Combs and Edmonstone: Arthur Smith-style Fiddling

Matt Combs, a longtime resident of Nashville, is the Grammy-nominated staff fiddler and mandolinist for the Grand Ole Opry. Nearly every weekend his fiddle kickoff continues a tradition dating back to the program’s earliest days. Matt’s musical career has been wide-ranging, as he has played and recorded with many of the best performers in country, bluegrass, and old-time music, including 11 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2012, Matt won the prestigious Grand Master Fiddler Championship in the “traditional” category.

As part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Matt and his apprentice, Chloe Edmonstone, took a deep dive into the playing style of Arthur Smith (1898–1971), one of Tennessee’s most influential fiddlers. They studied Smith’s repertoire, bowing, and his overall, highly influential technique. A newcomer to the Nashville scene, Chloe has been attending fiddle conventions since she was a baby and fiddling since she was a young teenager. Since 2012, she has been touring with Locust Honey, a duo influenced by old time, bluegrass, and pre-war blues. Chloe is well versed in different old-time music styles and is committed to learning and carrying on the tunes of Smith. She explains, “This is a very important art form in this community. The fiddle is a huge part of southern music and culture, and Arthur Smith played a cornerstone role in the transition from fiddle as exclusively dance music to fiddle as a performance instrument. It’s imperative to know where the music we’re playing comes in order to pass it on with integrity.”

Field Notes, March 2020–

One week before the world shut down, before business shuttered and we learned that we were safer at home, Matt and Chloe were practicing Arthur Smith tunes together in Matt’s East Nashville home. Like so many musicians across the state, Matt converted an area of his home into a studio. Matt and Chloe sat in wooden chairs across from each other. They practiced some tunes together, pausing midway to watch rare film footage of the legendary musician on a computer monitor. Many of Arthur Smith’s tunes are well-known, but Matt had a hard drive of Smith’s complete oeuvre. Matt explained how many of Arthur Smith’s tunes have become canonized, “People just think of him as old time tunes now.‘Fiddler’s Dream,’ like Bela Fleck recorded that. ‘Red Apple Rag,’ that’s one that everybody plays. They’re nearly considered just traditional standards. A lot of people don’t know that they’re even attributed to him necessarily. ‘Cheatham County Blues,’ that one is less known. I think his greatest known ones are ‘Fiddler’s Dream’ and ‘Red Apple Rag.’”

Matt and Chloe were well on their way toward making an album of Smith’s tunes. They brainstormed ideas for the tunes, the arrangements, and even the cover art. Chloe explained, “ I think we can play around with it and make it fun, but still keep it true Arthur.” 

Folklife staff visited Matt and Chloe in March 2020. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day. 

Further Reading on Arthur Smith:

  • Allen, Ray. Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival. University of Illinois Press, 2010. 
  • Beisswenger, Drew. North American Fiddle Music : A Research and Information Guide, Taylor & Francis Group, 2011.
  • Chadbourne, Eugene. “Artist Biography,” All Music. 
  • Erbsen, Wayne. “Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith,” Native Ground. 
  • Ewing, Tom. “1960–1969.” In Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man, 227-313. Urbana; Chicago; Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2018.
  • Malone, Bill C., and Tracey Laird. Country Music USA : 50th Anniversary Edition, University of Texas Press, 2018.
  • McNeil, W. K. “Four from June Appal.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 17, no. 3, 1990, pp. 296–299. 
  • Morse, Becky. “”Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and His Dixieliners” (County 546-547) (Book Review).” Kentucky Folklore Record, vol. 27, no. 3, 1981, pp. 109. ProQuest.
  • Parsons, Penny, and Eddie Stubbs. “The Nashville Grass: 1973–1994.” In Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler, 157-84. University of Illinois Press, 2016.
  • Smith, Arthur. 1933. “‘Hill BillyFolk Music: A Little-Known American Type.” The Etude (March): 154, 208.
  • Wells, Paul F. “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange.” Black Music Research Journal, vol. 23, no. 1/2, 2003, pp. 135–147.