By David Menconi
There’s an old joke in western North Carolina: if you get five folks together in Madison County, a concert is likely to break out; three of the group will play, and the other two will dance. And it’s pretty much a lead-pipe cinch that one of those musicians will be playing a fiddle.
A seemingly disproportionate number of the 21,000 people who live in this scenic county northwest of Asheville play some kind of acoustic music, especially the fiddle. That is particularly true for the rolling byway of Banjo Branch, in the Mars Hill community, which is home to fiddler Roger Howell.
“Banjer Branch should be Fiddle Branch,” he quips with an Appalachian drawl.
Equal parts gruff and droll, the 70-year-old Howell is one of Madison County’s old-guard fiddlers. He fixes the instruments in his workshop on Banjo Branch, and he plays them frequently while recording old-time fiddle tunes. Blessed with an impeccable memory, Howell has recorded hundreds of tunes over the years so that they won’t be lost to history.
“I was always drawn to old people, even as a kid,” Howell says. “At the time I got into high school, people were dying, and I thought, ‘If we don’t write this down, record it, document it, it’s gonna be done.’ So, I keep a three-by-five card in my pocket for [when] I think of a tune while out mowing. The old folks — if you don’t write it down, or tape it, [or] document their stories — it’s just like a library burnt to the ground when they die.”
Howell is one of the notable fiddlers in and around Madison County. Over in nearby Marshall lives 86-year-old Bobby Hicks, an International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Famer who used to tour with Ricky Skaggs and the late, great Bill Monroe. Just across the county line, in Weaverville, is Madison County native Arvil Freeman, also 86, who has taught generations of Madison County fiddlers, including some of the region’s best and brightest young upstarts. And every year, kids by the score sign up for Madison County’s JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) program to learn how to play.
A lot of fiddlers in this area come to Howell’s workshop to get their instruments repaired. It’s a quirky space, full of rocks, arrowheads, bottles, and, of course, fiddles.
“If it’s old,” he says, “I’ve probably got a collection of it.”
Howell has seen, heard, and worked on enough fiddles over the years to be an authoritative guide to what does and doesn’t qualify as a high-quality instrument.
“Old German Stradivarius copies from the turn of the last century are about the best you can find,” he declares. “Sold by Sears-Roebuck, believe it or not. Back in them days when they were new, 1880 to 1900, $1.50 would buy you a good fiddle. I still find them at garage sales here and there. I have to set them up for modern playing. Them days, it was gut strings, where the modern age is steel. Everything I’ve done on ’em the past 30 years, I learned the hard way. That’s the best teacher.”
Howell is one of the regulars at a weekly open-stage jam that Bobby Hicks leads at Zuma Coffee over in Marshall. The Zuma jam has been happening just about every Thursday night for the past decade and a half, and most weeks somewhere between 10 and 20 musicians of widely varying ages and abilities show up to play.
In addition to his IBMA Hall of Fame membership, Hicks has won three Grammys. His reputation is such that big-name fiddlers such as Michael Cleveland (this year’s Grammy winner for best bluegrass album) and Byron Berline, a legendary fiddler who has given a touch of bluegrass to sessions for everybody from the Rolling Stones to Manhattan Transfer, sometimes show up at the Zuma jam.
Most weeks, after the first song Hicks will usually say something along the lines of, “Thanks very much. Welcome to Zuma. My name’s Bobby Hicks and has been for a very long time.” Most everyone who wants a turn in the spotlight gets one, but those who would rather hang back and just strum along can do that, too. The playlist ranges from country classics like Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Buck Owens’s “Hello Trouble” to old-time folk classics including “Billy in the Low Ground” and “Flop Eared Mule,” plus the occasional Hicks original like “Zuma Swing.”
Week in and week out, the fiddling at Zuma Coffee is impeccable. Playing by ear rather than sheet music prevails in Madison County, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple.
“The style of fiddle they play in Madison County is really different from what they play in, say, Mount Airy,” says Laura Boosinger, a musician who works with the Madison County Arts Council on the JAM program. “It’s much ‘notier’ here. [It’s] more rhythmic and complicated in Madison, Buncombe, and Haywood counties than elsewhere.”
