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The fiddle in Country Music History


Chris Carmichael plays fiddle
in Kathy Mattea's band

One of the most demanding instruments to master, the fiddle predates the banjo and guitar in country music. The first major country artists to record, Eck Robertson and Fiddlin' John Carson, were essentially solo fiddlers.

Most American fiddle styles derive from British, Irish and Scottish traditions. As the country expanded westward, musicians within isolated cultures developed their own approaches to the standard fiddlers' repertoire. The most distinct geographical changes are reflected in bowing techniques, amount of ornamentation and rhythmic approach. A Texan might approach a tune with a long, bow strokes and considerable embellishment, while a Georgian might play the same tune with a short, rhythmic strokes and minimal adornment.

The rise of radio and records brought autside influences that affected, if not entirely replaced, regional fiddle styles. During the 1930's, talented young country fiddlers freely took ideas from popular violinists like Fritz Kreisler, Dave Rubinoff and Joe Venuti. The hybridization of styles were inevitable; bluegrass fiddling owes as much to French swing violinist Stephane Grappelli as it does to Tex Atchison, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, Curley Fox, Howdy Forrester and other influential pre-World War II fiddlers.

Two of the most popular bandleaders of the late 1930's and early 40's were fiddlers: Roy Acuff in the Southeast and Bob Wills in the Southwest. Both Acuff and Wills usually gave solo space to more accomplished fiddlers in their bands. Most Western swing fiddlers were influenced by Wills and Cliff Bruner, but their swinging improvisations came from jazz fiddlers like Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith. The instrument was frequently heard in the honky tonk country sounds that emerged after 1945; fiddlers Tommy Jackson and Dale Potter became important Nashville session men. Since 1957 the fiddle has moved in and out of fashion in mainstream country music, although it remains a key instrument in bluegrass and old-time music. In the early 80's its popularity was bolstered by the New Traditionalist movement and new interest in Western swing.

Today, the predominant American fiddling styles and their most well-known practitioners are: Texas (Johnny Gimble, Dale Potter, Byron Berline); bluegrass (Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, Benny Martin); Cajun (Doug Kershaw, Michael Doucet), and old time (Ramona Jones, John Hartford, Mike Seeger). Lines between styles cannot always be neatly drawn. Sometimes the fiddle can portray peaceful sounds which can lull people into a almost meditation state or it can be loud bringing people to their feet to dance. Berline introduced Texas fiddling to bluegrass when he joined Bill Monroe in 1967. Versatile modern fiddlers like Vassar Clements, Sam Bush and Alison Krauss draw inspiration from bluegrass, Texas styles, blues, jazz and rock music.

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