Jean Horner has distinguished himself as an extraordinary musical craftsman, but he didn’t stray far from home in doing it. For over 40 years he’s made fiddles and mandolins full-time in a shop near the cabin where he was raised in the Westel community on the Cumberland Plateau. He’s perfected his self-taught skills through resourcefulness and trial-and-error, and his hundreds of instruments have proven their quality in the hands of serious and demanding players, mostly traditional musicians in the surrounding region. Horner has demonstrated his craft in the Tennessee program at the 1986 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife and occasionally at other public settings. Horner states, “I was hooked on the fiddle from age fourteen, and it never let me go. I learned from everyone that I could around my community, and I feel that is what Austin is doing too, much like myself.” Austin Derryberry, his chosen apprentice, has demonstrated an especially high level of commitment and determination to learn from Mr. Horner. The master and apprentice plan possible demonstrations at Breaking Up Winter and the Museum of Appalachia’s Fall Homecoming.
Jean Horner, Fiddle maker
Describe the traditional art you are teaching?
The traditional skill that I teach is violin making (fiddle).
How did you learn this skill? Who taught you? How long have you been practicing it?
I taught myself how to make fiddles through trial and error over 65 years. After I got back from the Navy, I found a book on violin making. I was hooked on the fiddle from age fourteen, and it never let me go.
Why do you believe that it is important to preserve and pass down this art form?
I am currently the only one practicing this skill in my community. Most people that want to learn to make violins go to school and learn the right way, but I didn’t do it that way. I learned from everyone that I could around my community, and I feel that is what Austin (my apprentice) is doing too, much like myself.
What is the importance or role of this art form in your community? Where do you share your art form with others?
When I was a little bit younger, I would carry my tools and a table to work on at festivals that hired me to come. I would sit and scrape around on fiddles all day and show others the skill of violin making.
Have you taught before?
I have very little teaching experience. Every now and then older, retired gentlemen will come to me wanting to learn to make violins, but they don’t understand that it takes a lifetime to learn this skill. Austin has his entire life to learn, and he is starting about the same age that I was when I made my first violin.
Tell us about your apprentice?
He is doing pretty good for a beginner that has no prior woodworking experience. He seems very committed in wanting to learn this skill and is doing good for his first time through. I have been teaching him how to make violins in the way that I have taught myself for a little over a year now; I have known him for a little over two years.
Austin Derryberry, apprentice fiddle maker
What is the traditional art form you are learning? How did you become familiar with it?
The traditional art form and skill I am learning is violin making. Having grown up in middle Tennessee, I have sat at the feet of many guitar and banjo players during my eighteen years on earth. However, the fiddle was the one instrument that I always dreamed about. I vaguely remember, as a child, wanting to take a violin apart to see exactly how it worked. I thought it was the most beautifully sounding instrument I had ever heard in my life. As I became older, many of the elderly people in my community saw my interest in the fiddle. They began hastily rummaging through their closets to find their father or uncle’s old, beat-up fiddles for me to take apart and study.
How long have you been practicing this traditional art? Who has influenced you?
I have been playing old-time fiddle since I was five years old, but I just recently built up the courage to make a violin myself. Starting with nothing but a pair of vice-grips and a hammer, my hopefulness slowly began to fade. I had never practiced any woodworking previous to this attempt, but I didn’t let that stop me. I began going to every flea market I could to find rusty, old saws and dull chisels. It seems as though it was by fate. A close friend had just recently cleaned out his garage to make room for other things that he had acquired over the years. As he was going through a box of his father’s books, he found a book on violin making. Not long after this, I was informed about an elderly violin maker in the hills of East Tennessee that could make a fiddle to fill an auditorium with sound. That fiddle maker was Charles Horner.
What have been your goals while working with this master?
I have always aspired to make a violin as great as Charles Horner. It has been about two years now since I first met Mr. Horner at his home in the rolling hills of Rockwood, Tennessee. I knew I had to learn from the best to make a fiddle that I would truly be proud of; in my opinion, Charles Horner is the best. I greatly look up to this man for many reasons. His workshop is full of handmade tools and jigs; he was born in a time when if you wanted something, you had to make it. Since the very first time I met Mr. Horner, he has been nothing but encouraging to me as I begin this adventure. My main goal while studying with Charles Horner is to learn his tradition of making violin. Instead of learning from a book or an article on the internet, I want to listen to hours of stories about his life and the obstacles that he has encountered. I feel that it is very important to learn little things that he does to his violin to make them truly his, such as making his own pegs, chin rest, and tailpiece.
Why do you believe it is important to pass this tradition on?
My family believes in preserving tradition, even though no one in my family practices this art form. I strongly believe it is important to pass this tradition on, primarily because very few learn this art form from an individual that has practiced it their entire life and learned through trial and error. Instead, they go to school and learn the “right” way. I believe you are losing tradition when you learn things the “right” way.
How are you sharing this tradition with the public and how will you further pass it down?
I wish to live a life much like Charles Horner’s. I greatly wish to live simply; in a world constantly focused on the next best thing, simple folk are becoming more and more rare. Mr. Horner wakes up early in the morning, staggers along to his stove-heated shop, makes violins all day, and walks back to his house, calmly positioned in the beautiful hills of East Tennessee. I could hope for nothing more than this in life. I plan to play the violins I make for anyone that wishes to hear it and sell my violins to anyone that wishes to play. To further pass on this dying tradition, I plan to teach my children and my children’s children. And anyone that wishes to learn, I will happily show them everything that I know.