Keith Williams, of Chuckey, Tennessee, is regarded as one of the state’s finest luthiers. Originally a machinist and tool maker by profession, Keith began making fiddles in 2004. The instrument was not new to him. Born and raised in the Tater Valley region of Union County, Keith was first taught to play the fiddle by his father when he was 13 years old. By the time he was 20, Keith was a serious player in regional bluegrass music. Throughout his life as a fiddler, he has played alongside some of the East Tennessee’s most legendary musicians, including Byron Doss, Jerry Moore, Ted Wyrick, Voyd Rogers, Ray and Earl Bull, and Palmer “Bit” Rouse and the Union County Ramblers. Keith has also recorded and/or toured with legendary groups like the Knoxville Grass, Jim and Jessie McReynolds, and Paul Williams and the Victory Trio. While playing with the New Bluegrass Season in Gatlinburg, Keith first met Greene County banjo player Myna Belle Keller, then a member of the longstanding Smoky Mountain Travelers. Before long, Keith and Myna Belle were married and formed a new band called Hard Times. The Williams were mainstays at the Tennessee Fall Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia.
Inspired and mentored by luthiers J. W. Green of White Pine and Gene Horner of Rockwood (a previous master artist and Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award winner), Keith turned his love for fiddling playing and knack for working with his hands toward instrument making. “As the traditional masters of this art are aging and disappearing, this art form is becoming rare in East Tennessee,” Keith explains. “I believe it is important to pass along this art form to others that are interested in continuing the tradition in order to keep traditional music and traditional instrument building viable in our community. Traditional music and the art of traditional instrument building helps maintain a link from our current culture to the heritage of our past as well as providing an economic component to the community.” Keith demonstrates his fiddle making annually at the Dollywood Harvest Festival week.
As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Keith is teaching two eager apprentices in Joseph Hensley of Speedwell and Tony Branam of Jacksboro. Both bring to the project experience with instrument making. Joseph, only 20 years old, previously worked with a local artist, Junior Branscomb, to build his first guitar. Tony, the grandson of a woodworker, has worked for many years building, upgrading, and repairing instruments, typically guided by books and videos as instructional resources. This will be his first opportunity to work one-on-one with a skilled master luthier. “Traditional music activities, including instrument construction and repair, have been a part of our East Tennessee heritage and our local, community heritage for many years,” Joseph and Tony explain. “We plan to continue to expand our traditional artistic knowledge and experience in this field and to apply the resulting expertise toward preservation of this art form by providing construction and repair services to the community and providing demonstrations and tutoring to others.”
*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.