Townsend and Northcutt: South Cumberland Fiddling


Considered one of the state’s finest living fiddlers, Robert Townsend moved to Tennessee when he was 10 years old. His new neighborhood in South Pittsburg was home to a family that played fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin. He was immediately fascinated. Another neighbor showed Robert guitar chords. Several years later he traded his guitar and $10 for a fiddle, and has been playing ever since. Robert honed his playing by sitting and watching many regional fiddlers he traveled to meet, and from listening to recordings, both homemade tapes and commercial albums. Among his biggest influences was Charles Higgins, who helped him understand and replicate the playing of Grundy County fiddler Oscar Overturf (b. 1900 d. 1988). Robert also spent time with fiddlers Bryson Higgins (Charles’s cousin), Clint Kilgore, Clyde Stephens and Don Stoker. Robert has also performed extensively with the Fiery Gizzard String Band, and released with the group the album Old Time Fiddlin’ Tunes From The South Cumberland.

With his young and talented apprentice, Isaiah Northcutt, Robert plans to teach the tunes and techniques he has learned from these many local fiddlers in Marion, Grundy, and Franklin counties. They plan to concentrate specifically on tunes from the repertoire of Overturf. Several of Overturf’s tunes, and his unique bowing style, have never been documented and rarely transmitted to a younger player.

“I have been fascinated with the local fiddling of this area a long time,” Robert says. He explains the importance of this project: “I would say that more than half of the older residents I’ve met on my home health job have a history of someone in their family playing. There are currently no other fiddlers from Grundy County playing in public that I am aware of. Fiddle music is a part of the history of this general region and this particular community. When I play in public, there always seems to be a small, but none the less interested group gathered to listen. Usually someone mentions family members who played a generation ago. There are many musicians in Grundy County playing a variety of instruments and styles, but I personally have heard of no fiddlers.”

This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.