ST. PAUL – Calvin Vollrath stood and closed his eyes as he tucked his fiddle snugly under his chin. His fingers moved and danced in a flurry of notes. As the final note faded away, Vollrath opened his eyes, a smile spreading across his face.
“I always wanted to be a fiddle player,” he says, as he recalled getting his first fiddle when he was eight years old on Dec. 25, 1968. “That’s what I always wanted to do.”
Many years later, Vollrath will be inducted into the 2022 Country Music Alberta Hall of Fame on April 2.
“I’m very humbled,” he says, explaining he doesn’t play music for recognition but plays music simply because he loves it. However, being recognized still feels “pretty special.”
Vollrath has called St. Paul “home” for 25 years.
Prior to moving to St. Paul, he grew up in the Edmonton area surrounded by the sounds of fiddles. As the youngest of seven siblings, he was immersed in a musical world from the day he was born. “We grew up fiddling in the house,” he recalls.
When Vollrath was just three years old, he asked Santa Claus for a "fil" - his childhood pronunciation of "fiddle,” unable to properly pronounce the instrument’s name at the time.
Santa brought him a plastic fiddle, but it didn't last long. "It didn't take me long to finish it off as being a plastic fiddle," Vollrath chuckles.
At the age of eight, Vollrath got his first real fiddle. With fiddle tunes constantly in his head from hearing them played by his father, Arthur, Vollrath took to the instrument quickly, and “Playing became easy for me.”
By the time he was 15, Vollrath had formed his first band called Country Swing, made up entirely of family members.
In 1982, when he was 22 years old, Vollrath set out on his own, joining other country bands and playing in nightclubs across the country. “I wanted to just keep on playing and doing this for a living,” he explains. “It's just been absolutely wonderful, where music has taken me over all these years.”
But his journey was not without its challenges.
He recalled playing six nights a week and being on the road when he was playing in country bands. He made enough money to get by, but "I was not getting rich.” He had “three kids at home. And like I said, I would make enough money to pay the rent at the end of the month... to pay the phone bill – so it was never getting ahead," Vollrath shared.
Despite the financial struggles, Vollrath continued to be driven by his passion for music. “I was doing what I loved. And I thought things would pay off in the long run... which they did.”
Being away from his family was one of the drawbacks of being a travelling musician, but Vollrath was fortunate enough to be home regularly.
“There were a couple of times when we went over to Europe and played three years in a row back in the 90s,” he said. “We would be gone for four or five weeks [and] that would be the longest I was ever gone from home.”
He added, “There's lots of musicians that are on the road 48 weeks a year, and that's something that I never wanted to do.”
Vollrath's career took a turn when country music changed, and music videos became popular in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. “When the videos started coming out, it changed music... changed the country music that I was playing because now everybody heard it on the radio.”
The popularity of videos made music more of a visual thing, and people wanted to hear songs by artists they saw on screen, recalled Vollrath. The club scene in Edmonton, where Vollrath used to play six nights a week, started to decline.
“Today, there isn't one place in Edmonton that you can go see live country music six nights a week,” Vollrath lamented.
However, Vollrath did not give up. He shifted his focus back to his fiddle and became a front man, promoting his own albums and doing his own shows. He also incorporated his other musical talents, playing the piano and the guitar, and his wife's step dancing into his performances.
“We've travelled the world, doing shows, playing fiddle music, playing lots of my originals, playing in the traditional stuff that I learned,” he said.
Vollrath's kids have now grown up and continue to support their father’s music career.
“They love what I do. And it's been a great journey.”
Among the master fiddler’s biggest accomplishments include being called to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics for its opening ceremony. He composed five tunes in “various styles we play in Canada,” and recalled playing along with five or six fiddle players on the main stage, while thousands of fiddle players played on the field.
“I felt very, very honoured for that [and] I’d have to say that must be my biggest gig – the Olympics.”
Vollrath has also released 72 albums throughout his career, with the latest one released in 2021.
"You know... fiddle is an amazing thing,” says Vollrath, further explaining that it’s a musical instrument with the power to make people dance and move - even babies who are just laying in their cribs.
“The kids start to dance. They start to move... There's something about the fiddle that makes people want to move... they want to tap their feet... they want to clap their hands.”
Vollrath thanked all the musicians he has met over the years and those he continues to work with on his musical journey. He also thanks and credits his family for their support.
“Growing up, my mom and dad encouraged me to play, and they never said, ‘You shouldn't do that for a living.’ They let me pursue my passion,” he says, adding his siblings were also very supportive of his career.
“And my wife and my kids,” he says. “The biggest thanks to them for allowing me to do what I've done all my life.”