 hours a day, I just jam when I can, and I love it. Fiddle music will be part of my life until I die.
James: Is there anything you want to touch on, that we have not talked about in the interview?
Cathy: The one thing I worry about is the lack of opportunity for some young fiddlers to learn the old time fiddle. The most prevalent way to learn fiddle now, is through lessons. There are not always as many teachers as you need, to ensure all young people can get access to a teacher. A lot of fiddle teachers end up going on to other careers, and having to leave music teaching behind. So that is a struggle.
I do see us having a revitalization of the Metis music however, which is really positive. Often the Metis culture has good funding for culture, which helps keep their musical heritage alive. I think that is a really exciting opportunity for the future.