If you have the pleasure of attending the Alabama FFA state convention held annually in June, you’ll be welcomed in a way only this state can boast – to the music of as many as 18 Alabama chapters competing in the state’s longstanding string band competition.
“Alabama FFA continues this tradition because it has been part of our history,” says Philip Paramore, executive secretary for the Alabama FFA Association. “The actual year it began is unknown, but it was an active contest in the early 1940s.”
The string band competition is one of Alabama FFA’s Career Development Events (CDEs), and the 15 to 18 chapters that compete each year put in countless hours of practice in the months leading up to the highly anticipated competition.
“Hours upon hours of practice time are logged, and when members commit to this CDE, it is for the long haul,” Paramore says. “Just as some ag teachers are forestry, livestock or land CDE-minded, the teachers with string bands are likewise string band-minded. As it is with parents believing their children in a school play are the best, so it is with our ag teachers believing their band is the best.”
Each string band plays three songs of the members’ choosing, one of which has to be instrumental. While it is not mandated, the songs are almost always bluegrass. The state is divided into three districts (North, Central and South), and the top two bands from each district compete at state on the first day of convention each year.
Joshua Black, a junior FFA member from Arab High School, has been competing in the competition since 2010 when the Arab chapter formed its first string band. They were the state champions in 2010 and 2011 and finished fourth in the state in 2013.
Joshua has been playing guitar for nine years.
“We formed our string band when I was in seventh grade. We had all taken music lessons from the same instructor, Mrs. Tina Miller,” he says. “We started a little band and began playing together at Arab Junior High.”
After winning the state championship in 2011, the Arab FFA string band was invited to play at a Josh Turner concert in Birmingham.
“We opened up for him in a huge stadium. It was the largest crowd we’ve ever played for,” Joshua recalls. “Before he went on stage, Josh took a few minutes to talk with us and encourage us.”
Arab High School FFA Advisor Benny Isom says the string band competition has been a great opportunity to let the public see FFA in a positive light.
“It lets our students get out and be positive role models,” Isom says. “It also gives the kids a chance to pursue their musical talents, no matter how small of a school they come from.”
Alabama FFA also hosts a vocal quartet competition, usually featuring gospel music. Arab FFA’s quartet finished third in the state in 2013.
“I really enjoy watching and listening to the kids – I love seeing their amazing musical talents at such young ages,” Isom says. “But I’m even more proud of how they represent FFA. They are exceptional in the character department.”
While the competition is fierce each year, competing FFA chapters enjoy a friendly rivalry.
“Fyffe High School FFA has a phenomenal bluegrass band, and we’ve competed against them the past two years,” Joshua says. “They got first place in 2013. We picked with them before the show, and when they performed as the champions at the closing session, they thanked us at Arab FFA for being their friends. It was a great show of class and humility.”
Several members of the Arab FFA string band also play in a professional traveling band called Freshwater Creek. They performed at the Ryman Auditorium plaza in Nashville, Tenn. in July before a Ralph Stanley concert, and they have also played before a Vince Gill performance.
While he doesn’t plan to pursue music as a career, Joshua says music will always be one of his favorite hobbies.
“The type of people you meet in bluegrass are great, fun people,” he says. “I’ll definitely continue playing for the rest of my life.”