Larry Franklin is descended from a family of legendary Texas breakdown fiddlers. His great uncle, Major Franklin, and his father, Louis Franklin, were seldom recorded but vastly influential fiddlers in the Texas fiddle style that has become the national "contest" style heard everywhere today. Larry Franklin was winning most of the major fiddle contests while still in his teens, and has gradually evolved into the all-around musician and top call Nashville session pro that he is today. He also has a new solo album under his belt. Add three Grammies and his recent induction into the Texas Fiddlers' Hall of Fame, and you have an all-around winner!
When and where were you born?
I was born in Sherman, Texas, August 5, 1953.
What were your fiddle influences? At what age did you start?
I started maybe a month and a half before my eighth birthday.
You learned from your dad. Any other fiddlers?
Well, mainly my dad -- but, you know, my dad was good friends with Norman and Vernon Solomon, Benny Thomasson, and just a whole lot of people. There were impromptu get-togethers whenever anybody could. They went to these fiddling contests as much to see each other and play with each other as to compete. I'm sure they were happy to win some money, but they were definitely in it for the friendship.
Did you get to hear Texas Shorty?
Texas Shorty was in, I believe, the first contest I entered. The first contest I ever entered was in Hale Center, Texas -- west Texas near Plainview. I'd been playing for two weeks at that point. My dad taught me "Rubber Dolly" and "Boil Them Cabbage Down" and he let me go with him. It was quite a trip. Eck Robertson was there -- we had breakfast with him. For me, it was like sitting across the table from Roy Rogers. I was mesmerized when I heard him play, and he looked like wild Bill Hickok. I had never heard anybody yell and sing while they were playing the fiddle before. I was in the eighteen and under group. Byron Berline won first -- I think he was eighteen and I was seven. Mike Solomon, Vernon Solomon's son, won second and I don't remember who won anything else. But the reason I remember that is Mike Solomon split his prize money with me.
I must have looked pretty disappointed. He just came over and gave me half of it. It really kept me going. Mike was several years older than me, so I was already looking up to him -- he was a good fiddle player. There weren't a lot of kids playing fiddle back then like there are now -- just a few people to look up to....
What kind of bands have you played with since your contest days?
The first band that got some notoriety was the Cooder Browne Band. We formed in north Texas and moved to Austin when the whole Willie Nelson/Austin music scene started taking off. Willie kind of took us under his wing and signed us to his Lone Star Records and we did one album, put it out and toured with Willie. We later disagreed on some directions that we wanted to go. I also play guitar and the group was asking me to get away from the fiddle. I was wanting to play the fiddle and I was trying to find guitar players to fill that spot. They never accepted anybody I brought in -- that was the whole reason that fell apart.
After that I said, "I know one way I'll get to play the fiddle," and I went and started my own band -- the Larry Franklin Band. We were mixing swing music with country rock and that sort of thing. I did that for another three or four years with that band and played out that situation. I then went to work with Asleep at the Wheel and I played with them for seven years.
Fantastic! They're one of my favorite bands.
Yeah, that was really a lot of fun. Of course, fiddle is kind of a driving instrument for that band. I got to play all I wanted to. Those three bands totalled made up about fifteen years of touring and playing and, at that point, I'd about figured out that I needed to slow down a little bit, so that's when I moved to Nashville and pursued a studio career, and I've been here ever since. I've been here almost eleven years.
When you were a kid, did you learn any of your dad's or Major's solos, note for note?
Well, I didn't really feel like they were soloing. I just felt like they were playing the song the way they thought it was supposed to go. I didn't realize that Major was improvising a little bit on parts. At that point, I didn't understand that's what he was doing -- I was so young. My dad was pretty consistent in his parts and so, when he taught me a song, I kind of kept playing it that way.
Does your dad still play?
Not very much. He'll get inspired to play occasionally, but he worked pretty hard in his life, you know, farming, and his hands are not in the best condition, but he still has it all in his mind. I'll get him around here once in a while and he'll say, "No, that's not the way it goes!" He'll pick it up and say, "This is the way it goes," and this and that, and I just have to sit back and grin.
How old is your dad?
He's seventy-nine. We were just in Hallettsville, Texas, a couple of weeks ago. I was inducted into the Texas Fiddlers' Hall of Fame this year. [Ed. note: A partial list of past inductees includes Major Franklin, Benny Thomasson, Eck Robertson, Orville Burns, Texas Shorty, Terry Morris, Louis Franklin, Johnny Gimble, Randy Elmore, and Dale Morris.] So, I went and picked my parents up and they went with me down there and he played some. Of course, as soon as he picked up the fiddle, everything else stopped -- it was like E.F. Hutton, you know? Everybody knows that you don't get many opportunities to hear him play anymore. It was good to hear him and, of course, it was hard for him and it kinda wears him out -- he gets out of breath and stuff. It just depends. You catch him in the right mood and he can still play, but it's not easy for him.
Have you studied Johnny Gimble's playing and do you pattern yourself at all after Johnny?
Sometimes I catch myself doing it. I try to think along those lines -- it depends on what kind of song I'm playing. I got to be around Johnny quite a bit when I was playing with Asleep at the Wheel and he would come sit in with us all the time and he was always there when we were recording. We did twin fiddle parts together. I was around him quite a bit, but I was never around Grappelli or anybody like that Johnny's energy is so incredible. That's the thing I really appreciate -- his enthusiasm and his energy for playing. I just hope that I can enjoy it that much at that age.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as a transcription of Larry's tune "Now and Then," purchase the Fall 2002 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[For more information, and to order Larry's album Now & Then, visit www.larry-franklin.com]
[Paul Shelasky has performed and recorded with Laurie Lewis, The Good Ol' Persons, David Grisman, and others. He was the California State Fiddle Champion in 1975 and 1981. He currently plays jazz, bluegrass and Irish music. His latest album is called Fiddle Crazy.]