Dan Kelly: Grand Masters Fiddle Champion at the Grand Ole Opry, Carnegie Hall, & Beyond
Many young fiddlers practice for hours because they’re driven by dreams and aspirations. Some dream of winning contests, while others’ ambitions are playing on the Grand Ole Opry or working for a nationally-known recording artist. Dan Kelly is an example of a fiddler whose dreams have become reality. He has won prestigious fiddle contests, was Roy Acuff’s last “Smoky Mountain Boy” fiddler on the Grand Ole Opry, and has developed a successful career as a sideman. He has toured with country stars: Pam Tillis, Steve Wariner, Faith Hill, Lonestar, SheDaisy, Alan Jackson, and currently with Clint Black. Working for such notable artists has allowed him to perform on the stages of the Kennedy Center, the Grammys, CMA & ACM award shows, the Tonight Show, David Letterman, Good Morning America, and Carnegie Hall. In spite of all these achievements, Dan is a mild-mannered person who is appreciative of the success he has experienced in his life and career.
Dan grew up in the Alleghany Mountain town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania. He began playing the fiddle at the age of eight and was taught by Sylvan Hare, James Bryner, and Chuck Conner. As a youngster he began participating in local fiddle contests. However, it wasn’t long before his parents, Ken and Gloria, began making longer trips for him to compete and meet other musicians. At the age of twelve, Dan won the Canadian National Open Fiddle Championship. The award was presented to him by Canadian fiddle great Graham Townsend. His wins continued as a teenager, which placed fiddle trophies in every room in the Kelly household. During Dan’s contest career he was the state fiddle champion of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, along with winning the Mid-America Championship twice. In 1983, at the age of seventeen, Dan won the coveted and most famous fiddle championship title in the nation, “The Grand Masters.” Bobby Taylor, respected fiddle judge and coordinator of the Clifftop Appalachian Stringband Festival, describes Dan’s contest playing in those days. “Of all the great fiddlers, I have always felt Dan Kelly pulled the thickest, richest, and most powerful tone. His playing was always authoritative but never rough. It was always liquid smooth.” It would be this reputation that would later attract the attention of the “King of Country Music,” Roy Acuff.
[When Howdy Forrester’s] illness became terminal, Roy asked Dan to step into Howdy’s place as a member of his “Smoky Mountain Boys.” Dan held this respected position until Roy’s death in 1992. Dan says, “The highest compliment or achievement I have ever received is the fact that Roy Acuff, the “King of Country Fiddlers,” liked my fiddling. That’s always been a huge deal for me. Of all the great fiddlers in Nashville that Roy could have picked to replace Howdy, he chose me. As a young fiddler, that boosted my confidence, which helped me succeed in a town full of great musicians and fiddlers.” Upon Roy’s constant encouragement, Dan continued his college education and graduated from Belmont with a degree in Music Business. Although Dan earned a college degree in the business of music, he credits Roy Acuff as his greatest teacher and mentor. “He taught me about the business, helped my fiddling and, as a master of the stage, helped me as a performer.”
Dan says his present work with Clint Black is somewhat reminiscent of those days. “Clint has had twenty-two number one hits and has sold over twenty million records. Not only is he a great singer but he’s a great songwriter, musician, and producer. When you’re playing with someone of his or Steve Wariner’s vocal and instrumental caliber, you’re inspired to play great every night. I like this because both artist and band complement each other’s musicianship.”
With each artist for whom Dan has worked he has developed skills which have made him more versatile as a player and performer. “My time with Faith Hill really helped me as a performer,” Dan says. “You had to be a great player, but you had to be able to move and become part of the show. We went from playing venues for 15,000 people to 100,000 as Faith gained country/pop crossover success. The energy of the performance and the show was as important as playing great music.” Another thing Dan points to is the necessary growth he’s had as a multi-instrumentalist. He has always played guitar and mandolin, but in his early days of touring he was hired solely as a fiddle player. Dan says, “Over the years, because of economic pressures, it has become a necessity for the fiddle player to be a utility musician who also plays mandolin and acoustic guitar. Now the trend is for the fiddle player to also be able to sing harmony. For young players who want to pursue work with touring artists, it’s important to expect that you will not just be playing fiddle. The more versatile you are, the more valuable you are to potential employers.”
Dan’s favorite career highlight, other than playing for Roy Acuff and winning the Grand Masters fiddle championship, was playing Carnegie Hall with Alan Jackson. Dan says, “It was with the Grand Ole Opry. They chose certain artists (to represent the Opry) and Alan was one of them whom I was playing with at the time. Carnegie Hall is as big as it gets. It was a dream come true.”
When Dan is not touring with Clint Black, he performs with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, does session work around Nashville, maintains a private teaching schedule, and teaches a violin class at a local private school. … Of all the advice Dan gives young players, he says it boils down to practice. “It seems like a no-brainer but everyone has to realize you only get out of your playing what you put in. Practicing fifteen to twenty minutes a day will not make you a fiddler. It takes hard work.”
Dan’s fiddling with the “Tennessee Mafia Jug Band” is a change of pace from his playing in a modern country band. The band harkens back to the string band sound, comedy, and antics that are reminiscent of his days with Roy Acuff’s “Smoky Mountain Boys.” The band has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, performs at festivals, and makes regular appearances on “The Marty Stuart Show,” on RFD TV. They have finished a new recording, which features Dan’s fiddling and will be available from their website (tennesseemafiajugband.com) and live shows. Dan says that playing with a bluegrass band is one way that he keeps his skills sharp. “When you play with an artist, you’re performing the same show night after night. It’s easy to start losing your chops. I like playing bluegrass because it helps keep me in shape and keeps me on edge with playing on the spot.” The band also gives Dan an opportunity to introduce a new generation of fiddlers to the tunes of Howdy Forrester. “We recorded ‘Howdy in Hickman County’ on this new project. Howdy’s tunes are so intricate and complex. He was such a great player and has been one of my greatest influences as a fiddler.”
When asked about a new solo project, Dan replies, “I don’t have anything in progress right now but it’s always a possibility.” Hopefully, for the world of fiddling, that possibility will become a reality. You can hear and learn more about Dan Kelly from his website, fiddlingdankelly.com, and see clips of his bluegrass/old time fiddling with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band and Roy Acuff on YouTube.com. Dan has also kindly made a video lesson of the tune “Tugboat” and performs a Howdy Forrester tune; please visit out Free Video Lessons page to check them out.
[For the full text of this article, along with a transcription of a variation on “Tugboat” that Dan played when he won the Grand Masters Championship in 1983, purchase the Summer 2011 issue!]
[L. Scott Miller is a freelance musician, writer and educator. He is the 2010 Grand Masters Traditional Fiddle Champion and is passionate about the fiddling from his native Ohio River Valley.]