Charles and Anne Horner live in a small community a few miles off of Interstate 40, just west of Knoxville, Tennessee, at the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau. One warm July day, a student, Tabitha Lawson, and I went to see Charles and try out some fiddles. Tabitha liked her first Horner fiddle so much she wanted a second one. While she tried fiddles, I spoke with Charles about fiddle making and his life.
Horner was born in 1933 in a one-room poplar log cabin that sits 100 yards from his shop. It’s the same cabin in which his father, Charles, was born in 1903. This is also the same cabin his grandfather, William, built around 1896. He was named Charles Jean Harner at birth, but his father failed to correct the misspelled birth certificate so his name is Horner today.
In the 1950s, things were beginning to boom in America, but in the Appalachians, jobs were scarce. It was then that Charles began what was to be his lifetime endeavor. From his humble beginnings he taught himself to build an instrument that can stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. Being of that natural independence that is a common trait in East Tennessee, he has been determined to excel at making quality instruments. He would have given anything to have been able to go to “one of those Chicago schools” but when he was of the age to attend he was just a poor boy wearing shoes that did not match. When a classically-trained violinist like Kenny Sears uses a couple of Horner’s fiddles for his sessions and Opry performances, it speaks for itself about Charles’ capacities as a builder. Twenty-five years ago he re-evaluated his life as he felt he was not living in a way that enabled him to build at his best. He made a decision to change and give more attention to details and making a better product. According to his long-time friend Chuck Naill, today Horner is making the best instruments of his career.
How long have you been making fiddles?
I started trying it when I was fifteen years old in 1948. And needless to say, I didn’t a bit more know how to do it than anything. I was just groping around in the dark like a blind man and wouldn’t have knowed a good one if I’d seen it. I got real interested in it and just kept trying down through the years. I spent four years in the Navy and finally found me a book that gave me some directions on how to go about making one. I got started that way. Just trial and error, working on down through the years. I would do other things just to keep going, like making toys and chairs and cabinet work and furniture. Along about 1975, I just quit everything but the musical instruments. I’ve done banjos and mandolins. I must’ve made fifty or sixty banjos. Mandolins – 241 of those. I made about six violas, one cello, two double basses, and I don’t know how many fiddles. Somewhere around 400 to 500.
Do you keep them all numbered?
No, I didn’t number the fiddles. I numbered the mandolins. The banjos, I didn’t care that much about them. I made about six or seven guitars. I didn’t have the interest in guitars that you needed, and there are so many people making guitars, anyway. I just like the fiddle better than anything. Nowadays, the fiddle and the mandolin’s about all I do.
You said you’ve made one out of walnut?
Yes, that was on a special order, that’s the only reason I did it. It was for a guy in Canada.
Do you ever make any out of cherry?
Made one. I did that because I had such a beautiful piece of wood. It had a real broad curl in it. It was real pretty, but I never did do another one.
You were talking about this maple here, curly maple. Where do you get your maple?
Down through the years I cultivated a friendship with loggers. That’s the guy that’s gonna find the tree for you because he’s in the woods every day. You know we can’t go through people’s property chopping on trees to see if that’s got what we want! And then I’d be around sawmills. There’s always a chance a log would get in there. They’d generally sell it to you. I use a lot of American wood. I like European wood. It’s just so hard to get the type that you want. You order it from a mail order house and they just pull it out of a bin and ship it to you and I can’t afford to go up there and look at it; they might not let you, anyway. But I’ve had good luck with American wood. There’ll be people say you can’t make a good instrument with American wood, but I don’t believe that.
[For the full text of this interview, subscribe to Fiddler Magazine or purchase the Winter 2011/12 issue.]