As the first “northern” fiddler to join the ranks of the Blue Grass Boys, Gene Lowinger served as a role model for the many urban folk music enthusiasts who were discovering bluegrass in the 1960s and ’70s. His 1974 Bluegrass Fiddle book was one of the first to accurately capture the bluegrass fiddle style in standard musical notation. After an injury forced him to abandon the violin, he took up photojournalism, eventually rejoining Bill Monroe on the road to document his life in pictures. The experience inspired him to take up the fiddle again and he is now back playing and teaching. (See his “Bluegrass Fiddle Primer” in the Winter ’00/’01 issue.)
This interview was done at the Grey Fox Festival in 2002, where Gene was appearing as a fiddler instructor.
How did a New Yorker like yourself end up playing fiddle for Bill Monroe?
I was playing with a band in college. David Grisman was playing mandolin in the band and I was very friendly at the time with Ralph Rinzler, who was Bill Monroe’s manager. In 1965, Bill was playing a few shows in New York, Boston, up in New England and didn’t have a regular band working with him at the time. So rather than fly up some sidemen from Nashville, he told Ralph to get some local musicians. Ralph asked Tex Logan to play. Tex said he could do a couple of the jobs but he couldn’t do all of them. And Tex suggested to Ralph that I play twin fiddles with Tex for Bill and then the couple of jobs that Tex couldn’t play for, I would just play by myself. Which is pretty much what happened. The last job we played was in Jordan Hall in Boston, and after we got done playing that job, Bill told me that if I came to Nashville, he’d give me a job playing fiddle for him. That was around March or April in 1965. I was in my last year of college and I didn’t know what I was going to do after I graduated, so I decided right after to go to Nashville and start working with Bill Monroe. I met a band outside of Philadelphia, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, and I asked them if they were going back to Nashville if they could give me a ride, and they did. They dropped me off in the center of Nashville and that Friday night I came back to the Opry with Peter Rowan and I told Bill I was here. He said, “Bring your fiddle tomorrow night.” I brought my fiddle the next night and I was part of the Blue Grass Boys. Simple! It’s an easy thing to do!
A lot of fiddlers say that Bill Monroe “makes them” -- changes the way they play.
Absolutely. I thought I knew how to play the fiddle when I started playing for Bill but I didn’t know anything. He taught me everything I needed to about how to play fiddle, for Bill Monroe anyway. He taught me a lot about timing and phrasing, note selection. Really took some very raw material and fine tuned it a lot. And never stopped. We worked constantly, all the time. On the bus, whenever we were traveling, he’d always tell me to get my fiddle and try to teach me stuff. He was always after me to be practicing. He would just sit in the bus across from me and play a lick on his mandolin and he’d want me to play it on the fiddle. So I’d play it on the fiddle and he’d sink his head, “No, that’s not it.” He’d play it again and I’d try it again. “No, that’s not it.” And we’d keep doing this. He wouldn’t tell me what I was doing wrong. He just told me to do it again until I got it. And when I finally did it the way he wanted me to, he’d say okay and go on to the next thing he wanted me to do. That’s the way I learnt to play the fiddle from him.
Were these for vocal numbers that he would do?
Well, anything. If there was a fiddle tune I wasn’t playing quite right, he’d want me to play the right notes and the right rhythm. If there was a vocal tune that I wasn’t kicking off right or wasn’t playing the solo correctly, he would show me on the mandolin exactly what he wanted me to play. And I would have to play exactly those notes. If I didn’t do it that way on stage, after I did it that way on the bus, I had another lesson on the same day on the bus. And I kept doing that until I got it right, the way he wanted it.
Was he a pretty patient teacher?
Uh, no. With me he was very patient. He would keep going over stuff and going over stuff. With some people, he got disgusted. Some people he would just put his instrument away and shake his head and go, “You’ll never learn it. You’ll never be able to do it.” But with me, he just kept going and going and going until I got it. He was pretty patient with me. We had a very good working relationship.
Would he compliment you when you did something well?
No, he would say, “That’s it,” and go on to the next thing. Sometimes he would say, after I did something good on stage, he would tell me to do it again. The next time there was a chance to play the song, he’d say to do it again and he’d want something just as good or better, and I couldn’t do the same thing, ’cause then he’d tell me, “You just did that!” He was always pushing us.
Was he particularly interested in the fiddle player of the band?
More than anything else. Fiddle was the center of the band. The fiddle was the most important instrument in his band. Lead instrument, anyway. I always started songs off and we were always doing fiddle tunes. If something went wrong and somebody didn’t play something, the fiddle had to step right in. Whenever we’d get to the point in the show where people are yelling out songs to play, he’d say, “Okay, let’s do that,” and he’d turn to me to kick it off. So I had to know all the songs, I had to know all the keys that he did the songs in. A big job!
Did you ever have a situation in a concert when he said “Kick it off” and you didn’t know it?
What did you do?
I would say, “What key is it in?” and he would tell me and I would just play something. Play a turnaround or something like that. And I’d learn the song real fast, while they were singing it. And then we would go over the song. But by the end of my stay with him, I knew about everything he could possibly do. He would throw curve balls at me occasionally.
On purpose to challenge you?
Yeah, he loved to challenge guys in his band, keep us on our toes. We did stuff to keep him on his toes, too! …Bill would get done playing a solo for a fiddle tune, and it would come time for me to play again and I’d get up to the microphone, and before I’d play I’d say, “Bill, we know you can do better than that.” And I’d play a solo again and then he’d get up to the microphone and he’d do better!
You egged each other on.
Yeah, we used to do that all the time. It was a wonderful experience working with him. Pretty much set me up for the rest of my musical career.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Summer 2005 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
Above photo courtesy of Gene Lowinger: Gene Lowinger with Bill Monroe.