As to why so many folks around Madison County seem to wind up playing the fiddle, most participants and observers opine that it comes down to isolation — and the fact that fiddle can be an attention-getting instrument to play.
“In the old days, people had to make their own entertainment,” says Boosinger. “It was hard to get any radio in Madison County, so playing music is what you did. Any kind of community working event would have a potluck with music and dance afterward. Fiddlers came to be highly regarded because without one, there was no party.”
Says Howell, “It’s just where we are. In North Carolina, west of Charlotte is decidedly hillbilly, but Asheville’s very metro. Bristol, where Ralph Peer started country music, is right up the road. And we’re dead center in the middle, influenced by all of it. Madison County’s rough, just one mountain after another, beautiful but with no way in or out. Every family on this branch has at least one fiddle player or picker, playing the old songs they heard growing up.”
Arvil Freeman, also 86, has a wall full of plaques and ribbons in his Weaverville living room, including the 1989 Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award (“For significant contributions in music”) and Western Carolina University’s 2007 Mountain Heritage Award. But the one he says he’s proudest of is the North Carolina Heritage Award he received in 2018.
Ironically, it’s an award he had to be talked into accepting.
“I turned that thing down at the beginning,” he says. “Didn’t want to fool with it. My reasoning was, what good would it do me at my age? Now if I’d gotten that at 40 or 50, I could’ve used it as a resume. Right now, well, it just hangs on the wall. But I’m glad to have it.”
While Hicks spent a lot of years on the road as a touring sideman, Freeman has mostly stayed close to home. He did a stint long ago playing with Reno & Smiley, back before Don Reno left to join up with Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith’s Crackerjacks in Charlotte, and he’s also made plenty of recordings over the years.
But Freeman’s major legacy is as one of the premier music teachers in western North Carolina. Over the years, countless fiddlers have studied at the knee of the master, and he’s been happy to impart love and wisdom.
“I’ve had some wonderful students over the years,” Freeman says. “Age is a factor in learning to play music, but not the deciding factor. You can start at 50, if you want to put the time into it. The most important thing is how dedicated you are, how much time you’ll put sitting in a chair practicing. Fiddle is the most discouraging instrument because there’s no in-between. Banjo frets let you know where to go. Fiddle, if you move that finger the width of a nail, you’ll go sharp or flat. It’s very precise and you have to be dead on it. Some have the knack, and some get the knack, but some never do.”
One fiddler who has always had the knack, and the dedication, is eighth-generation Madison County resident Rhiannon Ramsey, who first fell in love with the fiddle at age four, when she saw Freeman playing on television with David Holt.
Ramsey began taking lessons as soon as she could, at age six. Now 16 years old, she’s one of Freeman’s star pupils, and a worthy carrier of Madison County’s fiddling tradition.
“There’s just such a rich culture in the area, a real appreciation for it,” Ramsey says of her home county’s fiddling ways. “It’s been going on for so many years, and it’s cool that people have kept it alive for so long. But it’s still pretty unusual for someone my age to be playing this music. My church youth group has about 100 kids, and maybe two of us listen to bluegrass. It’s just not very popular with this generation, sadly, which is discouraging. I would say that the majority of my friends are all over 50, because of the music. I want to help keep the music alive, so I definitely want to teach it to help preserve it.”
Roger Howell, Bobby Hicks, Arvil Freeman, and Rhiannon Ramsey are all part of a special show, the seventh annual “A Tribute to the Madison County Fiddlers,” March 14 at the Madison County Arts Center, in Marshall. Also on the bill are Jake and Sarah Owen (from the JAM program), Marty & Don Lewis (of Sons of Ralph), and Lillian Chase. Showtime is 7 p.m.; tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. For details, call 828-649-1301 or go to madisoncountyarts.com.
About the Author
2019 Piedmont Laureate David Menconi covered music for the (Raleigh) News & Observer for 28 years. His book "Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk" will be published this fall by the University of North Carolina Press.