By Beverly Lewis
Copyright © 2012 Beverly Lewis
All right reserved.
Amelia Devries stood waiting in the wings, her well-polished fiddle tucked beneath her right arm, bow in hand. The rhythmic vibration of guitars and a banjo buzzed in the floorboards of the outdoor theater, beneath her stylish boots. No matter the venue for her performances—classical or country, indoors or out—she often experienced a slight twinge of nerves before a concert. Normal stage fright, nothing more.
The preshow jitters had begun on the day Amelia played her first violin recital as a precocious five-year-old. But as time passed, she learned to trust the moment—the instant she raised her bow and drew it across the strings. Just get me there became her mantra.
Tonight she was the guest fiddler for a small country band—one of the warm-up gigs to Tim McGraw's featured concert this sultry mid-July evening at the Mann Center in Philadelphia's West Fairmount Park. And she had an impressive performance planned.
The tall blond master of ceremonies, Rickie Gene, brushed past her to make his way to center stage, wearing a black tux and blue shirt. He's fired up, she thought, remembering the first time she'd met him a year ago at a fiddle fest in Connecticut ... unknown to Byron, her longtime boyfriend back home in Columbus, Ohio. Or to her father, a former violinist himself, stricken with early onset Parkinson's disease.
Rickie Gene cast his winning smile like a fishing line to the crowd. "It's Thursday night at the Mann!"
Loud cheers rose from the crowd.
"Are ya ready to welcome the best little country band this side of the Alleghenies?"
The roar of delight filled the park, where thousands of people sat in either the covered seating area or farther back on the lawn, picnicking on blankets. The smell of popcorn and honeysuckle hung in the humid air.
"Help me give it up for ... the Bittersweet Band!"
Fans seated all over the grounds applauded and cheered.
Rickie's appealing chuckle reverberated through the sound system. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a fabulous surprise tonight." He paused dramatically. "Right here at the Mann ... I give you none other than the winner of this year's New England Fiddle Fest—Miss Amy Lee!"
Wouldn't my parents just cringe? Amelia thought at the sound of her stage name. She breathed in slowly, willing away the jitters, and took to the stage.
"And ... it's ... showtime!" Rickie announced, promptly making his exit.
Amelia planted her russet boots center stage and curtsied in her flowing vintage dress. More deafening applause.
Though still anxious, she was eager to play her heart out in this well-known open-air setting. Quickly, she brought up her fiddle and cradled it under her chin ... bow ready.
Almost there ...
And then it began to happen. Always, always, an indescribable something transpired the instant her bow touched the strings. Oh, the glory, the sheer magic of connecting this way with a receptive audience. She felt at one with the band, the stage, and her adoring fans. All the years of performing for a crowd converged in that moment.
Despite the venue, deep inside she was the same petite virtuoso darling her father had groomed for solo work on the concert stage. Beginning her instruction at age four, he had meticulously taught her using the Galamian method, following in his own footsteps. Within four years, Amelia had auditioned at the Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio, where she began preparatory study with master teacher Dorothea Malloy. From then on, Amelia and her doting parents made weekly commutes on weekends.
In an attempt to give their little girl a normal life—apart from her recognition and celebrity—Amelia's mother planned for her to live at home while attending the best private schools. So Amelia kept busy with homework and exams and all the typical school-related activities while her father filled her leisure hours with practicing scales, arpeggios, thirds, and octaves. Only rarely had she missed a day of practice.
Between lessons in Oberlin, young Amelia played in professional recitals and soloed with regional orchestras, first in her hometown of Columbus, and then, when she was twelve, with the big orchestras.
Once she finished high school at seventeen, Amelia made her debut recording, as well as enrolled in college courses at Oberlin, all while traveling on the weekends. But after the years of the insane touring schedule, Amelia began to voice her frustration to her father, whose "serious music only" mentality had begun to annoy her.
"It's normal to feel the pressure—comes with the territory." Her father always downplayed Amelia's frustrations. "When you're at the top, you'll appreciate the effort required to get there."
By the time Amelia had celebrated her twenty-first birthday, she was weary of his hovering. She loved the music but disliked the expectation that she travel and perform in her leisure time, after college classes . . . and then, following her graduation. For a period of time, she rarely slept in the same bed two nights in a row, and she yearned for a more normal life—and the possibility of marriage and her own family someday.
One night while spending time at her parents' vacation home in Madison, Connecticut, Amelia read about a fiddling contest. Intrigued, she slipped out of the house and attended her first-ever fiddling festival in Manchester. Immediately, she was enthralled by the country style and the happy-go-lucky sound and, self-taught, eventually began playing in the East Coast's lineup of up-and-coming fiddlers.
And so, a country fiddler was born ... her secret life.
* * *
Amelia drew her bow across two strings simultaneously, creating a harmony in one masterful sweep: double-stops. Leaning into the fiddle, she began to play "Pretty Polly Ann," Ozark-style fiddling and her first in a set of three crowd-pleasers. She loved this one, and the crowd had an uncanny way of drawing the first rousing song out of her, egging her on. So liberating ... just what I need! They adored her, and she felt the love.
After two curtsies the crowd quieted, and she began to play "Bumblebee in the Gourdvine," made popular by the legendary Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson. My hero, thought Amelia.
She had learned how to work an audience during her solo concerts, saving the best and showiest for last, just as she did with classical encores. So when it came time for "Orange Blossom Special," she played her licks with reckless abandon. The raucous tune brought smiles to the entire front row of concertgoers, she noticed; because of the brilliant spotlights, she was unable to see much farther back. Oh, she was in fiddle heaven with all of the string plucking and harmonic slides that mimicked a train whistle. The piece was a fiddle player's national anthem. Focusing only on the exhilarating number, she played as fine as she ever had.
But now she was coming to the middle section she adored. Sonny Jones, the banjo player next to her—a soft-spoken older gentleman—picked the strings like the seasoned musician he was, their resonating sound irresistibly warm and down-home.
Stepping back on the stage, Amelia let the guys do their picking and strumming, embracing every fabulous moment. Bobby, James, and Lennie—the best mandolin player and two guitarists she'd ever encountered, bar none.
She kept up her fiddling at a furious pace, her mind flitting to her father, whom she assumed was relaxing in his plush office, feet resting on his leather hassock, dissecting DVDs of big-city stops on her recent concert circuit. Like a football coach, analyzing plays. He would be dismayed if he knew she was goofing off instead of practicing her classical solo repertoire.
So would Byron ...
Still, plenty of talented concert violinists also excelled in fiddling. I'm not alone in this. Amelia justified herself with the knowledge that the best violin concertos ever written incorporated advanced fiddling techniques—the third movement of the Bruch violin concerto, for one.
And as she played, she visualized Byron's text message just before she'd made her entrance tonight. You're ignoring me, Amelia....
Her eyes roamed the first row again, these devotees of country music. Their faces were alight with pure joy, the same beaming response as classical music lovers in a very different kind of venue. The same meshing of minds and hearts, though no one here was dressed to the nines.
Why, Amelia wondered, did she feel this way when she mixed it up with the Bittersweet Band, removed from the serious music embedded in her soul? What was so terrible that she had to conceal this side of herself from the ones who loved and knew her best?
Two more measures and the lead was all hers again—and the fastest, showiest part of the piece. She'd come to know it like her own breath, and she moved back into the spotlight, standing now only a few feet from the edge of the stage. Her heart was on her sleeve as she took the piece to its rousing finale—bringing down the house.
Amelia gratefully acknowledged the responsive audience, all caught up in the excitement of her performance. Then, after curtsying again, she hurried confidently offstage, where she waited in the wings, still taking in the thunderous applause.
After an appropriate length of time, she gave her first curtain call amidst shouts of "A-my Lee ... A-my Lee!"
Again and again she curtsied for the wired-up crowd. Their reaction was phenomenal—surely word would travel about her appearance tonight.
A prick of concern touched Amelia. How long before I'm found out?
Four more messages had arrived since Amelia stepped onstage tonight. Even when he's texting, Byron sounds like an English professor
, Amelia thought while standing backstage after her best fiddling performance to date. She was weary of the quotations Byron kept sending. Give all to love; Obey thy heart....
Penned by Emerson.
And then another: We are most alive when we're in love—John Updike.
"Hmm ... no kidding," she muttered.
Nevertheless, she owed Byron some explanation for her silence. After all, they were practically engaged, and she had essentially stood him up.
Of course, she didn't dare reveal where she'd gone; instead she left a casual text: Needed some time off. Quickly, she tacked on an apology and pressed the button to darken the screen.
"Aren't you staying for the rest of the concert?" asked Jayson, one of the stagehands.
"Not this time."
"Really? I wouldn't miss it for anything."
She laughed at his joke—he had to stay, he was being paid to.
"I'd better get going. It's a seven-hour drive back to Columbus," Amelia told him. But the truth was, she wanted space after having given it her all. The nerves came prior to the concert, then the sweet spot—the performance itself—followed by the need to recuperate from the spotlight.
Turning, she literally ran into Rickie Gene. "Oh, sorry ... didn't see you there."
"Trying to walk and text at the same time?" he teased. But his smile faded quickly. "Uh, someone's at the back entrance, demanding to see you."
