GORHAM — Don Roy began playing the fiddle as a teenager at house parties, where fiddles and guitars were passed around and songs exchanged deep into the night. He quickly became better than the older and more experienced people he was playing with, including the uncle who taught him, Lucien Mathieu of Westbrook.

Roy won his first fiddle contest six months after he started playing, and racked up so many titles that some of his peers stopped competing when they saw his name on the roster of entrants. “Don’s playing. No sense in bothering to sign up,” said one.

Now 56, Roy is considered the dean of Franco-American fiddling. He’s the only person who has won three Individual Artist Fellowships in the traditional arts from the Maine Arts Commission, in 1994, 2001 and 2008. The award recognizes his adherence to the Franco-American fiddle tradition and his work to preserve it. He’s played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress and performed on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” About a decade ago, Roy completed the circle on his career by learning to make his own fiddles.

He also writes, arranges and records songs at his home studio, which he built with the money that accompanied his most recent Maine Arts Commission fellowship. He released his latest CD, “Franco American Fiddler,” last fall.

Now 56, Roy, who grew up in a large French family in Rockland, has been fiddling since he was 15, when his uncle gave him his first instrument. “I just shoved it under my chin and started sawing,” he said.

“To my ear, he’s the finest of the French fiddlers in all of New England,” said Bau Graves, executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and co-founder of the former Center for Cultural Exchange in Portland. “He’s among the very finest tradition bearers. Musical traditions need to have people like Don, who care deeply about maintaining the tradition. He wants to play the tunes like his uncle taught him to play them. Lucien was a great fiddler. Don is a better fiddler.”

Roy’s story is rooted in tradition. He grew up in a large French family in Rockland. On weekends, they drove to Winslow to visit his grandparents. House parties broke out when aunts and uncles dropped in with their instruments. For school vacation, Roy traveled by bus to his Uncle Lucien’s house in Westbrook, ostensibly to fish. At night, they played music.

In the early years, Roy accompanied his uncle on the guitar. When Roy turned 15, his uncle gave him a fiddle and began teaching him to play. That was the extent of his formal training. “I just shoved it under my chin and started sawing,” Roy said. “I just wanted to do it because Uncle Lucien was doing it, and once I started I really liked it.”

When he went home, Roy brought several records of French fiddling that his uncle had given him. “We had a record player that had 16 speeds on it, and I figured out real quick if I slowed it down to 16 and tuned my fiddle up a half a step, I was right on. The record was going slow so I could follow it. I spent hours doing that. I wore out records and scratched them all up,” Roy said.

He learned to play by ear and picked his way through the songs. He had the interest, aptitude and patience – and the heritage.

Those early house parties informed his playing with an authentic quality and provided a window to a specific tradition of fiddling that was disappearing with the passing of the older players. Roy dabbled, and still does, with other influences and styles, but he’s always stayed close to the French traditions of his youth.

Roy applies varnish to a work-in-progress fiddle in his Gorham shop. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“What we do is something that was passed on,” he said. “A lot of people learn how to play the fiddle and they think, ‘Well what kind of style do I want to play?’ They tend to become replicists or copyists. You can only go so far with that. There are a lot of things that are hidden within the music of a specific heritage. It not only takes a good player, but it takes a good teacher to bring that out.”

Roy’s playing is distinguished by its crispness, precision and drive. “He’s got so much rhythm in his bowing, I find it astonishing,” Graves said.

Roy’s breakthrough came in the late 1980s, when Graves began booking the entertainment for Portland’s New Year’s Eve party. He wanted all the best French fiddlers in Maine for a house-party concert, and he enlisted Roy, his uncle and a few others to pull it together.

“It was sort of a loose thing,” Graves said. “I told them, ‘You guys have all the repertoire in common. I don’t care how you do it.'”

It proved hugely popular, because the fiddlers transferred the joy and unscripted energy of the house parties directly to the stage. The authenticity of what they were doing was obvious to everyone, Graves said. Graves arranged regional and national tours, and the band represented Maine’s Franco-American musical heritage at folk festivals across New England and across the country.

That’s when Roy understood how unusual his upbringing truly was.

“When I started playing out, I realized that these house parties weren’t something that was happening in everybody’s family,” he said. “As soon as you leave New England, you’re a celebrity, and you feel like you are doing something really special.”

Roy also writes, arranges and records songs. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Roy lives in Gorham with his wife and musical partner, Cindy. She plays piano in the Don Roy Trio, which also includes bass player Jay Young. The trio began playing in 1994, after the Maine French Fiddlers stopped touring.

“When the French Fiddlers were done, I figured that would be end of it. But the phone kept ringing,” Roy said. “The second call from Garrison Keillor, the second call from the Kennedy Center, that launches you into a different atmosphere. I thought, ‘Well, this is real.'”

