Where the Fiddle Reigns Supreme
One Music Lover’s Perspective on the Mountain Music Gatherin’
by John Harrod
John Harrod plays at the 2007 J.P. Fraley Mountain Music Gatherin’.
Kentucky is known throughout the country today for more than just its horse racing and basketball. When Paul Smith and I visited the West Coast with our fiddles in 2005, we found ourselves instant celebrities because we were representing a musical tradition that has emerged at the center of the current revival in American folk music. Kentucky’s unique geographical diversity is reflected in the diversity of the music styles that were the characteristic artistic expression of its people.
This rich musical culture took root here from the time of the earliest European settlement. Situated along the two major routes of western migration, the Wilderness Trail and the Ohio River, Kentucky absorbed a steady stream of travelers and settlers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Though the majority of the new inhabitants were of Scotch-Irish descent, many other nationalities and ethnic groups—including the French, German, Dutch, Italian, and African—left their mark on the musical culture that evolved in the state.
John Harrod (left) and Paul David Smith play in a parking-lot jam session at the 2007 J.P. Fraley Mountain Music Gatherin’.
Although this music is sometimes referred to as “mountain music,” the development took many different forms throughout the state from east to west. While Eastern Kentucky preserved old Scotch-Irish tonalities in its fiddle music along with new local developments in ways of picking the banjo, Western Kentucky was the home of a thumb-picking guitar style practiced by black musicians and passed on to white players such as Merle Travis, who became a major influence on modern country music. The music of the Ohio River towns showed more of a Continental influence, with discernible French and German inflections in the popular fiddle music that was played on the great steamboats that plied the western waters. The Bluegrass region was home to the purest black fiddle style to be found anywhere in North America, that of the Booker family of Camp Nelson and their white protégé, Madison County’s Doc Roberts.
From an early fascination with bluegrass music, which was just beginning to emerge from the shadows of the rural South when I was growing up, to my first acquaintance with a traditional old-style country fiddler, Bill Livers, a black fiddler from Owen County, I was still feeling my way into the music when I attended my first Fraley Family Mountain Music Festival in 1974. Though already familiar with the bluegrass festivals that were springing up around the country, I was still not prepared for what awaited me: A much older musical world was alive and thriving in the present. This was the world that bluegrass had evolved out of, but it had not given way to the newer sound. Rather it was holding its own with consummate musicianship, confidence, and charisma.
Bluegrass at the time was no more than 30 years old, but I could hear something in this older music that sounded as if it had been around for hundreds of years. I was hooked, I was snake-bit, I was in love. My first encounters with the likes of fiddle players like J.P. Fraley, Alva Greene, Wilson Douglas, and Byard Ray and singers like Annadeene Fraley and Mary Lozier at the Fraley Festival changed my life. My passion became to trace the roots of this music and to make it available to any who would listen, but especially to other musicians embarked on their own journeys of discovery. I was aided and influenced by fellow researchers, players, and friends, especially Gus Meade, Mark Wilson, Bruce Greene, and Nancy McClellan, all of whom I met for the first time at the festival. The history we were all seeking was alive and well in the present. And this awareness of the relativity of time and things past has remained true of the Fraley Festival to this day.
Beginning as a family reunion, the gathering began to attract friends and friends of friends and moved to a state park. Soon it began attracting other old-style singers and players from the surrounding states that the Fraleys had met in their travels. It was here that Gus Meade and Mark Wilson first met Buddy Thomas, Wilson Douglas, and J.P. Fraley himself and learned of the blind fiddler Ed Haley—all of whom became the subjects of a series of field recordings on the Rounder label that brought this vital local tradition to the attention of the wider world for the first time.
The spirit of the family reunion still prevails every year at Carter Caves. Though most of the performers who were present at the festival in the 1970s have passed on, their legacy continues with a new generation. The festival maintains the same identity and the same unspoken understandings—there is no bluegrass music allowed (although one can hear hints of what was to follow in the singing and playing of the older-style music that is preferred here). Even though regular participants have included many well-known professional musicians, such as Robin Kessinger and John Hartford, no one is paid to perform—the amateur and professional participate on an equal footing, and everyone is allotted the same 15-minute set on the stage. The musicians, however, have free rein in the parking lot, on the porch of the lodge, and in the cabins and campground.
Most significantly, though one can hear all the instruments from autoharp to harmonica and from dulcimer to tinwhistle, the fiddle reigns supreme. The reason, of course, is that J.P. Fraley epitomizes the fiddler as shaman and rock star, a niche the fiddler has occupied in folk culture since time immemorial. Nowhere else can one better experience the fiddle culture that Kentucky is so famous for than at Carter Caves State Park each year on the weekend after Labor Day. That this tradition remains vital and continues to attract young people who are carrying the music back to their communities and out into the world is testimony to the wisdom and foresight of J.P. and Annadeene Fraley, their children, and the people who gathered around them over the years. Join KET in celebrating Kentucky’s biggest musical family reunion, and be sure to come visit Carter Caves next year the week after Labor Day.
About the Author
John Harrod has documented, recorded, and performed traditional music for more than 35 years. A former Rhodes Scholar and high school teacher, Harrod is widely regarded as an authority on Kentucky’s traditional music. Along with Mark Wilson and Guthrie Meade, he has produced a series of field recordings of Kentucky fiddle and banjo players that is available on Rounder Records. (See John Harrod’s Recording Picks for a list of exemplary Kentucky old-time music recordings.)
Harrod received the 2004 Folk Heritage Award of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts for his work in preserving traditional music. In the 1970s and ’80s, he played with a number of bands, such as the Progress Red Hot String Band, the Bill Livers String Ensemble, and the Gray Eagle Band, that reintroduced old-time musicians such as Bill Livers and Lily May Ledford to Kentucky audiences. During this time he also worked for three years as a folk artist-in-residence in Kentucky schools. He currently performs with his band Kentucky Wild Horse as well as the Kentucky Clodhoppers and a family trio, Yeller Dog and the Barktones, and teaches fiddle students in Owen County and Frankfort.