Famed Fiddler Dies at Age 81
By Tim Higgins (Columbia Daily Tribune, Feb. 14, 2000; reprinted by permission, with special thanks to managing editor Jim E. Robertson)
Pete McMahan liked an audience. And Boone County’s premiere fiddle player wasn’t happy unless people danced to his music.
McMahan, 81, a frequent state fiddling champion and a Grammy-nominated musician, died late Friday night.
He was nationally known for his traditional “Little Dixie” style that, often to his delight, encouraged folks to dance along with his fast, beat-filled tunes, longtime friend and MU art history professor Howard Marshall said.
“He would always say, ‘You’re not a fiddler unless you can make a person want to dance when you play,’ Marshall said.”
Though never formally trained — McMahan couldn’t read music — his fiddling skills were renowned across the country.
Another friend and student, John Griffin of Millersburg, said McMahan’s music touched his heart every time he heard it. The two played together for more than 20 years. Griffin now has McMahan’s hand-made French violin, which dates back to the mid-1800s.
“He took the traditional style and improved it,” Griffin said. “He just got better with age.”
McMahan’s fast style came from learning and playing alongside old masters who kept swift tunes to keep those dancing to their music happy, Griffin said.
Spencer Galloway of Fayette, vice president of the Missouri State Old-Time Fiddlers Association, said McMahan “was the last of a generation.”
“He had the ability to play sophisticated arrangements and play them with an amazing drive,” Galloway said.
When the fiddlers’ association restarted the statewide fiddling competition in 1979, McMahan won the championship in each of its fist three years.
His son Dennis McMahan said trophies and plaques his father won in contests around the country fill an entire shed.
In 1990, Marshall coordinated the production of an album — “Now That’s a Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling” — that featured McMahan and a dozen other Missouri fiddlers. It was nominated for two Grammys. McMahan also released four albums in the 1970s that sold out within months.
McMahan is survived by his wife, Sarah McMahan, and six children, all of Columbia or Boone County.
“He loved to play for his friends,” Dennis McMahan said. “…If somebody wanted to hear a song…he’d play it for them.”
Marshall remembers the first time he heard McMahan play. It was in the late 1960s at a Boonville competition that had drawn many of the area’s well-known players, who took turns trying to outfiddle each other onstage. “He was one of the greats in 1968,” Marshall said. “He’d butt heads with a bunch of the other greats.”
Eventually, McMahan became the area’s best, Marshall said. “We used to say that if Pete was in the competition, you were playing for second place.”
McMahan was also known as an excellent fiddling master. “He had a great patience with people trying to learn,” Marshall said. “He was the best teacher around.”
John Williams, 17, a senior at Madison High School, was McMahan’s last apprentice. Williams had worked with McMahan for nearly five years. “He had a way about him that when he played, he was on a higher plane than everybody else,” he said.
Hall of Fame Fiddler McMahan dies at 81
By Mikael Lagerblad (Columbia Missourian, February 15, 2000; reprinted by permission, with special thanks to George Kennedy, editor-in-chief)
Preston “Pete” McMahan, who played his fiddle all the way from the Boone County Fair to the Grand Ole Opry and the Smithsonian Institution, died Friday, February 11, 20000 in Williamsburg. He was 81.
“He played everywhere,” daughter Sue Anne Benedict said. “He loved his family, and of course he loved his fiddle.”
When Mr. McMahan traveled around the country with his fiddle , people appreciated not only his music but his personality.
“He had a strong character,” Benedict said. “He had friends all around the U.S.A.”
Mr. McMahan was the first fiddler to be inducted into the Missouri State Fiddling Hall of Fame while still live.
“He was an old-time fiddler,” Benedict said, adding that he refused to play “trick-fiddling,” up-tempo songs like “Orange Blossom Special.”
Mr. McMahan was born November 18, 1918, in Blufton to Homer and Dorothy Whitlock McMahan. He married Sarah Elizabeth Ronimouson March 4, 1952, to whom he later dedicated one of his four albums, “Sarah’s Reel.” He moved to Columbia from Blufton.
Mr. McMahan worked for Tire Sales and Service. His children used to ride on the roof of their father’s truck, holding onto the railing, Benedict said.
Mr. McMahan is survived by his wife, Sarah McMahan of Columbia; three sisters, Dorothy Ann Porter and May Rigdon, both of St. Charles, and Jennie Schulter of Fayette; two sons, Dennis E. McMahan of Harrisburg and Gary Lee McMahan of Columbia; four daughters, Sue Ann Benedict, Nina Harrison, Elizabeth Kay Davis and Ruth Roe, all of Columbia; 10 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
One son, one brother and three sisters died earlier.
There will be no services or visitation.