The Queen of Country Fiddle Still “Got That Swing”
By CHARLES CANTRELL
FIDDLIN’ FAMILY: Pictured above with Jana Jae in red are four generations of family fiddlers. From left is Jana’s daughter, Syndi Coleman with granddaughters Sandra and Robyn Coleman in the foreground. To the right of Jana is her mom, Bette Hopper. This is how American heritage music is handed down from generation to generation, folks getting together to play and learn by ear the music.
There came a profound moment in the young life of Jana Jae, not yet “The Queen of Country Fiddle,” after which nothing would ever be the same. It was a moment she still likes to recall after a sterling music career covering five decades.
She was all of 12 years old at the time, but already a veteran performer having debuted on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour at the ripe old age of four, a mere two years after drawing a bow over the strings of her first instrument, a 1/8 sized violin. She had already amazed audiences with her wide-ranging renditions of classical violin and fiddle tunes. She would eventually break new ground in the male dominated world of bluegrass music by becoming the first female lead instrumentalist in a band called Clear Creek. An accomplishment that would lay to rest the notion among country and bluegrass music bands of the times that a woman’s role should be strictly vocal.
But prior to all that, Benny Thomasson, a renowned champion fiddler had occasion to hear a young woman playing an old time fiddle tune called Hot Foot Rag. At that defining moment Mr. Thomasson summoned other musicians to come listen to the young fiddler and, as Jana Jae remembers it, he proclaimed, “Listen-she’s got that swing!” No higher compliment could have been bestowed on her than to be acknowledged by a famous and highly respected fiddler as having the special rhythmic feel for that particular genre of music. It was something one either had or didn’t and it was often the difference between mere talent and special talent. Jana Jae understood this and from then on everything seemed “to just open up.” The Thomasson proclamation gave her an added sense of confidence that helped propel her through the years and down many musical paths. It continues to remind her of how much impact one musician can have on another, but more on that later.
Jana Jae began her musical journey almost at birth in New York where her parents, both accomplished violinists, studied at the world famous Juilliard School of music. To their great joy their baby girl began playing the violin at age two and what’s more, playing it well. With fervent support and encouragement from her family, Jana never looked back.
At the age of seven Jana and her mother moved to Idaho where she would learn countless fiddle tunes by ear, “because that’s the way you do it.” Her teacher was her grandfather, a certified champion old time fiddler in his own right. She also continued the classical violin training that would eventually earn her music scholarships to college in Denver, graduating magna cum laude, Interlochen, the prestigious International String Congress, and a year of study at the Vienna Academy of Music. In her formative youth, Jana chose not to choose between what seemed to most separate musical paths. Violin vs. fiddle was never an issue with her. They were simply different means to the same musical ends.
In the years that followed right up to the present day she and her parents together often play the traditional music they like to call American heritage music, which includes Celtic, Cajun, Southern Gospel, Old Time Fiddle Music, Bluegrass and Country Music. But Jana Jae’s supportive family background, her extraordinary musical gifts and a fearless attitude for exploring all realms of music have brought her before a wide range of audiences worldwide. From European capitals to the shores of Grand Lake – The Cherokees, she continues electrifying audiences young and old alike.
Two years after Thomasson’s proclamation, Buck Owens, father of the twangy, edgy, rock influenced style of honky tonk country music called the Bakersfield sound, heard Jana Jae play Orange Blossom Special and it prompted him to invited her to become the first “Buckarette” and thus lay claim to the first woman instrumentalist in the male-dominated world of country bands.
Over the years she has mingled her unique fiddle style with the sounds of Chet Atkins, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Roy Clark, Ricky Skaggs, Mel Tillis, Oakridge Boys, Tammy Wynette, Benny Thomasson and Asleep At The Wheel to name a few. For years, thanks again to Buck Owens she was a regular on possibly the most successful syndicated television show ever, Hee Haw where she broke through to a national audience by appearing on more than 100 shows. Meanwhile her classical training continues to place her with many of the finest chamber music players and symphonies, giving workshops and performing as a soloist.
First and foremost throughout her illustrious career she has always sought to be an inspiration and teacher to young talented musicians in the same way her parents, many renowned classical instructors, her grandfather, Benny Thomasson, Buck Owens, Chet Atkins and so many others have been to her. Traveling as she does in the two worlds of fiddle and violin has given her the opportunity to serve as a bridge between the venues by introducing classical audiences to the fiddle and fiddle music lovers to classical music.
“I’m always amazed at how receptive and appreciative audiences are listening to and enjoying both classical violin and traditional fiddle music. To see the eyes of a classical music audience light up to the high energy sound of “Orange Blossom Special” is a great feeling in the same way watching a Bluegrass festival audience appreciate a dynamic rendition of “Czardas,” the “Bach Double Concerto,” or “Flight of the Bumblebee.” For me its really about connecting and sharing with people through music and of course preserving the integrity of our musical heritage,” says the Queen of Country Fiddle.
So, why would a musical protoge and renowned entertainer who would be comfortable and welcomed performing on any stage in the world choose Oklahoma and more specifically Grand Lake to set up a non-profit corporation dedicate to preserving America’s musical heritage? Jana says without hesitation, “For me this is what it is all about. This music, our country’s music, is passed from one generation to the next, and it is a thrill to share with others the rich benefits music brings to our lives. Being able to perform and being a mentor or a catalyst for people to connect with the joy of music makes my own life a very happy one!”
The Grand Lake summer festival series put on by Grand Lake Festivals begins every year in early June with the American Heritage Music Festival that includes the Grand Lake National Fiddle & Clogging Contests running June 11, 12 and 13. Fiddlers and cloggers of all ages and levels from across the country come to Grove, Oklahoma and Grand Lake for three fun filled days devoted to preserving traditional American fiddle music and dance. The combination of high-energy fiddle music with quick stepping cloggers is as American as apple pie.
July 4 the Cajun Festival will come to the Grove Civic Center featuring a full day of good food, fun, arts and crafts and great music from straight out of the Bayou.When Labor Day weekend rolls around, September 4, 5 and 6 Grove will again welcome fiddlers to Jana Ja’s Fiddle Camp to learn and hone their musical skills in a fun filled weekend of workshops and demonstrations. The music festival season is made possible with help from Grove and Grand Lake area merchants, the Grove Chamber of Commerce, Oklahoma Arts Council and The National Endowment for the Arts.
For the twelfth consecutive year The Queen of Country Fiddle and Grove will host three premier, summer music festivals. Each designed in its own way to celebrate and preserve the unique, exciting and joyful tapestry of sounds that comprise a wonderful segment of our nation’s musical heritage.
- — Vi The Fiddler May 21, 12:10 AM #