In Nashville Eddie Stubbs is known as the “walking encyclopedia of country music.” In the second part of this interview (Part 1 appeared in the Fall 2012 issue), Eddie shares the rich history of some of country music’s greatest fiddlers, along with personal thoughts that will be helpful and insightful to all musicians. I believe what follows is a treasure trove for country and bluegrass fiddlers and shines the spotlight on these great musicians of the past. I hope this will be a wonderful discovery for the reader, as it has been for me, to search out, listen to, and study some of the greatest country fiddling on record.
Who do you feel are the five most influential fiddlers in the history of country music?
As far as country and bluegrass music associated with the Grand Ole Opry and southeastern traditional music prior to 1960, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith would be first. He was the fiddle player of the 1930s that impacted so many people. Arthur was the king of the fiddle players at that time. He wrote some important songs—like “Red Apple Rag,” ”Blackberry Blossom,” “Florida Blues,” and “Sugar Tree Stomp.” He had a large repertoire of tunes on record, too. Notable future talents like Paul Warren, Howdy Forrester, and Tommy Jackson were all listening to Arthur Smith.
Tommy Jackson. Mac Wiseman deemed Tommy to be the greatest commercial country fiddler that ever lived. Tommy set a precedent for the fiddle in country music. He did for the fiddle what Earl Scruggs did for the banjo. Starting in the middle 1940s, Tommy established a commercial style that continued on into the early-mid 1960s. During that period, he was the first-call session fiddle player for recordings. The double stop (playing two strings at once in harmony) kick-offs and breaks he played on things like “I Saw The Light” behind Hank Williams in 1947, and on “Even Tho” with Webb Pierce in 1954, to cite a couple of examples, really helped to sell the sound of commercial country music at that time. After that came all the landmark recordings with Ray Price from 1954 through the middle 1960s. Tommy started out playing double stops behind Ray. Ray had some great visionary ideas, that he was hearing in his mind, of single notes which he conveyed to Tommy. Tommy took those ideas, built upon them, and ended up creating a timeless style that continues to hold up to the present. He pretty much created what Bob Wills called a “walking style” of fiddle playing.
Benny Martin. A lot of people don’t realize that Benny Martin was the one who introduced the “son-of-a-gun I’m tired” pick-up notes which became synonymous with bluegrass and country fiddling. He first played those on record behind Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs in 1953. The richness of his tone, the aggressive bite he had with his bowing, the amazing double stops, the seventh notes, and the way he accompanied a vocalist, took the fiddle to another level in the 1950s. In that decade, you couldn’t help but notice what Benny did, first behind Roy Acuff, then Flatt & Scruggs, followed by Johnnie & Jack, and Kitty Wells.
Dale Potter. Dale had been influenced by hearing Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys on the radio. Dale heard the sound of those twin and triple fiddles in that band, but he thought it was just one person playing. Emulating multiple fiddles, he came up with some of the most amazing double stops and harmony parts. Mac Wiseman said that Dale Potter had such an incredible ear for harmony that he could play a harmony part to a clothes-line wire. Some of the greatest twin fiddling that was done in the 1950s was by Tommy Jackson and Dale Potter together. What the two of those guys did, accompanying artists like Mac Wiseman and Webb Pierce, was incredible. It sounded like three or four fiddles with only two players.
Howdy Forrester was quite influential, too, especially with the fiddle tunes he played. He was from middle Tennessee and had played on the Grand Ole Opry in the early 1940s. After his service in World War II, he came back to the States and moved to Dallas and played with Georgia Slim Rutland for several years in the late ’40s. Howdy was greatly influenced by Georgia Slim’s playing and style, and he incorporated a lot of that into his own playing. When he came back to Nashville around 1950 or ’51, he brought a sound and a style that had not been heard before in this part of the country. Beyond those he accompanied on stage and on record, Howdy’s best years and greatest work in the 1950s—like so many of the fiddlers of that time—was largely lost to the air waves at personal appearances and over the radio. He spent over thirty years working for Roy Acuff, with whom he recorded. Acuff always welcomed Howdy and his band members to step out and share the spotlight, which also helped his notoriety. Howdy recorded two landmark fiddle albums—one for Cub in 1958, and a second for United Artists in 1963. According to his longtime band mate Charlie Collins, those albums didn’t sell well at all and Howdy got really discouraged after that time and remained so as the fiddle’s popularity started to fade. As a session musician, Howdy helped Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs make some memorable recordings in 1951. Among them was “Earl’s Breakdown,” an instrumental masterpiece which Howdy took three breaks on. Because of Howdy’s visibility with Mr. Acuff all those years and the Opry radio broadcasts as a vehicle to carry his talents, he influenced a lot of players.
Who are some of the unsung heroes we should go back and listen to?
Well, there are a lot of them. Tommy Magness was one of the early ones. Tommy was on Bill Monroe’s original recording of “Mule Skinner Blues.” He also played a fine, and what became an important version of “Katy Hill” at that same session in 1940. Later in that decade Tommy spent several years with Roy Acuff, and recorded eight fiddle tunes which appeared in a four-disc 78 rpm album set.
