Time to tune the fiddle

Published 9:06 pm Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Most of the year, Miriam Syme’s classic FMC motorhome sits in her Eclipse driveway.

The 84-year-old and her late husband bought it 42 years ago. “It looks terrible, because it needs to be washed … but it polishes right back up like brand new,” Syme said.

Many old-time country fans would know Syme by her stage name, Suzi Arden. Perhaps her biggest claim to fame is “The Suzi Arden Show,” which was the longest-running show in Las Vegas when it retired in 1970.

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Growing up in Portsmouth, Miriam Darden and her five siblings were all musical. The family first worked for radio station WGH, and Miriam started violin lessons when she was 5 or 6, because that’s the instrument the family lacked.

When her three older brothers were drafted during World War II — they made it home, with decorations — the remaining family members performed regular concerts at venues including USO clubs and the Naval Hospital.

At 14 or 15, Syme recalls, the family moved to WSAP in Portsmouth, and she worked with Roy Acuff in the Norfolk area, one of various country greats from whom she learned.

In 1945, performing at the Old Dominion Barn Dance was a big opportunity for the then-16-year-old. “I wouldn’t go unless my brother went,” Syme recalled. “Richmond was 100 miles away, but that could have been 6,000 miles.”

At 17 she went to WTAR Norfolk as, she says, the area’s first country DJ and the first female country music DJ.

Next, Syme worked with an all-girl western group, Abbie Neal and the Ranch Girls in Pittsburg. When she started to branch out on her own, she took the stage name Suzi Arden, dropping the “D” from “Darden,” she says, because it was more familiar for her audience.

Before starting her own show in 1959, Syme worked with many more country greats while traveling state to state. She counted Patsy Cline a close friend.

When Syme’s husband died in 2009, she returned to live in the Eclipse house she’s owned for “50-something years.”

This will be the 25th year she has polished up the beloved FMC and driven out to the Darden family farm in Mapleton, N.C., for “a wholesome festival of bluegrass music.”

The festival will take place on Saturday, June 20 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., along Harewood Road off U.S. Route 158, five miles east of Murfreesboro.

The lineup, according to Syme, includes Travis Hollaway, Patchwork, Dymond City Bluegrass, Kathy Whatley, Dry Creek, and Nancy Joyner and Early Station, and she’s working to get more.

There’s a pig pickin’, too.

Admission is by donation. For $12, an RV hookup can be reserved.

For more information, contact Melodie Darden Hitt at 297-6113 or hitt11@cox.net.

“A lot of people are not even aware that it goes on,” Syme said. “It’s a reunion for groups and families from all over.”