Humble and Goins: Violin Making

Jim Humble, of Ooltewah, is regarded as one of Tennessee’s most skilled and sought-after violin luthiers. He began restoring violins in the 1970s and made his first full violin in 1982. Since then he has built approximately thirty violins and completed hundreds of repairs on bowed stringed instruments for musicians in the classical and bluegrass communities. 

Jim grew up in the heart of the Sequatchie Valley, an area renowned for its regional fiddle tunes.  When Jim was a youngster in Bledsoe County, he started playing rhythm guitar. “But my parents really didn’t want me to, because there was just a few people playing music and they had to get drunk,” Jim recalled. However, his friend Ed Brown, master fiddler and banjo player, came along and made it “legit.” Jim quickly made the switch to the fiddle, “I just loved the sound of the fiddle. I played guitar in a band. I told my dad, ‘I’d like to have a fiddle.’ He found one in a pawn shop.” After doing some work on the pawn shop fiddle, it was only a matter of time before fellow musicians started asking Jim to repair their own instruments as well. Jim explained, “And I was going to quite a few festivals and somebody said, “how about fixing mine?” …I’ve repaired some stuff that nobody should have..but it’s a learning process. Learn by doing.” Jim’s house in Ooltewah was built in 1973, and he has been working out of his basement workshop ever since. In 1981, Jim deepened his violin-making knowledge by completing a two-week course at the University of New Hampshire. Jim recalled his teacher Hans Neville’s likable personality and German accent. 

As part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Jim taught apprentice Meredith Goins the skills of violin making, as well as restoration techniques and bow rehairing. Meredith has known Jim since she was much younger, having met him when the 3/4-size violin her family had purchased needed work. Today Meredith is an exceptional fiddler with a far-reaching reputation. She has three years of previous experience restoring violins.

About this project, Meredith explains, “I believe it’s important to know how to restore instruments, so there are violins to pass on to generations to come. I feel in the community where I live, this is an art form that is near extinction, and I would like to be able to play a part in preserving this art form by learning from Mr. Humble, as well as sharing it and passing it on to those in the future who have a desire to learn how to restore violins and make them.” In March 2020, Meredith was also awarded a Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship from South Arts to continue her luthiering. 

Field Notes, February 2020–

Driving through Jim Humble’s neighborhood, you would never know there was a violin shop in one of the houses. And yet, Jim has been repairing and restoring musical instruments out of his basement since the mid-70s. Entering through the garage, a small dimly-lit shop appears. Work counters are fitted snugly along two of the walls, meeting at the corner. The cinder block walls are adorned with a gallery of images for Jim and Meredith to look at while they work–framed paintings of violin-playing children with dogs at their feet, clippings from luthier magazines and newspapers, and many, many photographs of Jim and other musicians playing music. A rack with four bows, side by side like rifles, is hung next to one of the pictures. Below it a handwritten sticky note saying, “Jim–are these 2 two worth re-hairing?” is stuck to the wall. 

Jim and Meredith showed off some of their work and demonstrated several skills, including planing, varnishing, and bow repair. The two have a genuine friendship and mutual admiration that has developed over many years. Jim praised Meredith’s aptitude and technique, and joked that it was his “ambition” to send all his customers to her. He laughed,  “We’ve had a lot of fun Meredith wants to do repairs, and I told her, ‘I won’t be around forever. We need to get you going here!’ We’ve had fun haven’t we?” Meredith smiled back, “We have a good time!”

Meredith turned her attention back to the violin she has been building. She demonstrated varnishing, like Jim had taught her. As she moved her brush back and forth over the piece of wood that would become the back of the instrument, she said. “Jim’s a good teacher. He instructs and supervises.” After a pause, she looked up with a smile and joked, “What’s my next instruction?” Jim explained how deceivingly simple varnishing was, “Linseed oil is really easy to work with. It seems to have good sound quality. 7 or 8 coats go on it. But they’re real thin coats. It’s a whole different ball came, the varnishing. Some of the masters never got their varnishes right.” Jim explained that he likes to varnish in the fall when the weather outside is mild and the instruments can dry in the open air. 

These tips and many more were just a small window into Jim’s treasure trove of knowledge. Jim kept repeating that his work was “a labor of love.” He mentioned many would-be students that have come through his doors and given up when they realized how much work went into making and repairing violins. Jim finds satisfaction in the meticulous; he combines years of experience with the perfect touch to produce expert craftsmanship.“Knowing when to stop and when to start,” is the hardest, he said. Even after all his years, Jim gave the impression that there was still some mystery involved in repairs: “But it’s interesting, when you get it made, the first time you put a bow on it and, you know, hope it sings. Hope it sings.” Jim Humble’s name suits him. While he might allude to mystery and credit “luck” for his beautiful violins, the rest of us might just think he’s being modest.

“But it’s interesting, when you get it made, the first time you put a bow on it and, you know, hope it sings”

 

Folklife staff visited Jim and Meredith in February 2020. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day.

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

Media:

Further Reading:

  • Alton, Robert. Violin Making and Repairing. Cassell, 1923
  • Olsen, Tim, and Cyndy Burton. Lutherie Tools: Making Hand and Power Tools for String Instrument Building. Tacoma, WA: Guild of American Luthiers, 1990. Print. 
  • Piper, Towry. “Violins and Violin Manufacture from the Death of Stradivari to the Present Time.” Proceedings of the Musical Association 25 (1898): 97-114.
  • Various Authors. Big Red Books of American Lutherie. Volume I-VII. 1985-2005.