Art Stamper: 1933 to 2005
When fiddler Art Stamper passed away on January 23 after a four-year battle with throat cancer, American string band music lost someone special — not just a great player, and not just one who embodied the link between old-time music and bluegrass while understanding the difference between the two, but a generous and beloved friend to musicians of every generation.
Born and raised in Knott County, Kentucky, Stamper was influenced by his father, Hiram, an old-time fiddler of considerable repute. Yet like many others his age, he was drawn to the city and to the new bluegrass style in the late 1940s, and he quickly found a home with some of its brightest stars.
A stint in the Armed Forces interrupted his career, but before he joined the service he worked with the Stanley Brothers — he participated in their first session for Mercury Records in August 1953, playing on such classics as “(Say) Won’t You Be Mine”. Later he recorded with the Osborne Brothers and Red Allen, who made good use of him on the July 1956 MGM session that produced “Ruby, Are You Mad?” and “Teardrops In My Eyes”.
Not long after that, Stamper suspended his work as a full-timer; his work as a hairdresser provided a more reliable basis for raising a family. He made occasional appearances on recordings by the Stanley Brothers during the 1960s, and continued to play with friends around his adopted home town of Louisville, Kentucky. But by the time he made his first solo album in 1982, it was justifiably subtitled The Lost Fiddler, even though he had in fact returned to the musical profession a few years earlier with the Goins Brothers.
From then on, though he was nominally a member of several bands, including Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, Stamper was essentially a freelancer, recording and performing with the renowned (Stanley, Larry Sparks, Bill Clifton) and the little-known (Bluegrass Thoroughbreds, Vince Combs) while occasionally making solo instrumental albums that betrayed a growing interest in the old-time tunes he’d learned as a youngster.
He ostensibly took many of those gigs for the money, but it was apparent to those who paid attention that he was at least as interested in getting out and swapping tunes with other musicians as he was in the pay. I vividly recall seeing him at Bill Grant’s festival in Hugo, Oklahoma, in 2002, where Del McCoury Band fiddler Jason Carter (another eastern Kentucky native) followed him almost every waking moment. The two would sit knee to knee and play for hours, and though Art’s voice was by then just a whisper (after recent throat surgery), he was still capable of cracking up the knot of people around them with a sly (and often ribald) joke before starting up another tune or encouraging Jason to play one. Yet whether you were a bluegrass star or an old-time beginner, Stamper was always the same — anxious to show you a tune or two, and equally determined to draw you into doing the same.
Stamper continued to play bluegrass gigs, but his interest in the old-time tunes he’d learned from his father and other eastern Kentucky fiddlers had taken over his own recordings completely by 2000, when he released Goodbye Girls, I’m Going To Boston (County Records) — though the album still made a small concession to the rhythmic thrust of the bluegrass style by including Meredith McIntosh’s stout bass playing underneath Dirk Powell’s guitar and John Herrman’s clawhammer banjo.
On Wake Up Darlin’ Corey — Stamper’s final album, recorded in February 2004 and released shortly after he was given the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement award last fall — there’s nothing but guitar and banjo, played by longtime friends Doc Hamilton and Harry Bickel, with Tim O’Brien drafted to add a few vocals. The set makes a fitting musical epitaph, filled with tunes by turn haunting, idiosyncratic, lyrical and squirrelly, drawn mostly from Kentucky fiddlers — though, characteristically, there’s also a witty transformation of bluegrass banjoist Bill Emerson’s “Sweet Dixie” into an old-time fiddle tune that serves as a sweetly melancholy reminder of his sense of musical humor. Give it a listen, and remember Art Stamper; musicians — and men — like him are few and far between.