When Richie Mann was a kid in 1930s Rossland — living on 3rd Avenue in what is now Nillan Sandstrom’s house, surrounded by fields as far as the railway — there were only two things he wanted to do: “Play fiddle and work with horses.”
He’s spent almost every day of his life with horses, but it wasn’t until he was 70 that a leg infection finally sat him down long enough to learn the fiddle. Now Richie has played fiddle for eight years — playing with his wife Audrey who reignited her childhood passion for the piano — and he has led the foot-stomping, fun-loving Golden City Fiddlers (GCF) for five years.
To watch him throw down a jig you’d think he’d been playing since he was a kid, like his fiddling grandson Gabe.
“I love fiddle music,” Richie said at his home, surrounded by sheet music, CDs, a delicious meal prepared by Audrey, and an impressive list of gigs that runs from the Golden City Days and Fall Fair, to the Winter Carnival Variety Show, Earth Day, Lions barbecues, legion dances, Salvation Army benefits, church events, wedding receptions, the Joe Hill Coffeehouse, (which the Manns attend without fail,) not to mention a regular circuit of the region’s seniors’ homes, from Mountainside in Fruitvale and Columbiaview in Trail, to the Castlewood, Castleview, and Rosewood homes in Castlegar.
Richie’s father passed away in February 2003, and “I got his fiddle,” Richie said. “I brought it home and bought a beginner book by Gordon Stobbe, with a CD, and started work.”
“He’d sit there and play on his fiddle for hours every day,” Audrey recalled. “And I’d go to town,” she laughed, “or work in the garden.”
Richie saw an ad for a fiddle camp with Gordon Stobbe in Castlegar, and he took it as a universal sign.
“I put in for the camp, and figured I’d be the old fart with all these young kids,” he said. “Well, I went to this camp and there was only one child, the rest of us were adults!”
His diligent practice had already paid off: Playing St. Anne’s Reel after only two months, he was bumped up a level.
And his enthusiasm rubbed off on the family. Audrey hit the keys again for the first time since her mother died in 1946. Audrey was just 13 at the time and had been playing piano for three years, but her stepmother sold the piano. She didn’t have one again until she married Richie, but by then her busy life with kids, farm work, and other jobs kept her away from music.
The contagion spread, and Gabe picked up a fiddle in the fall.
“That was really cute,” Audrey recalled. “Little Gabe was only seven, sitting there with Richie playing their fiddles.”
“He was picking it up just from what I was doing,” Richie recalled with the glow of a grandfather’s pride. Now he’s feeling overtaken by the young musician: “He’s starting to get a little vibrato, that turkey!”
Four years ago, Gabe roped Richie into his first fiddle competition. “If you go into this competition, I’ll go in,” Richie told Gabe. “Well, I’m going in Grandpa,” young Gabe replied.
Richie laughed, “Well damn, I was committed.”
“I was in the senior category of course. These guys had fiddled all their lives. Some of them would hold it way down here and just saw out the tunes!”
Although Richie came last, he got support from the likes of John Arkan, a famous fiddler, who made a point of telling him, “way to go.”
Gabe and Audrey joined in for the 2004 camp along with founding GCF fiddlers Yvonne Amundsen, Sheila Vockeroth, fiddle teacher Janis Anderson, and longtime fiddler (and fiddle-camper) John Milosevich. Attending the fiddle camp is a tradition the GCF fiddlers have maintained right up to last week’s camp.
Audrey found fiddle camp a lot of fun, but was surprised by how much there was to learn. She grew up under the staid influence of the Toronto Royal Conservatory, but “they didn’t want you playing by ear, they didn’t like it. Only by notes,” Audrey laughed. “Suddenly you have to play by ear and you’re like, wait a minute, I don’t even have an ear. I knew what chords were, but I didn’t know what people used them for!”
Today, although her modesty prevents her from saying so, Audrey can comfortably jump in on a tune by ear. “You’ve been banging out tunes pretty good for quite a while,” Richie told her.
By the third year, “we were getting a few tunes under our belt and we were starting to think we should get a group together and go and play at the old folk’s homes,” Richie said.
He and Audrey set up practices out at their farm on Richie road, parallel to Mann road — no coincidence as Richie and Audrey once owned 500 acres beside Red Mountain — and the gang got grooving, now joined by Norma and Mike Spatari. Soon their ranks were strengthened with Denise Ford on keys and the mellifluous tones of Dave Rusnell’s guitar.
“When I look back four years, when we first played at the United Church, I thought we were pretty good,” Richie said.
“We weren’t,” Audrey clarified.
“Probably not. But when I look at it now, the tune was okay, we were just slow. We weren’t banging them out like we are now.”
Nothing could hold back Richie’s ambition to be on stage giving people joy on the dance floor, and soon the group was working Mike Robin’s house parties and other gigs.
Over the years some have come and gone, though the core has remained the same, now bolstered by Nillan Sandstrom, Doug Halladay, and Glenn Carson on guitar, Chuck Cram on bass and mandolin, John Bishop on banjo and guitar, and Rosie Caron, Jim Jeffries, and Andrew Bennett on fiddle.
The couple’s story deserves a book or more, with chapters on Rossland’s early years, packing horses with Wilf Gibbard, a love affair in Vancouver, oil prospecting through Alberta, surveying across B.C., working as a farrier, putting their all on a beef farm and orchard in Grand Forks, and losing it all when the banks manipulated interest rates as if to squeeze out small farmers in the 1980s.
But Audrey and Richie haven’t looked back — it’s not in the nature of the hard working, loving, and happy couple — and now Audrey practices piano even more than Richie while he cracks the GCF whip. The gaggle of musicians gets together for tunes on a regular basis, spiced with wine, Audrey’s yummy cakes, and plenty of good times.