Over the weekend, Greg Henry went from one of the best to the top fiddler in the country when he won the 2015 Canadian Grand Masters fiddling championship in Moncton.
But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the 28-year-old. Wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and sporting the beginnings of a beard, Henry looks and sounds like any other local guy.
He works as a process worker at a nearby styrene plant. He likes drinking beer and being with his girlfriend.
He’s also the best fiddler in Canada.
Speaking in the living room of his parents’ house in Corunna on Thursday, Henry is humble and laughs often. Even though he won the title on Saturday night, he’s not even sure the moniker of the country’s best fiddler is really true.
“I was that night, anyway,” he said laughing.
This is the eighth year Henry has competed in the grand masters championship and, while he’s made top five every year except one, he’d never clinched the top title until now.
Out of roughly 30 players invited to compete in the championship—about five from each province — only 11 make it to the finals. They play four songs in the morning, then another four in the final round, before judges decide in front of a crowd of 700 people who will take home the title, prize money, and trophy.
This year’s cheering audience included eights family members and his girlfriend, an improvement from last year when a family wedding prevented anyone from attending.
While the pressure was on this year — Henry said “don’t screw up” was definitely the main thought on his mind — his mind was on the music, even if the competition was almost like “an old hat” by this point.
“Focus is the main thing,” he said. “When I’m practising, there’s certain spots that I struggle to play correctly or the way I want to. It might just be a note or two — something that I catch myself with while I’m practising because it’s off pitch or the timing’s a little off.
“Usually when I’m going through my performance I know when those spots are coming up so I’m concentrating on that even though it might be a few bars down the road.”
The performance was impressive, Ron Bourque, president of the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Association, remembered. While he wasn’t a judge, he did see every piece the competitors played, and said Henry’s left the audience cheering.
“There was no doubt that he was one of the best competitors there this year,” Bourque said.
“He’s a great fiddler and he always plays well, but this year he seemed to have something a little bit special and it did show. He earned it, there’s no doubt about it.”
When it came time to announce the winner, fellow fiddler Paul Lemelin and Henry put their arms around each other’s shoulder and said “here we go again.” Lemelin had beaten Henry for the title twice before. This year, he joked, the winner had to buy the first beer.
“When he announced Paul was second I remember dropping to my knees and slapping the floor. It was pretty funny,” Henry said. “But really, it was a relief.”
The win, he added, was the culmination of a lifetime of practice.
While most children pick up a guitar or pull up a seat in front of a piano when they start learning music, five-year-old Greg Henry opted for the fiddle.
After studying under Christine Storey, a fiddler from Mooretown, until he was 10, Henry moved on to renowned London, Ont. fiddler Chuck Joyce, the oldest person to ever win the grand masters championship.
Henry called his old teacher as he was walking back to his hotel after the win.
The fiddling contest circuit is almost finished, with one more competition in Pembroke next week, Henry said it’ll be be business as usual.
“I’ll always play, but I don’t know how much longer I’ll continue to compete,” he said. “This was kind of the last thing I wanted to win.”
Fiddling may not be the profitable career it was during the height of its popularity among European settlers in Canada during the 1800s, but the instrument is usually a mainstay in Irish pub bands to this day. But Henry said he doesn’t see himself following that career.
“Funny enough, I don’t consider myself a good enough musician to be able to do that,” he said.
A lot of the music he plays is rehearsed. While he said some of the music he plays are original compositions, these take a long time to perfect. It’s the improvisation aspect, he said, that is difficult.
Becoming a fiddle judge may be in his future, but for now Henry is content with being the plant worker from Corunna who just so happens to be Canada’s best fiddler.
“It’s just what I’ve always done,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “It’s been part of my whole life.”