Townsend and Smithson: South Cumberland Fiddling

 

Bob Townsend, of Coalmont, is considered one of Tennessee’s finest living fiddlers and has been on a lifelong mission to preserve and pass on the fiddle tunes of his home region. Bob 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. Several years after a neighbor first showed Bob guitar chords, he traded his guitar and $10 for a fiddle. He has been playing ever since. Bob honed his knowledge of the South Cumberland’s regional repertoires and styles by visiting and watching many older regional fiddlers, as well as from listening closely to rare 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 (1900–1988). Bob also spent time with fiddlers Bryson Higgins (Charles’s cousin), Clint Kilgore, Clyde Stephens, and Don Stoker. Bob has performed extensively with the Fiery Gizzard String Band. He released with the group the album Old Time Fiddlin’ Tunes From The South Cumberland, which “establishes a great regional repertoire, barely glimpsed through 78s by Jesse Young” (liner notes). For example, this album has several rare tunes from Newt Payne, who’s only known home recordings were given to Bob by Payne’s descendents. Bobby Fulcher went on to write that Bob, “plays a smooth, strong fiddling style with the clear authority to carry forward these fine creations that otherwise, would never have enlivened another dance.” Bob also directs the Grundy County Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) Program and continues to “put some great music back into his mountains.”

 

As part of the 2020 Tennessee Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Bob taught apprentice Paul Smithson the tunes and techniques he has learned from local fiddlers in Marion, Grundy, and Franklin counties. Paul–Bob’s second apprentice in as many years–has been immersed in fiddle music since his childhood in Cannon County. He started playing guitar as a teenager with legendary Cannon County fiddler Billy Womack. He subsequently learned to play the mandolin, but has been taking on the fiddle over the last few years. The pair concentrated on tunes from the repertoire of Overturf. Many of Overturf’s tunes, and his unique bowing style, have never been documented and are rarely transmitted to new players. 

Bob explains the importance of this project: “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 nonetheless 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.”

Field Notes, January 2020—

Bob Townsend’s practice space is inside a tiny shed on the corner of his property. This office is simultaneously a space for relics of yesteryear and state of the art audio equipment. The cassette recordings that Bob has meticulously collected over the years are all tucked neatly in a shelf made just for them. There are commercially produced recordings of fiddlers like Clyde Davenport, and then there are the more rare, coveted ones: home recordings with handwritten labels scrawled across them–”Bob Douglas,” “Newt Payne and Moses Cantrell,” and “Jess Young.” A bookshelf to the left of the tapeshelf houses dozens of hardback texts on bluegrass and old-time music. Nestled beside the books, a tiny diorama of the Grand Ole Opry pays homage to its days at the Ryman Auditorium.

Bob’s office reveals him to be equal parts archivist, teacher, and musician. He sat across from his apprentice Paul in the northern portion of the shed, almos barricaded in by recording equipment. He was working on the tune “Bucking Mule” with Paul, patiently modeling a lick and then listening as Paul replicated it. Bob’s commitment to these regional tunes of the Upper Cumberland stands out. He paid attention to every note that Paul played and corrected him if even one was off. Bob explained,“I can back up and show you what’s wrong and what you need to do to fix it.” Reminiscing the old days when he learning from Charles Higgins, he said, “When I was trying to figure all this stuff out, I was listening to it on the tape…I would think, ‘I’ve got that,’ so I would practice it up good, and I’d get out there and Charles says, ‘Something ain’t right right there, you need to go listen to your tape again.’ He does play, but he didn’t play well enough.” “But he can hear!,” Paul chimed in. The two practiced a bit longer, pausing to tell stories and jokes in between licks. Bob has a great knowledge of tunes from decades past, and he brings them to life every day. Starting in March of 2020, Paul and Bob continued the project via Skype. Bob continues to prove that time nor obscurity nor a pandemic can stop him from making sure that these tunes live to see another day.

Folklife staff visited Bob and Paul in January 2020. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day.

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