Kirk Sutphin grew up in and around a well-entrenched old time community. He had many relatives who played old time music and the music was a vital part of that community. While others have moved on and tried to parlay their musical skills, Kirk has stayed home and followed the path of his forebearers. He works as a surveyor and occasionally does some house painting. He puts out a garden and lives much like his neighbors in Walkertown, North Carolina.
Kirk’s considerable prowess on fiddle and banjo, along with his intimate knowledge of the old-timers’ techniques, keep him busy musically, as he is a sought-after sideman and a great addition to any band. Besides the many projects he talks about in this interview, Kirk was a member of the “Masters of the Banjo” tour in 1993, and was one of the featured fiddlers on Fiddler Magazine’s 1995 video Carrying on the Traditions: Appalachian Fiddling Today.
What drew you to play music?
The first time I ever heard my grandpa play the fiddle was June of 1976. My oldest brother, Mark, had bought a 3/4 fiddle and left it with Grandpa to play on. He inspired my two older brothers to play fiddle and our father Wayne was very encouraging for us to learn, and it got him back to playing guitar back-up for Grandpa and his boys.
How did you get started learning from Tommy Jarrell?
… In the summer of 1977, Grandpa died from a heart attack. Being the youngest grandson, I was his shadow growing up and had always admired and respected him. I kept on playing at the fiddle and listening to records mostly. Then in 1980 I saw Fred Cockerham’s obituary in the newspaper. I told my dad I know Tommy will be there for the visitation and I would love to get to meet him. Tommy told us to “come up and visit anytime,” and he would be glad to show me how he played. I was so excited I think I wouldn’t shut up talking about getting to meet him! About a year later we finally made the trip to visit him. I had no idea what he was doing with the bow. I was almost discouraged but I knew that I loved that sound, and we kept going up to see him ’til I started to pick up more and more. He said, “Ninety percent of fiddling is in the bow,” so I figured you have to move the bow like him to get that sound! He became like a third grandfather to me; it wasn’t always fiddle playing—we would talk about whatever was of interest. Several times I got to watch “Gunsmoke” with him, and he would have fit right in with them. Growing up back when a man wouldn’t back down from a fight, Tommy had seen a lot of change in his lifetime, but always had time and patience for everyone.
Before he passed away in 1985, when I was playing along with him, he would have a house full of people there. He would lighten up on the bow, then rear back and say, “Play it, Kirk!” He would be just beaming! His blue eyes were twinkling. Then he would say, “Eighth wonder of the world!” He was one of a kind.
In 1988 his family donated his fiddle to the Smithsonian and asked Paul Sutphin, Blanton Owen, and myself to be part of the dedication ceremony. Tommy’s sister, Julie, told me “Kirk, I want you to play Tommy’s fiddle one last time, like it ought to be played!” I was honored to do so. The Jarrell family, along with the Jenkins and Cockerhams and many other people I have gotten to know and learn from, have made me feel a part of their family, and I wouldn’t take nothing for it!
Your playing carries with it all of these subtleties. Can you describe how you hone in on the details of the tunes you consider the basis of your personal style?
Take a tune like “Too Young To Marry” and incorporate Charlie LaPrade’s version, Posey Rorer’s, Babe Spangler’s. and maybe a little of my own and blend it together. Just take the real trademark phrasing or bowing from the fiddle tune that grabs you. I try to get as close to note for note as I can. like on “Sunny Home In Dixie” from Frank Jenkins. I taught it to his grandson H.O. Jenkins, then he came up with his own unique way of playing it. I added his to the way I now play it. I also add a phrase or two from Fiddling John Rector along with a little Rafe Brady—to me it covers all of the best rolled into one.
I think, too, that we ought to talk about how the banjo and fiddle are two fingers on the same hand in your music. Something that we perhaps share is the insight that comes from learning a tune on two instruments, coming at the tune in two different directions.
...Tommy taught me how to play “John Brown’s Dream” on the fretless banjo. The little hammer-ons and pull-offs matched what he was doing on the fiddle perfectly. I already had a lot of that in my head, and that is a big part of the fiddle/banjo [sound] in Round Peak music. Tommy said, “Play what the fiddle does without putting any extra notes in there.” I think following the fiddle with the banjo as close as you can note for note has sharpened my ear for detail on the fiddle phrasing and bowing.
What did you play first?
Fiddle [at age eight]. I remember loving the sound of banjo at age six. It was just a little too big for me to learn to play at the time.
What do you see as your role as a musician?
I feel very fortunate to have gotten to meet and learn from a lot of my musical heroes. Getting to know them and their families makes the music so much more special to me. I guess the generosity of my teachers is one thing from them I can proudly pass on. I’m somewhat of a purist when it comes to trying to capture all the subtle variations of a tune from a particular region, either on fiddle or banjo.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Fall 2013 issue!]
[Bob Buckingham fiddles, teaches, and writes in the Upstate of South Carolina.]
Photo above: Natasha Jordan
Fall 2013 cover photo: Rosalind K. Wilson