LOVINGTON, N.M. – Mary McClure isn’t one of the founders of the Lea County Fair and Rodeo’s Fiddlers Contest; she’s just its custodian.
She’s pretty proud of it, too. This year’s event will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7, the final day of the regional exposition, and it’s a fitting way to close out the fun in Lovington.
“I used to come and watch it,” said McClure, 71, of Lovington. “Ralph Wrinkle, who was the one-time sheriff in Lea County, started this.”
In fact, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the fiddlers contest, and there’s no better way to honor the history than to put on the next one. McClure is happy to continue the legacy that has been handed down to her.
According to reports, Wrinkle got his start in music in the 1940s in Missouri, with initial mentions wrapped around his playing music on a radio station in the town of Lebanon in central Missouri. He eventually moved to Hobbs, New Mexico, where he continued to sing and write music and was dubbed “The Singing Sheriff,” McClure said.
As the event’s primary organizer and promoter, McClure takes pride in what the community gets to witness and hear during the contest. She’s excited to bring it back to town after the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down a year ago.
“I took it over in the early ’80s,” she said. “I liked it as a youth. Mom mother loved it, and I really think the public likes it. We have some older folks who tell me that’s the only reason they come to the fair every year, so I’m glad we can put this on for them.”
The contestants pay an entry fee in order to compete, and those fees are mixed with sponsors’ money to make up the overall purse. McClure says a common year will feature 10 to 15 fiddlers. There was one banner year when nearly 30 musicians were part of the show, and the contest lasted most of the afternoon. That was back when the event took place under a tent between two buildings; now it’s in the air-conditioned confines of the Yucca Building.
“We never know until the day of the contest who is going to enter,” she said. “You show up, and you can enter then.”
The key to the event’s success comes from the three judges. The crowd, she said, loves to hear them play; it’s just a highlight of the contest every year.
“If I didn’t have any contestants but had those three judges, we’d still draw a crowd,” McClure said. “That’s the stipulation when they come to judge is that they play again.”
The history of the fair and rodeo is grand, and so are shows like the fiddlers contest. It adds to the unique flavor that is Lea County.
“I’m 57 years old, and I can remember the fiddlers contest when I was a little boy,” said Larry Wheeler, chairman of the Lea County Fair Board. “There are people from all over that come to enjoy that. It’s a big part of our fair and rodeo, and I’m glad we still do it.”