A Shining Moment In Grammy Spotlight

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ann Marie Calhoun's father got the first hint of her talent when she was 4 years old and he was watching a Redskins game in the family's Annandale home. After the band played "Hail to the Redskins," he suddenly heard the fight song again.

This time, it was coming from his daughter's violin. "She picked it up through her ears, and it came out through her fingers instantly," he said. "I knew she had a gift then."

Twenty-four years later, the larger world has a glimpse of the violinist that girl of 4 became. On Sunday, during what is often described as "music's biggest night," Calhoun won the "My Grammy Moment" competition at the 50th annual Grammy Awards. Before a television audience of more than 17 million, she played briefly on stage with two other finalists, and then, as winner, joined the Foo Fighters for the hard-rock anthem, "The Pretender."

Across Virginia, there were cheers from friends and relatives who remembered the former Ann Marie Simpson from Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke and the University of Virginia. Calhoun and her husband, Brian, still live near Charlottesville, in Gordonsville, about 20 miles north of campus.

"We were just thrilled to death for her," said David Simpson, an uncle who watched in his Clinton home with his wife and two children. "We were screaming and cheering like the Super Bowl."

"It was better than the Super Bowl -- and that was a good Super Bowl, too," said her brother Joe Simpson, 26, who heard from scores of old classmates at Lake Braddock and U-Va.

Yesterday, Calhoun was still in Los Angeles, soaking up some of the aftereffects of her Grammy celebrity. There had been an interview and performance on HBO and another on Sirius radio.

At the Grammys, she said, "It went by so quickly. I just remember feeling so blessed and so grateful. I feel that it was an incredible gift and not something I deserved more than the other finalists. All of them are very talented and all very deserving."

Calhoun herself is not a complete unknown. She toured in the summer and fall with virtuoso guitarist Steve Vai. Last month, she did TV appearances with former Beatle Ringo Starr, playing on "Larry King Live" and on the "The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson."

In 2006 and 2007, she toured with Jethro Tull, and earlier she recorded for the "Stand Up" album done by the Dave Matthews Band.

In an interview, Vai said yesterday that he was glad that the academy had created a platform for new talent and, in particular, that Calhoun had won. He recalled that when he first saw her perform, taking on a complex piece that few could master, he said, "Oh my God, this girl can play."

The only drawback about the Grammy moment, he said, was that Calhoun's brief appearance did not nearly capture her musical depth, he said. "She should have been the one who had a full performance on the show, because she would have stunned people," Vai said.

The way the family story goes, Calhoun fell in love with the violin at age 3, when her music-minded parents took her to an instrument store. Her mother, Theresa, a Chinese immigrant, played piano, and her father, Jim, an irrepressible country boy, played banjo.

The family lived for most of Calhoun's childhood in Fairfax Station, where her father built a barn in the yard, chopped wood and kept tractors. "We were like country folks displaced in the middle of Fairfax," she recalled with fondness.

Her father thought that the violin might help his eldest child learn to fiddle, which it did. But that was just the beginning. She also became a classically trained violinist and, ultimately, a rock violinist.

Along the way, as a child, she performed as the Simpson Family Band with her two brothers, Joe and Rich, and sister, Mary, at bluegrass festivals and rural fairs. "When she was 14, I started taking her to the fiddle contests and she won just about every one," Jim Simpson recalled.

Looking back, Calhoun said she is grateful for her father's prodding and for teachers such as Amy Fielder at Sangster Elementary School, and later her private teacher Ronda Cole. Also, at Lake Braddock, she said, "we always had a really well-supported strings program. I look back and feel very blessed." Her quartet, she recalled, played the Cosmos Club and the White House.

As a teenager, she also was a youth fellow with the National Symphony Orchestra, as a part of a program that meant weekly visits to the Kennedy Center and private lessons with violinist William Haroutounian.

Calhoun credits her father for much of her inspiration. "He was always telling me I was born to do this," she said. For a long while, she insisted, "No, Dad, I want to be a biologist."

On Sunday, her father watched her at the Grammys from his home in King George County, where the Simpsons moved two years ago. "I was elated she could be on there, and that she had come that far, from playing fiddle tunes in my living room," Jim Simpson said.

This grand moment, he noted, has come along with others too. "I think playing with Ringo Starr, a Beatle, was the top moment," he said. "But the Grammy moment was icing on the cake."

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this article.


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