Scott Woods’ family has a musical history that goes back, in his words, “four, five, maybe six generations.”
His father, Merv, played his first gig in 1944 at a schoolhouse on the Second Line of West Garafraxa. Merv’s aunt was a teacher there. Scott’s mother, Caroline, played piano. His dad’s brothers played. His mom’s mother and grandfather played the fiddle.
They all studied classical music and turned to popular music of the day. In 1950, Merv Woods had his own orchestra and in 1956, he asked Scott’s grandmother if her 16-year-old daughter could play piano in his band.
“Four or five years later, they got married,” Scott said.
Scott is the youngest of four Woods children, and they all play musical instruments, all starting with classical training. His sister, Elizabeth, is a doctor in Deep River, and played in the Pembroke Symphony for a while. His sister, Kendra, a school teacher, sometimes plays in Scott’s band. His brother, Bruce, plays fiddle with Scott’s bands and with others in the area. Most of his siblings play more than one instrument. Scott’s focus is the fiddle but he also plays guitar, bass, drums, piano, clarinet, saxophone and mandolin.
Scott Woods remembers it wasn’t easy growing up and finding time to practice when his buddies dropped by to invite him to play ball and hockey – and he had to pass.
That was one reason he became involved in fiddle competitions – they gave him a social life. The competitions were a mainstay in many small towns in the 1970s and 80s, and Woods soon learned the circuit and made friendships.
That was “where I got my start. There was pretty much a fiddle contest everywhere in Ontario. I learned a lot about life,” he said. He also learned about people and competition. “When you’re 8, you just play. All of these places, even Fergus, had one too.” He remembers Drayton’s with fondness, and said the circuit was “bigger than it is now.”
Oddly, it wasn’t the music that attracted him. “When I was young, the main thing I got was the social part,” he said.
Fiddlers in his age group would play the best they could on stage, and then head off to play ball. Of course, there was the competitive side of the life, too.
“If you win one week, your buddy is going to be practicing all week [for the next contest],” Woods said, adding that was a spur to keep him practicing.
“On stage, it was a fierce competition. Off stage, you were friends.” He said all the kids he teaches these days (many of whom have gone on to the win the Canadian fiddle championship) are no different than he was. They are very focused. He said of the competitions, “It’s like any sport.”
Practice, practice, practice
By the time he was in his early teens, Woods was starting his fiddle lessons every night at 8 and being a night owl, would often work until 2 or 3am. Then, like many teens, he would sleep until noon, do chores and get right back into his nighttime practice regimen. He did that “right through university.”
Woods is a two-time winner of the Canadian Open Fiddle Contest held in Shelburne every year; a two-time winner of the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Championships, an invitational competition held in Ottawa; a three-time winner of the Canadian Novelty Fiddle Championship; three-time winner of the Canadian Duet Fiddle championship; and a Canadian Fiddle Entertainer of the Year. For him the big show was Shelburne.
“I was always more nervous in Shelburne than I was in Ottawa,” he said. Nonetheless, he finished in the top three in Ottawa every year he played there, and won the title twice against the musicians nominated from every province and territory.
When it came time to choose where to continue his education, he applied to the University of Western Ontario to study science, to Wilfrid Laurier University for music, and then, as a lark, to Brock University, to study business.
“I was already teaching private [music] lessons. It was good money, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that all my life. Instead, he thought of following in his father’s other footsteps.
Besides being a musician, Merv Woods was in real estate. Scott got accepted at Brock, got his business degree, and became a real estate man. He was the president for a term with the Guelph Real Estate Board.
“I got my broker’s licence. It seemed like a breeze,” he said.” Woods was leery of the music world.
“At that time, I didn’t want to have to play to put food on the table,” he recalled. He was earning about 90% of his income in real estate, and the other 10 teaching music. He had students coming to him from all over the province, and he enjoyed that kind of work.
“A lot of my students were in high end competitions,” he said.
But by 1999, his earnings ratio had gone from 90:10 to 50:50. A year or two later it was 95:5, with the music in control. Woods now uses his business degree to operate The Scott Woods Band. He travels all over Canada and the United States and plays benefit shows.
Don Messer show
One of his biggest coups was landing the Don Messer tour. For seven years he was the musical director and played the part of Don Messer in Memories of Don Messer’s Jubilee which toured extensively in Canada.
