There’s a song by country-rock band Alabama with the lyric, “If you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band.” But I find that governing clause a little too narrow. In almost any genre of music, that most cranky and difficult of all stringed instruments adds color, melody, and cohesion to a band’s performance. Whether it’s used as a solo instrument or to bring rhythm and richness to a song, there is truly nothing like a good fiddle.
Like so much of Western culture — and like the guitar — the fiddle came to us from instrumental ancestors in the Middle East. It has been traced as far as the ninth century in the Byzantine Empire, the heart of the growing Muslim world. It seems to have spread westward over time, along with the expansion of Islam.
A bowed instrument, its tone can be easily altered by changing the arch of the bridge to permit playing multiple strings at once (known as double- or triple-stopping) while its sound also varies based on the composition of the strings (steel, gut, wound). Thanks to its size and portability, it became a staple for poor people and itinerant workers in America.
If you’re ever in the area, I’d suggest a trip to the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee. It’s a quirky, endlessly fascinating indoor museum assembled over the years by folk historian John Rice Irwin. It contains many wonderful examples of homemade violins built for playing on the porch or at local dances in the hills, where electrified music only began to penetrate after the Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) started to spread electricity.
But, until you can visit there, I’ve drawn together a handful of fiddlers and fiddle events that have particularly impressed me over the years. There are many more than these, but perhaps those will find their way into future columns.
Jimmy Edmonds is a luthier who lives in Galax, Virginia. He’s a fourth-generation fiddler whose grandfather is still famous in the region. Here he talks about and demonstrates his development as a fiddler and guitar maker. (Edmonds won the Galax fiddle contest, I think, five times.)
Since 1935, fiddlers have come to Galax, Virginia, for the Old-Time Fiddlers Convention, which is held in August each year. There are instrument and band contests on the main stage, but fans, pickers, jammers, and professionals love this festival for the informal picking taking place nonstop throughout the week.
Kenny Baker (1926 – 2011) descended from generations of old-time fiddlers, and is considered by many to be the model of a bluegrass fiddler, having spent 26 years playing with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys.
It’s interesting to note that Baker’s early influences were Bob Wills’ Western swing, Django Rhinehart, and Stephane Grappelli. It was only on hearing Bill Monroe that Baker found himself teaming with the father of bluegrass music in a mutually beneficial relationship that formed a country subgenre.
Here he is playing a solo of Bill Monroe’s Jerusalem Ridge.
Fiddle songs and fiddle traditions have been handed down from generation to generation as they’ve spread across the world in the folk tradition. The violin has also been the central instrument for symphony orchestras worldwide.
Here, the violin and fiddle cross paths as internationally acclaimed instrumentalist Itzhak Perlman plays a bluegrass tune with the late singer-songwriter John Denver, whose country music career grew from his love of bluegrass music.
The old-time fiddle has found its way into the most obscure and distant places. The Athabaskan people of Alaska have held more than 30 old-time fiddler’s conventions, for example. The fiddle was brought to Alaska in the mid-19th century by fur traders, and it took hold.
Here’s a brief documentary showing the result and the debt modern Athabaskans owe the fiddle.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, two contemporary fiddlers have excelled and made names for themselves in country music and traditional Irish music.
We first saw Jenee Fleenor playing fiddle in a bluegrass band at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw — a small, one-day festival held on the Strom Thurmond Porch of the Peanut Warehouse in Conway, South Carolina. Last year, Fleenor was named the Country Music Association’s Touring Musician of the Year, as a member of mainstream country darling Blake Shelton’s band.
Look deeply enough in many country musicians’ backgrounds and you’ll almost certainly find bluegrass there.
Deanie Richardson is one of the finest fiddlers in Nashville. She made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry when she was 13 years old. Vince Gill has said of her: “Sometimes great country fiddlers aren’t great bluegrass fiddlers and vice-versa, but she encompasses those styles. She knows the difference and plays the difference.”
Richardson often travels with the Chieftains, especially when they’re playing in the US. Here, she was captured in an impromptu performance with that group:
Richardson is currently touring with Sister Sadie, a super-group whose members must find time from their other projects to perform together. However, if you get a chance to see them, don’t miss it. They have reached the second round in the IBMA awards process in several categories, with Richardson’s name on the ballot for Fiddle Player of the Year.
Here they are last year at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival:
The Orange Blossom Special has been called “the fiddle player’s national anthem.”
Written by Ervin T. Rouse in 1938, fiddler Chubby Wise often claimed to have composed it himself. Wise, a Bluegrass Hall of Fame fiddler, was often an itinerant musician who played with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in the classic band that included Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt.
No matter who wrote it, “Orange Blossom Special,” which celebrates a train of the same name as it travels to Florida, is a required standard for any bluegrass or country fiddle player. So, to close out this week’s column, here’s Chris Sexton with Nothin’ Fancy performing their very fancy version of this exciting song: