Champion fiddler, wife perform at Michigan retirement homes
JACKSON, Mich. (AP) — You can learn a lot about someone by how they play the fiddle.
Some play gently. Others pound their bow against the strings.
Dick Wild plays his fiddle somewhere right in between.
The 74-year-old Leoni Township resident and his wife, Polly, 76, are more than just a good match. The couple travels to retirement homes across south-central Michigan performing a set list of waltzes, jigs, reels, Scottish music and more.
Wild is the reigning Michigan State Old Time Fiddling Champion. He earned that designation at the 31st-annual competition in Huron Township in October.
Music has been a lifelong hobby for the Stockbridge native. His father taught him how to play the guitar and harmonica when he was 10 years old, he said. He can also play the ukulele, bass and mandolin.
But the fiddle has been Wild’s main passion since the 1980s.
“The sound of the fiddle is the sound of a person’s feelings,” he told the Jackson Citizen Patriot. “You get someone who is outspoken and gruff, they’ll play their fiddle that way. They’ll bear right down on it. But if you get someone who is gentle, they’ll play quiet and graceful. It shows right through.”
Wild’s personality shows in the way he plays, too.
He’s a soft-spoken country man. He wears suspenders and lives simply in the home he built with his own hands. He’s crafty, having made more than 30 of his own fiddles.
“The bottoms are made of maple and the tops are spruce,” he said. “I hang them for a few years to let them age. They sound better as they age. They could have different sounds. Some people like a certain sound of their fiddle.”
A self-taught fiddler, Wild doesn’t read sheet music. Instead, he has practiced enough to know the sounds of instruments, he said. Before retiring from Dexter Stamping Company, Wild practiced almost every morning before work and again in his truck during lunch breaks, he said.
Now, he learns new songs on YouTube, he said.
“It’s about practice. I know where the sounds are on the fiddle. I know the notes on the fingerboard and the scales and all that,” he said.
Fiddling is an imperfect art, Wild said. Players can simply feel the tune and improvise as they please, he said. While Wild doesn’t necessarily always play by the book, his wife is a self-proclaimed perfectionist, she said.
“Sometimes he goes off, but not me,” she said. “I like being perfect.”
Polly Wild, a native of northwest Ohio, plays the piano and sings the songs when the couple performs.
She likes to have their songs prepared and practiced before a show, she said. Wild prefers to just play.
Regardless, they can pick up their instruments, start tapping their feet in perfect rhythm together, and re-create old-time tunes.
At retirement homes, they play songs, such as “Mother’s Waltz” and “Little Burnt Potato,” polkas and themed songs depending on the time of year, Polly Wild said.
It’s a way for the couple to continue playing the music they enjoy for people who truly enjoy it as well, she said.
“For some people (in the retirement homes), it’s the best entertainment they get all week,” Polly Wild said. “There’s one lady who won’t do any other activity. She wouldn’t even go down to celebrate her birthday. But she loves to come watch us perform.”
That gratification is enough for the Wilds to keep doing what they do, she said.
“We’re just a couple of old farm folks who like to play,” she said.