Townsend and Smithson: South Cumberland Fiddling

Bob Townsend

Considered one of the state’s finest living fiddlers, Bob 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 Bob guitar chords. Several years later he traded his guitar and $10 for a fiddle, and has been playing ever since. Bob 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). Bob 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.

Paul Smithson

With his apprentice, Paul Smithson, Bob plans to teach the tunes and techniques he has learned from these many local fiddlers in Marion, Grundy, and Franklin counties. Paul–Bob’s second apprentice in as many years–has been around fiddle music since his childhood in Cannon County. He started playing guitar as a teenager with Cannon County fiddler Billy Womack. Later on he learned to play the mandolin, but has been learning the fiddle for the last few years. They will 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.

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 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.”