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For an hour, Danny Knicely quietly lurked around the registration table, often strumming on his mandolin or stopping to talk to old friends. But unlike the more than 300 other mandolin carriers at Felts Park on Tuesday afternoon, Knicely wasn’t wearing a numbered sticker.
Then suddenly, he darted into a short line. Seconds later, he waved to a cheering crowd, wearing the number 384.
Knicely, 37, of Loudoun County helped participants at the 77th Annual Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention become potential Guinness World Record holders for the largest mandolin ensemble. The previous record was 383 players in Germany in 2005.
Though officials at Guinness World Records have to confirm the feat, organizer Tara Linhardt announced to the crowd that a total of 389 mandolin players participated in the four songs played, beating the previous record by six players.
Knicely admitted that he patiently waited to register so that he could have a chance at being the one who set the record. He later played standing in front of the crowd with a mandolin he bought in Galax 20 years ago.
“It’s wonderful and hazardous to have this many mandolin players at this place in one time,” Knicely said.
Linhardt said the idea to break the world record just came to her, and she knew it would have to happen at the Old Fiddlers' Convention. Linhardt said she first came to the convention right out of high school and has been attending for 20 years, traveling from Taylorstown.
“I love it because everyone is playing music, having fun, learning from each other and supporting each other,” Linhardt said.
Participants played “Old Joe Clark,” “Cripple Creek,” “Angeline the Baker” and “Soldier’s Joy” before the crowd erupted in applause, and lifted their mandolins above their heads in celebration of potentially breaking the world record.
Getting a representative from Guinness to witness a record-breaking attempt costs $2,500, said Aaron Jonah Lewis, who helped Linhardt organize the event. Instead, organizers had a sign-up sheet, videotaped and photographed the performance, and had official witnesses fill out paperwork that will be sent to Guinness.
The record-breaking attempt was sponsored by Eastman Guitars, a national company that also makes violins and mandolins. After the event, a representative from Eastman drew a random number and gave away an $800 hand-carved, maple mandolin from the company to 18-year-old Jack Dunlap from Winchester, who happened to be wearing the numbered sticker that matched.
The mandolin ensemble is just one part of the weeklong activities of the Old Fiddlers' Convention.
Lewis, 30, who is originally from Detroit but now lives in Germany, said many individuals travel thousands of miles to attend the convention. He said he camps in a tent for the week and has made lifelong friends who have kept him coming back for 11 years.
“A good friend of mine from Blacksburg, who I was playing in a bluegrass band with when I lived in Richmond, said one year, ‘We should go to Galax,’” Lewis said. “I just loved it. It took to me. I have come back every year.”
David Wright, 70, drove his 1928 Model A Ford from Massachusetts for his 26th year at the convention. He said he has been playing the mandolin, guitar and bass since he was 17. He’s had many musical highlights in his life, he said, but one of his top was playing in front of an audience of 43,000 two years ago at the convention. Tuesday is now on his list, too.
Once he stepped down the grandstand steps from where he had been playing during the record-breaking attempt, he could only describe the experience as “earth shattering.”
Wright added that one of his favorite aspects of the convention is seeing the tradition of bluegrass music being passed on to younger generations.
Andrew Vogts, 11, of Pennsylvania won the youth old-time fiddle competition Monday night, for the second year in a row. He’s been playing the fiddle for seven years and started playing the mandolin a few years ago, he said.
Keeping the tradition alive was the main priority of Tim Lawrence of Winchester, who has been coming to the convention “since he was born.” His ex-wife’s grandfather was James Lindsey — a local bluegrass legend. Lindsey died 11 years ago on Tuesday, but his mandolin was part of the record-breaking attempt. Lawrence let one of his friends, Daniel Johnson, borrow Lindsey’s instrument to play. Johnson had left his own mandolin in Concord, N.C.
Lindsey “wanted nothing more than to share music with everyone,” Lawrence said. “So I thought it was only fitting to pass it on. He always wanted to keep the music going.”
Video courtesy of The Roanoke Times: