Anyone who has followed the world of bluegrass fiddling over the last decade has seen an explosion of new talent arrive on the scene. Young players are getting better and better at earlier and earlier ages. Andy Leftwich, at age twenty-five, is one of the latest fiddle prodigies –– one who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in 2001, when, at the tender age of nineteen, he joined one of the top bluegrass bands, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Now, five years later, Leftwich has firmly established himself as one of the premier bluegrass fiddlers both on the traditional and progressive ends of the spectrum. One senses that life has been very good for him as of late, both personally and professionally. Newly married (to Ricky Skaggs’ niece), he maintains a heavy weekend touring schedule, but has time at home during the week to pursue other music ventures. He is currently featured prominently on two new instrumental CD releases.
Leftwich’s fiddling features magnificent technical skills, not unlike his early role model, Mark O’Connor, and his association with Ricky Skaggs has instilled a strong affinity and understanding of the older bluegrass masters. Putting all his influences and talents together these last few years has led many observers in the bluegrass world to acknowledge Leftwich as one of the elite fiddlers of the new generation.
Talk about your entry into the world of fiddling.
I began fiddling at age six. My dad played banjo and guitar and he played with a friend who moved away, so he got me a fiddle. He knew just enough to teach me “Boil ’Em Cabbage Down.” I played it for hours that first night. Then I got some fiddle lessons.
Did you use written music?
Not until I was nine or ten when I started taking lessons from Craig Duncan. Craig helped me clean up my fiddling and showed me proper bowings and proper form. He was such a great teacher –– he showed me a lot of bowing techniques and taught me how to be smooth with my playing.
When did you first play in public?
My first outlets were fiddle contests. I entered my first contest when I was six years old at the Smithville Jamboree. It was my first time on stage in front of about 20,000 people. It was the National Championship, Beginners’ Division. I played “Camptown Races” and “You are My Sunshine.” I didn’t win, except in my parents’ eyes! I was so nervous and my dad was so nervous –– I can still see him shaking as he was getting up on stage to play rhythm guitar.
My grandparents would take me around every weekend to fiddle contests –– Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky. That’s when I learned other kids my age were doing this and were better than me. I’m probably the most competitive guy that you’ll ever meet. I got beat and I hated that. I think in a lot of ways contests are good for beginners because it shows them what level they need to get to.
How much did you practice in the beginning?
My dad made me practice an hour a day and at six years old that’s a lot. Every day when he’d get home from work he asked if I’d done my practicing and he always knew when I was lying. I hated to practice –– I loved playing, but I hated to practice. I practiced scales and double stops for an hour in the beginning. I played about three months before I learned my first real song. After about a year I could play about ten songs. When I was about nine, I got Mark O’Connor’s Championship Years CD and that’s when I really got inspired to learn all of that stuff. Before I knew it I couldn’t wait to get home from school to play. I’d play about two and a half or three hours a day. And my school work always came last. I practiced like that until I entered my last contest at Winfield in 1996. I entered Winfield on a whim and luckily I ended up winning, which was a complete surprise.
What did you do after your contest phase?
Right after the Winfield contest, I got a job playing bluegrass with Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike.
Was it an easy switch over to bluegrass?
I had never listened to bluegrass fiddling so it was a big adjustment. I started listening to Stuart Duncan. I was about fifteen years old. The biggest change for me playing bluegrass was adjusting to how much less I had to play, because in a contest you’re trying to play as much as you know in three minutes and playing behind a vocal you have to really tone it down and play melody.
I didn’t listen a lot to the older bluegrass fiddlers like Benny Martin and Paul Warren until I met Ricky Skaggs. When I joined Ricky, I was playing beside Bobby Hicks, and listening to him, I realized there was a whole different world that I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of. It was the hardest thing for me to take a bluegrass solo on a singing number and play something besides a bunch of notes over the chords. But I loved learning how the older generation of fiddlers played songs and I loved bringing that into my own playing.
How did you get the job with Ricky?
I knew his guitar player at that time, Clay Hess, and it dawned on me to ask him if Ricky needed a fiddle player because Luke Bulla had left the band, so Clay put me in touch with Ricky’s bass player, Mark Fain, and he helped me get in touch with Ricky. I submitted a CD I had recently recorded and Ricky happened to have liked it and he invited me to Lexington, Kentucky, just to hang out with the band at a show. He ended up asking me to play on stage on a few numbers and then he offered me the job right on stage that night. At this point I was nineteen years old and I was in the process of filling out college applications but when the gig playing for Ricky came up, it was a no-brainer.
[For the full text of this interview, and the tune “Pig in a Pen” as played by Andy, purchase the Winter 06/07 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Jack Tuttle performs and teaches fiddle in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is he author of nine instructional books, available at www.jacktuttle.com.]
Photo: Aric Wilmunde