Al Womacks picked up his first fiddle when he was 14 years old, and 75 years later he’s still playing.
“My brother bought a fiddle from Eatons. He gave up on it so I picked it up and started playing.
“I got all my instructions off the radio by just listening to it,” he said. In those days, old time country music was broadcast out of Calgary and Camrose stations and the young fiddle player spent hours sawing away and mimicking the legends crackling over the airwaves.
“He drove his mother crazy,” chuckled Al’s wife Peggy, whom he married in 1944.
Al concedes his early efforts may have been a little annoying. “I never ever did have a music lesson,” he said.
At the time, Womacks, who was one of eight siblings, six boys and two girls, was living with his family on a farm near Heinsburg, Alta., in the St. Paul area.
He soon joined other local musicians and the played dances and weddings.
By 1947, the Womacks had moved to Trail, B.C., where Al had a job with a local smelting company. He would return to Alberta in 1953, moving to Edmonton, Red Deer and, in 1964, to Slave Lake where he worked in the oilpatch with Chevron. He retired from the company in 1989 and moved to Lacombe in 1994.
Over the years, he had played off and on, and had a group in Trail. He also played in church for years, but work and raising four children pushed the music to the background for quite some time.
After moving to Lacombe, he picked up his fiddle and joined a band. First called Old Tyme Tunes, it later changed its name to Country Gold North. It included Al on fiddle, Ella Barnes on piano, Dick Handley on bass and Tom Morin on acoustic guitar and vocals.
Over the years, they have played hundreds of gigs in seniors homes, lodges community halls and Legions throughout Central Alberta.
For every show, he was accompanied by his trusty vintage fiddle.
He doesn’t know for sure how old it is.
He knows it was before 1916 because that year was pencilled inside during a repair job.
The venerable old instrument was picked up about 60 years ago by his father-in-law. He was on a road crew and discovered the fiddle at a friend’s house he stopped by. The price was $10.
Last week, Al and his band played their last show at Red Deer’s Golden Circle Centre. They also bid farewell to Red Deer’s Royal Canadian Legion.
Al said it was sad to say goodbye, but also a bit of a relief because the commitment was becoming harder as he has got older.
“I don’t want to promise to play and can’t make it,” he said.
“I made so many friends over the years. I think that was the most important part of it, the people.”
Al isn’t hanging up his fiddle. Country Gold North still plans to play at the Forshee Community Hall the first Friday of the month. He still shows up regularly for jam sessions that are held in various communities, such as Eckville, Rimbey, Ponoka and Bashaw.