Chubby Wise was the original bluegrass fiddler. As one of the genre’s architects with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Howard Watts, and their boss Bill Monroe, together between 1945 and 1948, they created the blueprint of a unique form of American country music. Chubby’s long bow, the soul with which he played, his bluesy notes and the tone he pulled, should be a benchmark source of inspiration. He played fiddle on all of Monroe’s Columbia sessions. As a session player behind Hank Williams in 1947, Chubby played on eight titles including “Honky Tonkin’,” “Move It On Over,” “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around,” and “Mansion On the Hill.” Chubby was a great talent and a much-loved person by all who knew him.
Tommy Vaden. Tommy was the one who helped establish the instrumental sound of Hank Snow’s music. If you’ve ever heard the big hits of “I’m Movin’ On,” “Music Making Mama From Memphis,” “The Golden Rocket,” and “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” then you’ve heard Tommy Vaden. There’s a lick on the two lower strings that Tommy played on the 1950 recording of “The Golden Rocket,” which a lot of fiddlers adapted to the “Orange Blossom Special.” Tommy recorded “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)” behind Faron Young. He later worked and recorded with Cowboy Copas during Copas’ last several years. As a Nashville native, Tommy was one of the first harmony fiddle players in this town. On the slower things he played, he pulled a long bow and always had a tremendously rich tone. After being out of the business for over twenty years, Tommy went back in January of 1986 and played a decade or so with Hank Snow, finishing out their careers.
Joe Meadows played on some important Mercury records with the Stanley Brothers, including their award-winning version of the “Orange Blossom Special.”
Art Stamper was another really fine fiddler who played on some great tracks with the Stanley Brothers on Mercury. Art also knew scores of old time tunes. Thankfully, he got to record several fiddle albums before his passing.
Jimmy Shumate played with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs on their first Mercury recording session. He only cut two songs with them, “Cabin In Caroline,” and “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart,” but what a statement he made with his playing that day back in 1948.
Gordon Terry was a powerhouse fiddler. He played on Bill Monroe’s classic cuts of “Christmas Time’s A-Coming,” and “The First Whippoorwill.” He was on Faron Young’s cut of “Sweet Dreams,” and recorded some impressive fiddling behind Jimmy Martin on “Rock Hearts,” “I’ll Never Take No For An Answer,” “Ocean Of Diamonds,” “Sophronie,” and “I’m The Boss (Of This Here House).” Gordon’s first cut of “Johnson’s Old Gray Mule” turned a lot of heads when it came out in 1957. It became his signature tune.
Red Taylor is a fiddler who was greatly under-recorded. He played behind Bill Monroe on “Uncle Pen” and “Raw Hide.” One of his stand-out performances was from 1951 behind Little Jimmy Dickens on “Poor Little Darlin’.” Red also did some fine work on Jimmy Martin & The Osborne Brothers’ six RCA titles from 1954, which included “20/20 Vision,” and “Save It, Save It!” That same year he recorded “I Feel Better All Over (More Than Anywhere Else)” with Ferlin Husky.
Mack Magaha, and his predecessor Jimmy Lunsford, played some really bluesy-inspired fiddle with Don Reno & Red Smiley. They were both outstanding musicians. One of the great showmen to play a fiddle, Mack was at his zenith with Reno & Smiley, but the masses never knew of his greatness during those nearly ten years he was in that band. He went on to spend twenty years with Porter Wagoner, which made him the most visible fiddler in the 1960s and ’70s, due to Porter’s widely-syndicated television show. Those who knew the difference sadly watched Mack’s fiddling take a back seat to the dancing and showmanship. Porter confirmed this to me that his audiences became more enamored with Mack’s high-energy entertaining. It really helped sell their show and Mack was extremely popular. Porter openly admitted that Mack drew more fan mail than anyone else on their show—including Dolly Parton.
Curly Ray Cline. People never seemed to take Curly Ray’s fiddling seriously after the late 1970s because he was such a showman. He worked for Ralph Stanley for over twenty years. In his earlier years with Ralph and before that with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers in the 1950s and early ’60s, Curly Ray played exactly what those groups needed. He was a perfect fit. He had soul, a lot of spirit, and an extra good dose of grit in his fiddling. These are elements you rarely hear in people’s playing anymore.
[For the rest of this interview, including many pointers on the music business and a list of Eddie’s top pre-1960 fiddle solos, purchase the Winter 2012/13 issue.]
[L. Scott Miller is a freelance musician, writer, and educator. He was the 2010 Grand Masters Traditional Fiddle Champion and the 2012 winner of the Ed Haley Award at the Haley Fiddle Contest in Ashland, Kentucky. He presently teaches and operates the Appalachian School of Music in Ashland, Kentucky, and also teaches for the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.]
[Photo: Johnson Mountain Boys, 1981; Eddie Stubbs, right.]