Rickie handed her a business card. "Know this guy?"
She cringed as she immediately recognized the card. "Sure I know him. It's my agent, Stoney Warren." She sighed, touching Rickie's arm. "Thanks for the tip."
"Do you wanna slip out another way?" he asked.
She considered it briefly. "I think I'd better face the music ... literally."
Nearly twelve years ago her father had handpicked Stoney Warren. In a matter of months, Stoney was grafted into the family tree, a top-drawer agent who oversaw her career like a caring uncle. Between Stoney and her father, Amelia had been escorted to every classical musical event since.
She shifted the case where she kept her fiddle and bow, nothing like the fancy case she used for her expensive and much better violin back home. Walking over to Stoney, she forced a smile, despite the wince in her stomach. "Imagine meeting you here."
He eyed her boots and vintage dress. "Amelia, honey ... what's with your—"
"You don't like my Alison Krauss look?"
"Your hair—it's down."
Her mother, who wore pearls with almost everything, preferred Amelia to wear her long hair up whenever she performed. "More professional," she said.
Stoney's eyes were earnest. "What are you doing here?" The lines around his mouth were more pronounced than she remembered and his brown hair windblown. She guessed he'd driven quite a distance to find her. But the question remained: How did he know where to find her?
"I'm taking a little time off." She pushed her hair away from her face. "I just warmed up for Tim McGraw. Pretty impressive, eh?" She scrutinized Stoney's body language. His shoulders were stiff ... he was definitely not impressed. And not in the least amused.
He shook his head. "What do you suggest I tell your dad?"
She shuddered. "Don't tell him anything." Amelia stared at the ground. "He wouldn't understand."
"Neither do I."
"Let it be our little secret." She pled with her eyes.
"You're impossible, you know that?" Stoney offered her the crook of his arm. "Have you forgotten what the Chicago Tribune published two weeks ago? 'Amelia Devries plays with disarming buoyancy and an angelic sensitivity. Her rendition of the Brahms violin concerto exudes romantic passion.' End quote."
She drew a long breath. "Fiddling's just a hobby, okay?" She looked away, willing herself not to tear up. "It's relaxing."
Lightning zigzagged across the sky as they walked toward her car. "Well, don't fiddle in public. You have a class-act reputation, remember?" Stoney shook his head. "Do you really think Itzhak Perlman made a name for himself playing in fiddling contests?"
She shook her head slowly. "No."
"You have to mimic the greats to become like them, Amelia."
"I only fiddle in my spare time."
"Amelia, there's no such time for musicians like you. You're a star in the heavens. Why throw away everything you've worked for?"
"Is that what you think I'm doing?"
He pushed his hands into his pockets, silent for a moment. Then he searched her face. "How long have you been known as Amy Lee?"
She opted not to answer that question and paused, weighing her next words carefully. "If you want the truth, some days I can hardly wait to return to country music and these really wonderful people."
"And what does Byron think about all this? Or doesn't he know, either?"
She shook her head. Her boyfriend would share her agent's shock.
But Byron wasn't here. Maybe there was still something to salvage, if only Stoney agreed to keep this secret.
When they reached her car, Amelia opened the back door and placed her fiddle inside, next to her overnight bag. "How'd you find me here?" She closed the car door and leaned against it.
"That's beside the point," he said. "We have bigger things to talk about."
"What do you mean?"
"My dear, you have an important decision to make." Stoney began to present what he called an amazing opportunity. "Nicola Hannevold—only a few years older than you and touring with the top orchestras in the world—anyway, she's taken ill. She's undergoing surgery and must cancel her seventy-day European tour."
Amelia had been preparing for a big tour, as well, but it was more than a year out and not finalized as of yet.
Stoney's eyes pierced hers. "This is a gold mine, Amelia. A real boon. But you have to sign on the dotted line by the end of next week or we lose it."
She groaned. "Stoney ..."
"I need at least a verbal commitment from you. Right now."
"How can I possibly be ready in time?"
"You're ready now," he assured her.
She looked away, struggling.
"Another violinist will happily preempt you, I might add. She'll step into this readymade tour in a heartbeat."
"Well, if someone else wants it so badly—"
"That's entirely out of the question!" Stoney shot back. "Have you forgotten your picture on the cover of the Strad? I mean, really, Amelia ... you're the next big thing."
"Stoney ... I—"
"This is a windfall, Amelia. And I won't let you trample it under those ridiculous boots." He grimaced as the next act's lilting music drifted through the evening air. "If you were thinking clearly, you'd weigh the consequences of your actions and see my logic."
Excerpted from The Fiddler by Beverly Lewis Copyright © 2012 by Beverly Lewis. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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