The fiddle is the most magical of all instruments with its capacity to produce such enchanting tones; possibly only the human voice can match its expressiveness. When someone puts a fiddle under his chin and draws the bow across the strings, anyone within ear shot can immediately intuit the very makeup, the soul, of the person making sound with this little wooden box. To a great extent, the measure of a fiddler’s greatness (or any musician, for that matter) is his ability to reveal his innermost workings and interior life so that others may connect with his humanity. By extension, this fiddler also can define his place in the history and cultural heritage of his people with a simple tune. Fletcher Bright embodies these aesthetics with such grace and ease that anyone listening immediately recognizes that he is an individual of great substance, the type of person who has lived his life in a way that has really mattered and made the world a better place.
Now seventy-six years old, his life-long musical journey in many ways is the history of folk fiddling in the Southeast for the last sixty years, and he shows no signs of slowing down now. His nature is to continually search out new tunes and discover better ways to approach the instrument, and his enthusiasm is contagious. His commitment to teaching others what he has learned along the way also speaks volumes about his basic character.
Fletcher Bright studied piano and violin as a child in his native Chattanooga, Tennessee, but his real musical story began at age fourteen when he discovered the music that would later be coined bluegrass. He followed the fiddling of proto-bluegrass artists such as Arthur Smith and Tommy Magness (and to this day his tendency is to keep one foot in the pre-World War II era, old-timey style and feel), but he came under the spell, as did practically every fiddler of his generation, of Benny Martin and Chubby Wise, and this fusion of old time fiddle tunes and bluegrass drive, speed, and intensity are hallmarks of his playing. Caught up in the excitement of Bill Monroe’s Big Bang in 1945 when Chubby Wise and Earl Scruggs forever defined bluegrass fiddle and banjo, respectively, Bright and several high school classmates formed the Dismembered Tennesseans, who still perform actively (with a few personnel changes in recent years due to illness and death) after sixty-two years. (Surely this wins the band the title “The Most Durable in the History of Music.”)
A few years back Bright also formed the Fletcher Bright Fiddle Band, with his son George Bright on guitar, in order to explore and share his deep and abiding love of fiddle tunes. These ensembles and his solo work as a performer have carried him to such far-flung places as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and the American Folk Festival in New York City as well as regional festivals and concert halls throughout the Southeast for years (he has even performed his own orchestrations with the Chattanooga Symphony), but his work over the past two decades as an instructor at summer music camps such as the Augusta Heritage Center (Elkins, West Virginia), Nash Camp (Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee), Bluegrass on the Beach (Portland, Oregon), Mark O’Connor’s Fiddle Camp (Dickson, Tennessee), the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes (Port Townsend, Washington), and Sore Fingers (Kingham Hill, England) has perhaps reached even wider audiences and has definitely directly touched more lives. In a more intimate and extended situation such as a week-long camp, students and colleagues have come to know Bright as not only an outstanding fiddler (who, as an aside, plays jazz piano more than passingly well) and collector of tunes, but as a genuinely generous man who has never held back from sharing his gifts with others.
His other public life as one of the top commercial real estate developers in the United States has brought him tremendous success in business and financial reward, and he has for decades been a true patron of the arts, supporting various theaters, concert series, festivals, scholarship funds, and organizations such as the International Bluegrass Music Museum and SPBGMA (the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America). Astonishingly, his credits, awards, and activities in the world of real estate, in support of general education, and with his church and choir are equally as extensive as his musical life and history (and he is an experienced pilot to boot), but in 2005 he received one of his most distinguished honors with his Governor’s Folklife Heritage Award presented by Governor Phil Bredesen. It is the state of Tennessee’s highest acknowledgement for achievement in the arts.
A few months ago I spent the afternoon at Bright’s beautiful home atop Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, before we played a show together in Chattanooga that evening, and we recorded our conversation about his life of fiddling. Following are a few excerpts.
Jim Wood: On emotional, spiritual, and sociological levels, what do you think about fiddle music, what does it mean to you, and how do you understand its meaning something in our culture and our society (not just Southern culture but in general)?
Fletcher Bright: You know I love good music, and I go toward old time music maybe because it’s easy enough for me to play (but it really is not that easy if you play it well), but that’s not an exclusive with me. I like all kinds of music. I think music can tranquilize you. I think it can improve your brain (and I need all the improvement I can get), but to be able to play the music and enjoy it really does play an important part in my well being. I like to listen to it, and the older I get, the more I like to listen to it. I don’t have to play. I used to just have to play all the time. If somebody else was playing it, it didn’t suit me as well; I wanted to be right in the middle of it.
So where do you see fiddle music (and in particular, fiddle tunes), the way it fits into bluegrass, Irish music in Ireland, and so on? Where do you see the fiddle as a voice of folk music?
It’s right in the center of it as far as I’m concerned, and I hate to categorize fiddle music into many boxes. I like to think that I’m maybe a traditional fiddle player, but I don’t like to think of it necessarily as bluegrass or old time or Irish. I like to play Irish tunes, for instance. You know I can’t play Irish like Liz Carroll, but I can play the notes.
Right. You play the tunes your way just like I play the same tunes my way or whatever. You and I are coming from the same school. I grew up around guys like Buddy Spicher and Howdy Forrester and Benny Martin. A Fritz Kreisler waltz and Scottish hornpipe and a break on “Foggy Mountain Special” and playing Bob Wills tunes were just what fiddle players did. Country, you know like the Tommy Jackson stuff. I didn’t grow up with those distinctions. I just thought of myself as a fiddle player.
That’s exactly my view, and I like to think of it that way. I really didn’t see it categorized or boxed until I started going to some of these teaching camps where they put people in a room and say “This is bluegrass, and over here, it’s old time.”
[For the rest of this interview, and the tunes “Grasshopper on a Sweet Potato Vine,” “Sally Goodin,” and “The Wise Maid,” purchase the Fall 2007 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Jim Wood is a five-time Tennessee Fiddle Champion who performs on fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar with his wife Inge. Their CD “Jim and Inge Wood in Concert: September 24, 2005” was given a rave review in the Fall 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine. For more information on recordings, concerts, and workshops, please see Jim’s website at http://www.JimWoodMusic.net.]