When Bruce Greene left his native New Jersey to study folklore at Western Kentucky University, he probably never dreamed the music he loved would become such a big part of his life. As a college student and afterwards, Bruce befriended and learned from many Kentucky fiddlers born in the last century who still played the old style. Bruce has been carrying on these archaic tunes and this lovely old style of playing ever since. Bruce’s latest recording, the critically-acclaimed Five Miles of Ellum Wood: Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Solos, pays tribute to those old-timers he learned from and whom he deeply respects. Although Bruce is sad to see the traditions of the world disappearing day by day, he is certainly doing his part to carry on his own preferred style of traditional music. In addition to recording, Bruce occasionally teaches at such summer music schools as Augusta, Mars Hill, Swannanoa, and the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes.
You’re originally from New Jersey…how did you get an interest in Kentucky? Did you choose to go to college there because you were interested in the music?
Well, I was interested in the music at that point in my life. I was thinking about being a folklorist. At that time there were very few schools –– I wanted to go somewhere in the south, because I liked the music — and there were very few schools where you could take folklore classes on an undergraduate level. Most of them, if they had anything, were Master’s programs, and I wanted to study it right then. So Western Kentucky University was one where you could study it as an undergraduate. So I just kind of took that name out of a hat, really, and went down there without knowing what I was getting into. It turned out to be a really good experience, because they had two or three teachers who were really into the music. This one teacher had grown up around some old musicians –– he was from Kentucky –– so he gave me a couple of people to look up and start out with that he knew already.
Were the fiddlers you looked up open and eager to share their music and stories with you?
Well, it varied quite a bit. There were some that were still playing actively more or less, and they were glad of anybody to get together with. But then there were a lot of people, the real old guys, that quit years ago, had just kind of forgotten about it, and I had to push them a lot to get them to play. Like the first time I’d go there they wouldn’t play, wouldn’t play, wouldn’t play, and I’d come back again a month later, they’d feel like playing that time. I think part of it was just not being sure about a stranger. So they’d wait and see if you were going to come back and weren’t just somebody passing through. It varied all the time.
What are some of the differences between western and eastern Kentucky styles?
…The more I think about it over the years, the less I can distinguish styles, because the people I learned from, and the music I’ve heard from all around Kentucky, it’s so dependent on the individual. There was one man I learned a lot from out in western Kentucky, who really played more like what people think of as an eastern Kentucky style. It’s hard for me to generalize a style… Eastern Kentucky is known for having that dark, modal sounding stuff, a lot of solo playing, a lot of cross-tuning, things like that. And western Kentucky, at least when I was around there, didn’t have too much of that… It was close enough to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry and all that, I think it was influenced a lot by radio. One thing I would say is that there wasn’t the kind of isolation in western Kentucky that there was in eastern Kentucky, so I think they had more influences passing through. Whereas in eastern Kentucky, there were a lot of people that really just were there and were never really affected by much outside their own region.
Did these people you learned from play mostly by themselves or with other people, or for dances?
Well, when they were young they played with people a lot. When I was learning to play, when I was living around there, as a tradition, it was really on the decline. The people that got together and played really did more kind of newer music –– bluegrass, and stuff they got on the radio. There were very few people that got together and just played the old tunes. As far as a living tradition, I think it had pretty much evolved into bluegrass and more modern music. So with a lot of the fiddlers I’d get together with, they always said they hardly played at all except when I’d come around, and then we’d play the old tunes. Kentucky’s funny, because it had an incredibly strong music tradition, and it kind of has this mystique, and yet it never really got discovered much. A lot of bluegrass and country musicians came out of Kentucky, but as far as their old traditional music, so little of it really got any attention paid to it until it was almost gone. If you compare it to places like Missouri, and Texas maybe, places where there’s a real active fiddling community, Kentucky, when I was living there –– that was mostly the ’70s –– there was nothing like that, really. There were just little isolated pockets of people that got together. There were lots of fiddlers, but they were all scattered around, and most of them wanted to play newer music. So you really had to beat the bushes to find the old people who knew the old-fashioned stuff, which was what I was after.
