Waneita Rees is no champion fiddler. Her biggest fans request “Peek-a-Boo Waltz” from their wheelchairs in nursing homes.
Rees, who’s pushing 81, learned to play at an age many people retire. She practices when she feels like it.
But few people probably love the thrill of competing in fiddle contests more than Rees, who travels the contest circuit in a fifth-wheel with her husband, Leonard, 81.
She practices tunes in her north Spokane mobile home, her right foot tapping the carpet, her gold-ringed fingers bobbing from string to string.
Nothing stops her. Not arthritis: “As long as you milk cows and do things with your hands, you keep them going.”
Not recurring stage fright: “I just look down at my fiddle and play.”
And certainly not a lack of trophies: “I never make the cut,” says Rees. “I don’t aim to. The other guys have been fiddling their whole life.”
This past weekend, she and Leonard parked their camper outside Richland High School, where some 100 people competed in the 31st annual Washington State Fiddlers’ Contest.
Rees is just a year younger than the oldest competitor; the youngest is 5.
For Rees, the contests and parking-lot jam sessions are a dream come true. She revered quick-fingered fiddlers while growing up near Jordan, Mont., when farm and ranch families packed her log schoolhouse for dances.
“They’d just push back the desks and dance from dark till daylight,” says Rees. “I still love to dance.”
Polkas. Waltzes. Two-steps. Rees learned them all in that makeshift dance hall near Hell Creek.
But after Rees’ parents bought school clothes for their nine children, there was never money left over for the fiddle lessons she wanted.
She put those aspirations on hold for decades, moving to Washington, marrying Leonard and raising three children. After her kids grew up, Rees managed a few lessons, but stopped when she decided to take in foster children.
Finally, as retirement age loomed, Rees decided to make her longtime hope a priority and signed up for lessons again. This time, she learned her favorite old songs, such as “Cattle Call” and “Waltz Across Texas.”
“I’m kind of bull-headed, I guess,” she says. “They tell me I can’t do something, that’s what I do.”
Now a good chunk of her life revolves around fiddling. She and Leonard travel to a half-dozen contests each year, from Clarkston, Wash., to Kalispell, Mont., sometimes spending a weekend, sometimes lingering for a week or more.
She’s also a member of the Evergreen Drifters, a group of greenvested women that plays at Spokane nursing homes.
“They have a distinct following,” says Mary Henjum, who directs activities at Regency Care Center of Spokane. “We have about 25 people who will show up rain or shine, no matter if they feel good or not.”
Henjum lines up wheelchairs in a semi-circle around the amateur musicians and listens as the patients sing along.
“They play the old-time songs and it’s not perfect, but you can tell they love what they’re doing.”
Rees’ instructor, Sheila Wright Everts, is helping Rees with her goal to perfect a hoedown - a faster, more complicated song.
“She works really hard at it,” says Everts. “You can just tell it’s kind of in her soul.”
Between fiddling sessions, Rees cans home-grown vegetables, fishes for trout in Fishtrap Lake, and stitches wedding-ring quilts for her grandchildren.
“If you sit down and watch TV, you just kind of lose your muscle,” she says. “We never have time to sit.”
Her daughter, Linda Davidson, jokes that she can’t have a cup of coffee with Rees without scheduling it. “I’ve never caught up with her,” says Davidson, 57.
Chances are she never will. After two long days of fiddling and dancing in Richland, Rees is already selecting songs for the next contest.
Will she ever quit competing? “Not until I can’t crawl up on the stage,” Rees says.
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