Howard Rains and “The Old Texas Fiddle”- preserving Texas Americana Fiddle Music
When I hear the word “Texas”, I immediately think of “big” or “oil”, or “Longhorns” or “Lone star”, or “rich”. When I hear “Texas fiddle”, Texas dance music or “Swing” comes to mind, like the twin and triple fiddles of the Texas Playboys with Bob Wills calling out behind the vocals of Tommy Duncan singing “San Antonio Rose”, something like that. Well when I received The Old Texas Fiddle by Austin based fiddler/artist, Howard Rains, I sort of expected to hear some of the bouncy swingy dance music that’s associated with the term “Texas Fiddle”. After listening to this collection you can drop all of those generalities mentioned above except the word “rich”. When I slid The Old Texas Fiddle into the cd player slot, instead of hearing rudiments of Texas Swing fiddle or country fiddle, I heard instead, American Old Time Fiddle with Texas flavor, rich Texas flavor and history. For some cosmic mystical reason, whenever you put the word “Texas” in front of something, anything, it takes on a whole life of it’s own. Forget that Texas is the one of the biggest chunks of official real estate on the continent and that it used to be a sovereign nation, because what stands out to me is that Texas has way more than its fair share of music that it can truly call its own. Texas is rich.
Back to Howard Rains. Howard Rains is a Texan. Howard Rains makes his living playing the fiddle, teaching fiddle, making art and teaching graphic art in Austin, Texas. He told me, “I am a 6th generation Texan, my family was here when Texas was still a country. My fiddle has been passed down from my great grandfather so I am the 4th generation to play it. My son is playing now. He plays on “Put Your LIttle Foot” on the CD.(track 20) He will be the 5th. (generation fiddler) Howard began playing fiddle when he was nine, but drifted to guitar. It was in 2001 when his father passed the family fiddles down to him that Howard began to re-teach himself how to play. Howard says, “I used to play some folk music and some rock music but gave everything up when I picked up the fiddle and only pursued old time fiddle music. It was at that same time that I met a local fiddler named Matt Gordon who I learned a good deal from… but I started to learn from other local fiddlers such as Tim Wooten and Elizabeth Pittman.”
Being an old time fiddler myself, I dove head first into all the Old Time Fiddle music I could get my hands on…still do… and I’ve learned to listen. One listen is not enough, by any means.The more you listen to the same old time fiddle tune the more you can hear each time. You discover the textures and layers, like watching a movie for the first time, enjoying the acting and the story, then watching it again and noting the sets, settings, clothing, buildings, all of the nuances. Each time I listen I hear something I missed the first time. Howard Rains’ approach to these tunes brings to mind the fiddle recordings of the late John Hartford in that the tunes are still preserved in the old time way, but they are laid out in a format that makes the tune “easy to hear”. While it is typical for some who develop a passion for an instrument like fiddle, to put together a collection of tunes to record,say, with a banjo or a guitar or with an ensemble, Howard Rains has taken his passion a little further than most. He’s keeping these tunes real, but he’s also gone to the well of his imagination and filled the bucket with each song adding a host of wonderful musicians to accompany him.
While I hear influences of Appalachia, where I believe American fiddle music started, and Ozark and Missourri fiddle on this recording, the old time Texas versions are there, but somehow, distinct. Take the popular old time tune “Sally Ann”. Through the folk process, which I prefer to call “bastardization”, Sally Ann has several versions built around the tune, some fast, some slow, and I really thought I’d heard them all. Howard Rains, who credits this version to the great Texas fiddler “Smokey Butler”, plays it a little slower, which allows him to really “dance” the melody, in no way convoluting it with a whole bunch of notes, but rather, dressing up this tune for the ball. I noticed similarities in some of these tunes, to the Ozark and Appalachian fiddle tunes that I am familiar with. I mentioned a couple of these tunes to Howard. He responded, knowing exactly what I was talking about. He says, “Mowing the Meadow” ( track12) is most certainly a version of “Sugar in the Gourd”, “Apple Blossoms” (track 7) is in the “Duck River/Dubuque “family of tunes, “Old Bell Cow” (track 18) is in AEAC# and many of those tunes can sound very similar. I do hear the similarity with “White River.” Here’s a video of “Sally Ann” recorded with Tricia Spencer on banjo-uke and Sharon Sandomirsky on guitar.
All of these tunes were in circulation in the mid 20th century but some are certainly older tunes that have morphed and transformed like so many other American fiddle tunes. Staying true to the genre, Howard uses several cross tunings for this collection. These cross tunings open up the fiddle to resonate with rich deep drones and octaves for some of the notes giving this type of fiddling a richness all it’s own. The 21 songs (21 songs!) listed on the album jacket gives the tuning and the source for each. As for the sources, Howard has had the good fortune to have met and played with several listed. Others, such as Clifford Murray, J.H. Hudson and Lewis Propps were all recorded by John Lomax in the 1930s for the library of Congress. Howard says it’s possible, but expensive and time consuming to get these recordings from the L. O. C., but a great fiddler by the name of Bruce Green sent Howard a box of Lomax’s Texas recordings. Howard says, “Bruce Greene has been a big influence on me and I have learned a lot of tunes from him. He is one of the people who really encouraged me to learn the music of my own region. Mark Rubin of the famed bluegrass band, “The Bad Livers” also had a big influence on me. I remember him asking me, “What are you playing tunes from Kentucky for? We’ve got our own music right here.”
It is Howard Rains mission to keep Old Time Texas Fiddle music alive. He takes pride in being a mover in re-introducing people to a style that is pretty much nearly dead. Again to quote Howard Rains, “Early Texas fiddling is different than anywhere else. You hear the rudiments of the long bow, you hear a harkening back to Appalachia, you hear the music of Germans and the Poles and the Czechs and, most importantly, the Mexicans.” Howard is compiling tunes for his follow-up to this cd, “The Old Texas Fiddle, Volume Two”. Howard’s next project will be with Kansas Old Time Fiddler, Tricia Spencer, sometime later in the fall. Tricia accompanies Howard on “The Old Texas Fiddle” on tracks 2,8, and 18 on fiddle, track 7 on guitar and on track 17 she plays banjo-uke. (see the video) Several other musicians of note including Texas songwriter Peter Keane help Howard out here with banjo and fiddle. The album jacket cover art is Howard’s own. Howard is also a prolific graphic artist. He’s been a serious artist for over 25 years and works in graphic art at a school for the blind. he focuses on painting musicians as they play. For a complete biography and a virtual tour of Howard Rains art, visit his website, www.HowardRains.net.