One thing I’ve thought a lot about, if you talk about Kentucky style, is I think, especially with eastern Kentucky, a lot of the style is not so much to do with that region as it is to do with being an older style. Recordings I’ve heard of real old fiddlers from other parts of the country seem to me very much like the eastern Kentucky style fiddlers, and that made me think that it’s more something to do with how far back in time the style goes, more than what regions they’re from. So what you think of as a classic eastern Kentucky style, to me is just really more of an older style that was probably a lot more widespread in the old days, and it just kind of hung on in eastern Kentucky longer. People like Marcus Martin and Bill Hensley, the old fiddlers down here in North Carolina, they could just as well have been from Kentucky, the way I knew Kentucky music. Some of the Mississippi fiddlers that people listen to, it’s the same way. It’s pretty vague stuff, because we have so few examples of the older players, from back in the 1800s. There are really just isolated little examples of playing from that time. So it’s awful risky to make too many generalizations….
You hold your fiddle against your chest or shoulder. Did you learn that way originally or did you pick it up when you went to Kentucky?
I guess I did pick it up after I went to Kentucky. And I kind of experimented back and forth with it under my chin and against my chest for quite a while, and I’m not sure why I ended up with the against the chest thing. A lot of those old people hold it that way, but not all of them. I guess I thought it looked old-timey or something, you know? [Laughter] Then I got stuck that way.
You kind of rock the fiddle when you play…
Yeah, well, I never did that consciously. When you’re holding it against your chest, it’s a lot more liable to move around that way, and it just kind of happens. One time somebody pointed that out to me, and it was the first time I ever really knew I was doing it. And they say this old fiddler Ed Haley, who was around Kentucky and West Virginia, they talk about him doing it. And I’ll bet anything that it was the same thing, that it just naturally happened, holding the fiddle that way. I’m starting to think about changing it, actually, because I’ve developed tendonitis in my left elbow, and I think it’s probably partly to do with holding the fiddle that way. So when I get to where I can play more, I think I might experiment with holding it other ways and see what happens. I’ll probably ruin my image, but I’ve got to do it. I haven’t even touched the fiddle for about three months. I overdid it last summer and got this tendonitis. It’s starting to get better now, but it’s been a long stretch of time not playing.
Do you have any advice for people learning?
You know, it’s funny, I look at myself as kind of in a backwater or something with fiddling, because I’ve concentrated so much on just a certain region’s music. I kind of feel like I’m a little out of the mainstream. But something I always did think a lot about was… to me, what I love about fiddling are the traditions that have been handed down to us. Everywhere you go there was a different tradition and a different style of playing, and that’s what I love about music and fiddling, and I think that’s partly why I’ve tried so much just to play one regional type of playing. Because I hate to see all the different regional styles get homogenized and disappear. I guess if I were going to give some advice, that’s what I would encourage them to do: try to learn the music of a region, or a style, and learn it really well, and not try to do too many different things. I guess that attitude fits into a lot of my philosophy about life in the first place.
As time changes, especially as the older traditional fiddlers are all dying out, fiddling is really changing. People don’t have their example to hold onto very much. Fiddling’s becoming a lot more, I’d say eclectic, I guess. People just play whatever appeals to them, without worrying about where it came from or anything like that. In a way, I think that’s really a shame, but at the same time, when I think about the old people I knew, most of them didn’t have any prejudices about it like that. They learned anything they came across that they happened to like. They wouldn’t say, "That doesn’t sound like an old Kentucky piece, I’m not going to learn that." Anything that grabbed their attention, they’d try to learn it, because they just loved music. They weren’t aware of preserving a regional style. It’s hard to say. Traditional fiddling has kind of moved on into a realm of preserving something, rather than just playing what you grew up around.
What if there is no local traditional style where some people live? Do you think people should buy recordings of a particular region and try to learn from them?
I don’t know. But it is just so sad to me to see the regional traditions die out. You see, really, anymore, there are hardly any regional styles at all. Not even around here. Other than people self-consciously carrying on some regional style. I guess what I’m saying is that that’s what I wish would be happening, but I realize that that’s not the way the world is anymore. I don’t know how I’d advise people about that. As years go on, I think more and more that all that really matters is to enjoy yourself with music. Have fun with it, whatever you’re doing. Tradition is a funny thing. Tradition is less and less a factor in the world anymore. I learned so much within the tradition that I still think of it that way a lot, but I know it’s not really available to people much anymore.
[This interview is from the Summer 2007 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]