For one week each year – the third full week of June – Weiser, Idaho, becomes the bluegrass nirvana as top fiddlers of all ages converge for the annual National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest and Festival. By the end of competition, age group champions have been crowned along with a Grand Champion.
Seven times in the last 25 years, that grand national champion has been a member of Amber Poulos’ family.
“In my family, everybody plays an instrument,” Poulos said. “I started playing the fiddle when I was 4 years old. I went to Weiser for the first time when I was 7.”
Poulos plays with a group of young bluegrass prodigies from the Spokane Valley. At 20, Poulos is the oldest member of the band. Emily Miller, the youngest at 10, and her brother Drew and siblings Trevor and Haley Beeching round out the quintet.
Calling themselves The Pearl Snaps, taking the name taken from the pearl snaps on a western shirt, and the group made their Weiser debut on June 21.
“It wasn’t a great time slot, playing at 10:30 in the morning,” Poulos said. “But we begged and begged and begged to get the chance to play there.
“When people see how young we are, they kind of want to dismiss us. But once we start to play and they see how good we are, it’s a fun reaction.”
Playing a full set between rounds of competition, the Pearl Snaps did much more than get a fun reaction from contest officials.
“When we were done, they were so excited,” Poulos said. “They told us ‘You guys are so good! You’re going to play a night set next year!’ ”
Spokane is a hotbed of bluegrass talent, and Poulos’ family is no stranger to the Weiser stage. Her uncle is five-time grand national champion Tony Ludiker. Her aunt is JayDean Ludiker, herself a junior and women’s division champion, a nationally acclaimed fiddle teacher and a judge for this year’s grand national competition. Her cousin, Kimber Ludiker, is a two-time grand national champion.
She’s played with the Miller family for years, but the idea to actually form their own band didn’t happen until last year.
“I’ve been playing with Drew quite a bit and he’s a terrific musician,” she said. “He mostly plays mandolin with the band, but he plays guitar and fiddle as well. He’s a great accompanist – I think he was on the stage with competitors even more often than his dad (Spokane firefighter Ed) was this year. And Emily – she’s just amazing. At 10 she’s already so accomplished and polished as a performer. She is way better than I was at that age.”
The Beeching siblings have been around the bluegrass scene for years as well, and melding them into the group was a natural.
“We get together and practice three or four times a month,” Poulos said. “It’s a little harder now that I’m in college. Melding all of our schedules is tough.”
On stage Haley Beeching, Emily Miller and Poulos play as if they’d been born in unison.
“The key for us is that we’ve all learned from the same teachers,” Poulos said. “When you’ve all learned to play the same songs the same way, it comes pretty naturally.”
Poulos’ first teacher was her aunt.
“She used to babysit me and she always had students coming in and out of her house,” Poulos said.”When I was 4-and-a-half, I got caught teaching one of her students how to properly hold a bow and she said ‘OK, time for you to start taking lessons.’ ”
But it’s never felt like she was taking lessons, Poulos said.
“I love playing and practicing,” she said. “And I love playing with other musicians. I’m the kind of player who is always calling other people up onto the stage to play with us. If I see someone in the audience who I know can play, I’m gonna call them up in the stage. That’s what’s fun.”
Poulos played basketball at West Valley High School through her junior year. But by the time she was a senior, the pull of the fiddle was too strong and she opted to focus on her music.
“I was never one of those kids who went to games to hang out and socialize,” she said. “Music is how we socialize in my family. When the family gets together, it always involves playing music.”
The Pearl Snaps is booked every weekend in August and will play several venues in July. They have a plum slot at Pig Out in the Park and at a Spokane Indians baseball game Aug. 23.
And the group has its first CD available for sale whenever they play.
“You have to come see us play to get the CD,” Poulos said. “When people hear us play, a lot of them want to buy a CD because they like what we do. We’ve been selling even more than we thought we would.”