For Versailles musician Samantha Cunningham, learning a fiddle tune had been fairly simple: Listen to the song a couple of times, give it a couple of rehearsals and then play it. She would often secretly learn the songs she knew her mother wanted to hear, then give a surprise recital of, say, Bluegrass in the Backwoods.
After her mother went in for a heart checkup last year, Cunningham, a student at Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, approached her teacher about learning one of her mother’s favorites, Dale Potter’s demanding Fiddle Patch.
Lisa Cunningham was born with congenital heart failure and was not expected to live past her first birthday. She more than beat those odds, but she had been on the transplant list for years. Samantha, now 20, said her mother had not been doing well, and after that checkup, she felt time was running short.
Her teacher, Raymond McLain, had never played Fiddle Patch before but agreed to work with her. It would prove to be an emotional journey for both of them. They started a week before school ended in December 2015.
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“I’ve done things like this before, but this time is a little more special,” Samantha said.
Lisa Cunningham died Jan. 7, 2016, at age 53, before Samantha had the song down.
Thirty minutes after she passed away, I looked at my boyfriend, Gabe, and I told him, ‘Now I have to finish this song. So, if I got fed up after that, there wasn’t really a time where I said, you know, ‘I’m just going to quit it.’
Samantha’s love of music and the fiddle started at age 5, when her mom enrolled her in music classes with violin teacher Claire Hess. Lisa wasn’t sure Samantha would stick with it, but Samantha worked her way up to place in the top 20 at the Grand Master Fiddler Competition in Nashville, and she later studied with Lexington teacher Daniel Carwile. Samantha, a 2014 graduate of Woodford County High School, performs in several ensembles, including Southland Drive, which will open the 2016 Southland Jamboree on Monday night at the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater.
It’s all part of the hard work she puts into mastering her instrument.
“I’ve seen Samantha take on several challenges and always come through,” McLain said. “She’s able to make music even when it’s difficult for her to do it.”
Her mother loved Dale Potter’s song Fiddle Patch after hearing it played at a “hot fiddle” competition. Samantha didn’t try to learn the song because of its difficult rhythmic values, fast movements and triple stops.
“Thirty minutes after she passed away, I looked at my boyfriend, Gabe, and I told him, ‘Now I have to finish this song,’” Samantha said. “So, if I got fed up after that, there wasn’t really a time where I said, you know, ‘I’m just going to quit it.’ I had to finish this song for my mom ’cause this one she wanted me to do and I never got to play it for her.”
Samantha already knew the main melody of Fiddle Patch because her mother had played it so many times. She needed McLain’s help to decipher the rest of the notes. To learn the song, McLain and Samantha would listen to the best recording they could find of Fiddle Patch on YouTube.
I think this process, learning to play the tune, has been wonderful for Samantha because it is a way she can be close to her mother. It meant a lot to her mother for her to play, and to play well.
Raymond McLain, Samantha Cunningham’s teacher
She said that every 20 seconds of the song took an average of 20 minutes to learn There was a lot of frustration, but they both pushed through.
“I think this process, learning to play the tune, has been wonderful for Samantha because it is a way she can be close to her mother,” McLain said. “It meant a lot to her mother for her to play, and to play well.”
McLain has always recognized her technical ability but said it takes more than just that. He said she has the mindset, the drive, to keep working to perfection.
“You have to challenge yourself. If you don’t challenge yourself in life, or in anything that you do, it’ll get pretty boring,” Samantha said. “You could absolutely fail or you could sit there and say ‘Hey, I’m going to do something that no one else is really doing right now. I’m going to make myself something.’”
Samantha decided that she had the song down by Feb. 24, and the next step was a lot of “woodshedding” to perfection. She rehearsed the song with the Mountain Music Ambassadors, her KCTM ensemble, in time to play it live as a tribute to her mother at the mid-semester show. She had kept the idea from her father, Mark, to surprise him.
Almost two months to the day after her mother’s death, Samantha and the band took the Rowan County Arts Center stage as the final performers at the mid-semester ensembles concert, and with no hesitation, she ripped into one of the most difficult tunes a fiddle player can attempt.
As her father, in the front, row realized what she was doing, she kept her eyes on her fingers as they danced through the first part. Where any fiddle player could have faltered, McLain stood close to encourage her with a smile and rhythm guitar.
As she neared the end of the tune, where a quick trill demanded her full attention, the crowd pitched in with their own encouragement with hoots and yells, then rose to their feet as the ensemble helped her bring it to a loud and sudden close. Samantha stood and absorbed the applause before her father came to the edge of the stage to hug her. McLain reflected on the months of emotional frustration to satisfy a daughter’s promise to her mother.
He said, “Going through this process has been inspiring to me to watch her do this for her momma.”
Christina Holbert and Anna Nichols are writers for the Morehead State University student newspaper, The Trail Blazer.
If you go
What: The band — guitarist Russ Farmer, bassist Ruth McLain, mandolin player Frank Godbey, banjo player Charlie Hall and fiddler Samantha Cunningham — will open the 2016 season of the Southland Jamboree.
When: 7 p.m. May 30
Where: MoonDance at Midnight Pass Amphitheatre, 1152 Monarch St., Lexington