In many ways, Woods adopted many of the facets of the fiddle playing Messer, who chose all the music and was a Canadian music icon for years. Woods has tapes of many of Messer’s shows, and has met and talked with many of the musicians who performed with him on his shows. Woods speaks of all of them as friends – and they are.
Messer was born in Tweedside New Brunswick, and nearby Harvey decided to honour his 100th birthday last year with a celebration in August.
Because of his association with the Messer tour, Woods was invited to perform at the opening event.
“It was a big festival – with fiddlers from all over the world,” Woods said. Even the organizers had no idea what kind of a crowd they might attract. Woods said at one point on opening day, they were talking about perhaps an audience of 300 people; “a bit of a flop.”
Instead, at least 800 packed the tent and over the course of the week, more than 13,000 people came. Woods and his band had been promoting the show across Canada, and he remembers that people came from every province.
Woods said Messer was a very good fiddle player in a time when most fiddlers were not particularly well trained. Messer, too, had classical training, in Boston. Messer kept tight control over his show, the music, and he always promoted talented young children, something Woods also likes to do.
“Don Messer was a firm believer in keeping the old music alive with young people,” he said.
Woods noted Messer was also a tough taskmaster, and he himself admits that he is demanding of all of his musicians.
When asked if he ever gets bored repeating the same music night after night, he said he learned that the more a band plays a piece, the better it gets, and he loves that “tight” sound that comes only from constant practise and repetition.
His show is unlike others in the music business, and he said if he were forced to play in clubs until all hours, he doubts he would continue. Instead, his shows are benefits. A local group needs to make some money for a special project, and it hires The Scott Woods Band. He plays in a lot of churches, and said unabashedly that most of his fans are seniors; hardly a demographic most young musicians aspire to attract.
The band plays for a percentage of the gate, and that means the show needs to attract about 250 people minimum to meet his expenses. He has a tour bus, musicians, fuel and food to pay for. The bus is big enough for a bedroom and bunks, and a kitchen, which helps cuts costs.
Still, he said, some of his concerns are no different now than what Messer once faced. If a promoter fails to publicize a show by putting up posters, it can be a disaster. He smiled wryly and recounted one show in eastern Canada where the promoter ran into personal problems and did literally no promotion, resulting in 18 people turning up. Woods said they did the show just like they would have for a full house.
Because he plays in many church venues for seniors, his shows are usually over a little after 9pm. Then there is a social time to meet fans and sign CDs. Woods has written and recorded about 30 of his songs, but before he does that, they have to stay in his head for a long time. He has listened to so much music for so long he fears he might be using someone else’s work from years ago.
As for the temptations of the road, he has never been a big drinker and never tried drugs.
“I’m naive about drugs,” he said, so that is not an issue with his band.
He even goes out of his way to hire non-smokers and people who know how to behave because often church women prepare a meal for the band after they have been working all afternoon to set up the show. And, he said with another smile, lugging the equipment around keeps everyone in good condition.
Woods said of Messer, “He was true to himself and true to his music. I follow his lead. If I don’t like it, I won’t play it.”
As for his show, it changes regularly. Someone who saw a Scott Woods show last year can expect a new one this year, albeit with some similar elements.
There will be a bit of comedy, some flashy trick violin playing and lots of downhome tunes.
He has one show called Old Time Christmas, which the band performs later in each year.
Someone suggested he take requests, so he developed an internet poll and put together a show called By Request. That is the show that will be played on March 26 in Elora at Knox Presbyterian Church, in Mount Forest on April 14 at Mount Forest United Church, and again in Guelph on April 25 at the Knox Presbyterian Church there.
It is a busy life and Woods drives his tour bus, too. Last year the band performed 41 shows in one 45-day stretch, and in one case they played every night for 25 days straight. In one place in Vancouver, they drove 550 miles between engagements.
Right now, Woods is taking a break from touring, but he is still busy. He is booking the 2010 tour, getting the promotional material ready and seeking the right performers to make it work well.
After 2009 and a very bad winter, he decided to stay off the road. Not only is it tough driving, but he noted his audience is older and many do not like driving at night, particularly in winter, so he does his recording and administrative work in the down time.
Don Messer would have approved.