Brad Leftwich has long been an important figure in the old-time scene. He has played in several bands and he and his wife, Linda Higginbotham, released a couple of well-received recordings in the 1980s. Recently, Brad has made a second volume of fiddle bowing instructions on Homespun Tapes and a book on Round Peak banjo, published by Mel Bay. Brad is a natural teacher. He has written several articles on bowing for The Old-Time Herald, and has written on southern Appalachian fiddling for Fiddler Magazine [Winter 1995/96]. He has made an in-depth study of old-time music and would be quick to tell you that fiddle and banjo are the two arms or the Yin and Yang of old-time music. These two components alone comprise the basic old-time band. It is the marriage of these two instruments in the later part of the nineteenth century that set the basis for what we call old-time instrumental music today. Most recently, Brad has released a second CD with musical partners Tom Sauber and Alice Gerrard where they explore the range of musical expression in old-time music.
How long have you played fiddle?
I think I was seventeen when I started fiddling, and I'm forty-six now. That would make it about twenty-nine years. It's hard to believe it's been that long.
What was your original motivation to start playing fiddle?
Actually, banjo was my first passion. My grandfather, Rush Leftwich, was a clawhammer banjo picker from Carroll County, Virginia, and hearing him and his brother George play banjo and fiddle together when I was a kid was what got me interested in old-time music. That traditional banjo-fiddle sound really excited me, and I had lots of happy associations with it from my childhood, visiting my grandparents on their farm. So I started playing banjo when I was about fifteen. I played all the time, and learned quickly.
My interest in banjo of course brought me into contact with fiddlers and fiddling. I liked it all right at first, but in contrast to banjo, my interest in fiddling started out mild and grew strong gradually. It was several years before I really caught the bug and started to concentrate more on fiddle than on banjo. It helped, too, when I started meeting older fiddlers like Tom Fuller and Tommy Jarrell in person. Musicians of that generation had a real old-time sound which reminded me of my great uncle's fiddling, and it really hooked me.
The other thing that got me going on fiddle was that in the early 1970s, when I began going to fiddlers' conventions in the mountains, I fell in with a bunch of musicians based in Lexington, Virginia. There were a lot of good banjo players in that group, and not many fiddlers. I found that I had a better chance of fitting in at jam sessions and music parties on fiddle.
Who were your main influences?
My biggest influence, hands down, was Tommy Jarrell of Surry County, North Carolina. Growing up just miles from my grand-parents' homeplace, Tommy represented everything that drew me to old-time music. On both fiddle and banjo he had the regional sound I wanted to learn, and his connections to the Leftwich family put me in touch with "lost" relatives who gave me a wealth of information about my family two to four generations ago. I visited Tommy every chance I got from 1972 to his death in 1985, and I spent years trying to understand the intricacies of his playing style.
There were a number of other influences on my playing both before and after Tommy Jarrell, though. Tom Fuller, an Oklahoma fiddler, was an inspiration to me in the early 1970s. He was born in 1890 in the Indian Territory, before Oklahoma was a state. His grandson Mike was a high school friend of mine. Mike, knowing my interest in old-time music, introduced us at Christmas one year when his grandparents had come to visit. I visited Tom several times before he died and made some tape recordings of his fiddling. I learned a number of rare old Oklahoma tunes from him, but I was just a beginning fiddler at the time and I never really mastered his unique style of playing. A funny coincidence: just a few days ago I unexpectedly got an email from a woman I was friends with in high school. I don't think I've seen her for 20 years. She was reminiscing about how we went to Mike's wedding together, and teased me about how I abandoned her at the reception to spend the whole evening talking to an old fiddler (Mike's grandfather Tom Fuller, of course).
Another Oklahoma fiddler, John Kennedy, had an impact on my music in the early 1980s. He lived in Pawnee, Oklahoma, about 15 miles from Stillwater, where I grew up. He was in his late sixties at the time, and his old-time fiddling was an anachronism amid the contest fiddling, bluegrass, and western swing that was then popular in Oklahoma fiddling circles. He was a self-effacing person who couldn't seem to believe that Linda (my wife) and I were really interested in his music. He played in a very traditional style with nicely crafted bowing, which he learned as a boy from a pair of old fiddlers, Tom and Tony Adams, who relocated there from Arkansas.
I was influenced in a general way by a number of fiddlers I met in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri: D.J. "Fate" Morrison, Lee Stoneking, Lowe Stokes, Ray "Pick" Johnson, Violet Hensley, Lyman Enloe, Cliff Trissler, Ralph Noonan, Ed Sutherland, and Howe Teague to name just a few. The tunes I learned from them and others have special significance to me, and whenever I play them they conjure up a host of great memories and stories.
Did anyone ever give you a real "Oh, Yeah!" insight during this time? Who and what was it?
The biggest insight I ever got was from Tommy Jarrell, who made me realize the importance of bowing. One visit to him made me realize that it was something I should be paying attention to, but it took several years and a lot of smaller "oh, yeahs" before I really had a feel for what it was all about. Mostly, though, my understanding of traditional fiddling dawned little by little rather than by bolts of lightning from heaven.
[This article is from the sold out Fall '00 issue.]