Phil Baker ~ Fiddlers Fling into Spring
Phillip Baker ain't your typical attorney. Somewhere between his comfortably fitted Stetson and his well-worn work boots, one has a hard time picturing him sporting a power tie and suit coat, although he swears both can be found inside the cab of his jacked up dually outside. Baker's office is strewn with memorabilia of his life outside the office - photos of escapades on canoes from his grueling days on the Texas River Safari, a marathon canoe race from the headwaters of the San Marcos River to the bay, mingle with shots of his 8-year-old daughter Hannah on horseback, man-sized barbecue cook-off trophies, framed autographed T-shirts and plaques indicating this 1965-model of a man can fly a plane rather well - a museum of sorts dedicated to a person, who as he puts it, is "a Jack of all trades but master of none." Not to worry, though. He does keep a rather large sign hanging prominently on his office wall to remind visitors it is indeed a "law office." A seemingly successful one, too, from outside appearances.
Baker and his wife Dana, who he met in law school, together run the partnership of Baker & Baker, located right on the courthouse square in Bellville. He handles the criminal side of law, with DWI defenses filling the bulk of his docket, and she works the civil side, helping clients work through wills and lawsuits and the like. And in that respect, the book-filled shelves of case law and legal procedure - most of which can be found in Dana's workplace - seem quite appropriate. But just hand Phillip a fiddle, and it all seems to fade away. He says he started playing when he was just a sophomore in high school back in the mid-1980s. At first it was just a hobby, Baker says, but it later became a passion. "It all changed for me when I went to the state fiddle championships in Crockett," he recalls. "Before then I just played around with it, but then I really started to play. I saw truly amazing musicians that were willing to help me along. And they did." In fact, the older musicians helped young Baker along enough that he was able to claim a fiddle championship or two of his own in later years, and today, the fiddling attorney is president of Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association.
The 31-year-old association is some 400 members strong, composed of mainly fiddle players, guitarists and music lovers, all of whom work to recreate and perform a musical style as unique as the Lone Star State. The roots are fairly simple but span centuries, Baker said. Basically, the music is a melding of old Scot-Irish folk tunes and classical Spanish music. It formed when Anglo settlers making their way west into the Mexican-owned territories of Tejas with their fiddle in hand began working a few native melodies into the riffs they already knew. The result was a style with a distinct flavor and technique, one that has become increasingly popular in recent years. "You know, Davy Crocket had a fiddle at the Alamo," Baker said. "So fiddles and Texas go hand in hand."
The first Texas fiddle tunes were recorded in the 1920s, which for the first time opened the ears of other listeners to the region's musical flare outside Texas. Yet outside competition fiddling, where the Texas-style performances were winning trophy after trophy, the fiddling dialect remained rather low key until the last decade or so, when Texas musicians began branding their own insignia into the national music consciousness. "Our fiddling is probably as popular now as it has ever been," Baker said. "But it remains in the hands of only a select few musicians." But Baker is working to change that, and he plans to begin Saturday, March 20 in his hometown when the TOTFA hosts its Spring Fling fund-raiser at Concordia Hall. The event will be held from 5-9 p.m. and will include an all-you-can-eat barbecue supper and of course, plenty of Texas-style music to go with the food. Meal tickets are $15 for those in attendance, $10 for take-home plates. Those wanting to just hear the music are welcome to attend for free, Baker said. Proceeds from the event will be used to assist the association's scholarship fund, as well as assist with funding upcoming association events. Fiddlers from across the country will be joining Baker and other local musicians on May 1 for the Bellville Heritage Gathering. In addition, Baker said he's planning a Hallettsville-style "Fiddler's Frolic" in August at the Austin County Fairgrounds in Bellville for the naming of the association's annual state champion. And by attracting musicians to the area, Baker said he hopes to keep the music alive by passing it down to a new generation, much as he learned the tricks of the trade from the older generations when he was younger.
In his office, Baker keeps two old unstrung fiddles on display amidst the numerous picture frames and recognitions. As it turns out, they originated with his great-grandfathers on both sides of his family. Baker said he didn't even know people in his family had ever touched a fiddle when he was growing up. It just wasn't anything other family members talked about - at least, not until he picked up the family tradition on his own a generation later. "It's all about keeping the music alive and helping younger folks succeed," he said. "That's what it's all about, after all. Who knows, we may have a professional fiddler right here among us who is just waiting to be found." For more information on TOTFA, contact Baker at his Bellville office at (979) 865-0000. For tickets to Saturday's event, stop by Cochran's Store (where Baker and a host of other musicians gather weekly on Thursdays to play a few tunes), Baker & Baker, P.C. in Bellville, or the Bellville Chamber of Commerce.
Bobby Horecka, The Sealy News, March 12, 2004
The Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association gave the Bellville area a big dose of what Texas fiddling is all about when the organization hosted its scholarship fund-raiser at Concordia Hall this past Saturday night. Musicians from across the state converged on Bellville and took turns on the stage while those in attendance enjoyed a barbecue meal and the music. "It exceeded my expectations," said Bellville's Phil Baker, who is president of TOTFA, and brought the fund-raiser here.
Baker said that more than 350 meals were served. "We had prepared for more, but I don't know where we would have put them," he said. "People didn't just get up and leave. They stayed around and listened to all the musicians." Baker said that it was important that everyone enjoyed themselves. "I think everyone had a good time. They came out to hear some great music and the musicians didn't disappoint them. "We had some professionals (on stage), and we had a bunch of musicians who love to compete in contests."
One of the highlights was the performance of E.J. Hopkins. "He's a legend," said Baker. "He's one of the ones who kind of got all this started about 30 years ago." Also performing was a state and national champion, Carl Hopkins, who just happens to be E.J.'s son, and Carl's wife Tonya, who at one time had been the ladies state champion. "They were outstanding," said Baker, "and what a treat to have the Greer family from Burton come over and play for us." Baker said that another Texas legend, James "Texas Shorty" Chancellor, came all the way from Rockwall (near Dallas) to participate in the event. And the stage wasn't just for the veterans. Eight-year-old Mindy Greer played the mandolin for the Greer family in their performance while sisters Lydia (13) and Anna (17) Elseth, who are from Nacogdoches, performed together on stage. "They did a great job," said Baker. "I love to listen to them play. They are both working hard and just keep getting better."
Baker said he expects many of these musicians to return to Bellville on May 1 for the Heritage Gathering fiddle contest, which will be held on the square. "A lot of them will be back," he said. "I think they all enjoyed being in Bellville, and we're looking forward to doing this again." The TOTFA will also be returning to Bellville in August for the two-day state convention at the Austin County Fairgrounds. Baker said that's when the new state champion will be crowned, and the public will be invited to attend.
Bellville Times, March 21, 2004