April Verch is just back from a tour of the British Isles. On Halloween night, the award-winning fiddler was performing at the Isle of Skye. The whole trip was interesting, she says, and often gorgeous. “It’s strange, Scotland feels quite different from England,” she says. Different regions of Great Britain are as different from each other as different states in America are; one scene reminded her of California, another of Montana.
She has an international perspective perhaps unusual for an old-time fiddler. She made a tour of China a couple of years ago. In 2010, she was the featured performer at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Old-time music’s youthful resurgence has been so pervasive, it may be more popular among young people now than it was in the old times. You can be forgiven if you see a ragged, bearded barefoot street fiddler sawing away on “Napoleon’s Retreat” and wonder if he grew up on the Backstreet Boys.
April Verch didn’t have to learn authenticity. She grew up in the country, but a countryside more rural than most folks in Greenback or Seymour know about.
“Growing up in Ottawa Valley, I wasn’t exposed to many kinds of music,” she says. That’s in Canada. The nearest town had a population of 10,000. The nearest city, Ottawa, was an hour and a half away.
“We were out in the country. My family made maple syrup, had a big garden,” she says. “My dad plays guitar, sings old country, like Hank Williams songs. My parents were both just fans of the local music scene, which was classic country. I kind of thought everybody grew up that way. I was older before I realized not everybody grew up with that.”
She played fiddle from an early age, and impressed her elders. She was still a teenager when she won the Canadian Open Old Time Fiddle Championship, and soon afterwards won another national award, a Grand Masters competition, becoming the first female to win both of Canada’s top fiddling contests.
She took a turn few fiddlers do, and studied it at Boston’s famous Berklee School of Music. She thinks it broadened her perspective.
Somewhere along the way, she signed with Rounder Records and made a career of it. She’s put out about nine albums, one of which is called, of course, Verchuosity. (On her website, you can buy it, under the heading Verchandise.) The latest, and the one she’s emphasizing with this tour, is Bright Like Gold.
She performs mostly in a trio, with Cody Walters on bass and clawhammer banjo and Hayes Griffin on guitar, and says Bright Like Gold is their an effort to capture the live experience. “I really feel like our live performances are our forte. I tried to capture that. We had all three in one room, to try to capture that sound. And we road-tested a lot of the stuff first.” Though she plays a lot of covers, she also writes music; several originals are on the new album, including “Broken,” a reference to a heart, for which there’s a video online.
Some of her live act is hard to fold into a recording. Over the years Verch has begun folding another rural Canadian specialty into her act: She dances, a step that might seem to land somewhere between clogging and high tap dance. “It’s the Ottawa Valley style,” she says. Compared to clogging or Irish river dancing, she says, “It’s more energetic, more hopping, a little higher off the ground.”
At some point, about a decade ago, the fiddler began singing a few tunes, just occasionally. “It’s the newest thing,” she says. “It’s been since 2002, but it still feels pretty new.” Her voice may remind you of the extra-high soprano of another fiddler, Alison Krauss. Verch isn’t trying to imitate anybody; even in conversation, she just sounds like that.
“I haven’t studied voice,” she admits. She doesn’t sing most songs, those she does sing are ones she picks to suit her unusual register.
Walters has played with her for seven years now, and provides her first story about the China tour. “It was interesting when Cody played the banjo,” she says. “Nobody over there had seen one. Every time he picked it up, people would clap!” She laughs. “It was the opposite of here.”
She’s performed in Knoxville a few times before. Paul Campbell’s WUOT show, “Mountain Jubilee,” broadcast recordings she made at the Laurel show three years ago, just after her global performance at the Olympics.
She remembers the venue well. “I really like the Laurel Theater,” she says. “It’s a good space, a beautiful space, but still small enough to feel intimate. It combines my favorite kinds of spaces, a theater and a listening room.”
She says she also likes Knoxville audiences, who seem “fairly well-educated” about what she’s doing. “They come out because they’re into a thing.”
She’s also been a repeat performer at WDVX’s Blue Plate Special. “That’s where I got one of the best quotes about my dancing,” she says. In the parking lot after a show, an old man approached and said something she didn’t understand at first. “I couldn’t imitate his accent,” she says. “‘You can flat scoot!’”