Early on, Don and Cindy Roy were connected by their families’ love of music and shared French roots. Don’s Uncle Lucien was a friend of Cindy’s grandfather, Alphy Martin, who also lived in Westbrook and played the piano. Cindy and her family lived with her grandparents while her parents saved money to build a home. Mathieu was a regular visitor, and Cindy knew that Roy was Mathieu’s “hotshot fiddler” nephew.

“I had been to a party with my parents at Lucien’s house, and there was Don. But we never met. He was playing music with everybody and I was there listening,” Cindy said.

They formally met on a blind date in 1980 and married a year later. They immediately started playing music together. Cindy was primarily a guitarist, though she knew the piano. Her grandfather taught her to play the piano “un peu” – a little – and she took lessons with Westbrook music teacher Blanche Vachon.

Roy encouraged Cindy to accompany him on the piano. “I know you know how to play,” he told her. “I know you know these chords. Let me show you how to fit them into what I am doing.”

They’ve been musical and life partners since. Cindy’s grandfather died before she married Roy, and never knew of her musical journey. She thinks her pepe would be proud. “Holy moly, what must he be thinking as he’s watching me,” she said.

It took Cindy many years to embrace her French heritage. Music helped her do it. When she was a child, she wished she was Irish. “There was a stigma,” she said. “French people, when they immigrated to Maine, they didn’t understand the language and were given menial jobs and looked on as if they were stupid. Because of that, I did not learn French in the family. My grandparents spoke French, but nobody spoke French to me. It wasn’t passed down.”

Roy’s parents spoke French, but not to their kids – “except the swear words,” he said. These days, Cindy speaks a little French. Don does not – except the swear words.

Kathleen Mundell, a traditional arts specialist with the Maine Arts Commission, said Roy is among Maine’s most prominent arts ambassadors. Roy performs music that’s specific to a geographic area and ethnic group, but timeless because it perpetuates traditions from prior generations. In folk circles, that’s known as generivity, or the idea of leaving something behind for the next generation.

Roy embodies that principle with his teaching workshops, apprenticeships and an ability to pass along his love of fiddle playing and fiddle making to others, Mundell said.

“He’s been able to maintain and revive interest in traditional music,” she said. “The scene is really quite healthy now, and Don has a lot to do with why.”

Roy, on the move in his Gorham shop, learned to play fiddle at the age of 15. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

One of the reasons is Fiddle-icious, a fiddle orchestra Roy began in 2000 with a few other enthusiasts that now has more than 150 members. They meet monthly at West Falmouth Congregation Church, and they present a series of concerts each fall that support local nonprofit agencies doing good work in the community. Roy started the group because he wanted to give back.

“I had a prayer answered, and I always said if that happened I would start teaching for free,” he said.

He’s also a regular instructor at the Maine Fiddle Camp, he teaches privately and at festivals across the country.

For the past dozen years, he’s been making fiddles. It started when his friend Jonathan Cooper, a prominent fiddle maker from Maine, moved to Gorham just a few miles from Roy’s house. Roy started dropping by.

The art of creating an instrument is different than the joy of pulling music out of the air. Music is ephemeral, lasting only in its moment of creation and its memory. A fiddle could last a couple hundred years.

“I made one and it sounded really good, so I kept making them,” Roy said. “It’s something I really like to do. I like the science of it and how the curves must flow together and how several things have to come together at once.”

He hosts regular meetings at his shop of the Misfit Fiddle Makers, a self-described group of ragtag DIY henchmen. They make fiddles together, pushing each other to try different methods and materials and to experiment with technique and design. They follow the rules but bend them.

Paul Cormier drives to Gorham from Randolph, New Hampshire, to make fiddles with Roy. Cormier, who grew up in Gray, is a fiddler from way back and was among those who stopped entering fiddle contests when he learned that Roy was competing. They became friends years later, building their relationship around music, fiddle making and a love of tinkering.

A while back, Cormier came across a 16-foot blue spruce log that was as straight as a telephone pole, 20 inches in diameter at the base, 18 at the top – perfect for fiddles, except that it wasn’t a high-end piece of European wood. Cormier sought the advice of Roy, who once salvaged a beam from a blown-down nearby barn and made fiddles from it – to the dismay of the purists.

“Don came down, took a look and said, ‘There’s no reason why we can’t make fiddles out of that stuff. It doesn’t have to be from Italy and 300 years old,'” Cormier said. “I really like that about him. He’s not afraid to thumb his nose at the fiddle police and try different woods or different techniques.”

They bought the log for $180.

Roy has played the fiddle nearly 42 years now. It began when Uncle Lucien gave him a fiddle, a bunch of records and told him to listen and play.

“That wooden box has been the biggest key I have ever had,” he said. “It’s opened so many doors.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes