Old Time Fiddlin' Tunes From The South Cumberland

by Fiery Gizzard Old Time String Band

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Liner Notes

On the map of territories harvested for American fiddle tunes, the Tennessee-Alabama border where the Cumberland Mountains cross the state line has barely been registered. Lucky for us, Bob Townsend, an exceptional fiddler and a life-long resident of the region, has been listening for the past thirty years, and learning the tunes of his neighbors and their ancestors. This collection establishes a great regional repertoire, barely glimpsed through 78s by Jesse Young. Library of Congress field recordings of black fiddler John Lusk, and home and custom recording by Bob Douglas. Bob Townsend plays a smooth, strong fiddling style with the clear authority to carry forward these fine creations that otherwise, would never have enlivened another dance. His accompanists have been raised on old time fiddling like few living musicians. I wish every section of the United States had a fiddler like Bob Townsend- he has put some great music back into his mountains.

Bobby Fulcher

The Accompanists

Charles Higgins; Charles started out playing fiddle [and still does with a little prodding] but soon gave into playing guitar because so many of the fiddlers he knew requested that he play rhythm guitar behind them. He was raised listening to his dad playing rapping clawhammer banjo, while uncles and cousins played various other instruments.

Tim Higgins; Tim grew up listening to his Dad, Charles and Oscar Overturf playing fiddle tunes at Oscars’ house at least once a week. He started playing bluegrass banjo as a youngster, taking lessons from Ed Brown (Brown, Sullivan, and Co. Magnum Banjos). He hasn’t forgotten those fiddle tunes though and does some fine backup work behind these old pieces.

The Source Fiddlers

The music on this recording was inspired by fiddlers from Marion and Grundy Counties in Tennessee and also from Jackson County, Alabama, which borders Tennessee at Marion County. Their music has come to me mostly through home recordings. These recordings were shared with me by musicians I’ve met while playing bluegrass, and then later found out their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, or older brothers had played old time fiddle and had left us a hint of their music on tape or discs. We’ve tried to stay close to their versions of these tunes but make no claim to have every note and nuance an exact copy.

Bryson Higgins: (1930-1998) Marion Co. Bryson was the only one of these fiddlers I knew. Most of his brothers and sisters play music although Bryson was the only fiddler. The extended Higgins family, including cousins Charles and Tim (on this recording) has quite a musical tradition with several generations and branches of cousins all playing. One of Brysons’s fiddles was used on all the tunes played in AEAE tuning on this recording.

Oscar Overturf: (1900-1988) Grundy Co. Oscars’ fiddling provides the bulk of the tunes presented here. He apparently had a large repertoire with over 110 different tunes preserved on tape by Charles Higgins. We know there were more that were not caught on tape. Charles played guitar with Oscar for the last fifteen years of Oscar’s life and occasionally recorded their music. Oscar came from a musical family with his mother, dad, brother, and all but one sister playing fiddle and banjo.

Newt Payne; (1903-1967) Marion Co. Newt’s fiddling was recorded by his grandson, Jimmy Raines, who plays bluegrass banjo. Judging from the tunes we have recorded Newt played some of the same tunes and in a style similar to Oscar Overturf, Newt’s dad was also a fiddler. Grandson Jimmy says he thinks Newt only played with the fiddle tuned AEAE or GDGD tuning.

Christopher Columbus “Lum” Thomas; (1905-1966) Marion Co. I remember hearing Lum’s name as a child but never heard his playing until his, son “Sonny” (a noted Merle Travis finger style guitarist and luthier) let me borrow some homemade discs recorded apparently in the 40s. Lum had a jam session at his home every Sunday with Jesse Young and Bob Douglas most often being there. Sonny says he remembers Curly Fox, Howdy Forrester, and many others coming to visit and play music with Lum.

Leslie Blevins (1915-1962) Marion Co. Although Leslie’s dad played clawhammer banjo, Leslie wanted to learn the fiddle. Leslie was 13 years old when he attended and played at the 1928 “All Southern Convention” in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was so impressed with Clayton McMichen during the convention that when the Blevins family was blessed with another son, Leslie insisted they name him “Clayton” after his fiddling hero. Leslie played professionally for a short time with Pete Castle on the “Kentucky Barn Dance,” but then decided life on the road was not for him.

Jake Cooper (1903-1980) Jackson Co. Alabama. Jake came from a large family with a musical tradition. Most of Jake’s children play fiddle, banjo, and/or guitar. There are home recordings of family reunions complete with square dances and plenty of music. One such recording includes the announcement that Jake is seventy-four years old, he then fiddles a fine “Bucking Mule.”

John Cooper (1903-1967) Jackson Co. Alabama. John was a cousin to Jake and part of the same Cooper family musical tradition. There are only a couple of tunes recorded of John’s fiddling.

The Tunes

1. Oscar’s Piece #3. One of Oscar Overturf’s tunes but we don’t know a name. When I played this one for Oscar’s niece, Polly, she remembered her mother (Oscar’s sister) playing but could not remember a name. AEAE
2. Bryson Higgins Tune. Bryson didn’t know a name for this one but said he thought he had learned it from a radio show back in the 40’s, probably the Grand Ol’ Opry. GDAE
3. Altamont. We assume this was named after the county seat of Grundy County, from Oscar. ADAE
4. Oscar’s Piece #11. Another piece from Oscar’s fiddling without a name. AEAE
5. Rocky Pallet. Leslie Blevins younger brother Clayton, who also fiddles, told me that Leslie won a lot of fiddle contests with this one. GDAE
6. Prettiest Gal in the County. One of Oscar’s Pieces slightly different from the Skillet licker’s version. GDAE
7. Briarpatch. Grundy county fiddler Don Stoker related to me that after playing this piece Oscar once told him “That was my daddy’s favorite piece to slow buck dance to.” GDAE
8. Getting Away from the Federals. Another from Oscar. AEAE
9. Kitty Puss. From Oscar “Kitty Puss poor little feller, Kitty Puss he died in the cellar. GDAE
10. Fire on the Mountain. Oscar said this was the old timey way of playing this piece AEAE
11. Leatherbritches. A well known fiddle tune which Oscar played often. Charles Higgins has been known to say “Oscar Overturf could make a dog dance when he played Leatherbritches.”GDAE
12. John Cooper’s Tune. John’s nephews remember him playing this one but no one remembers a name.
13. Redbird. A good square dance piece from Oscar. AEAE
14. Tennessee Wagoner. Another well known tune from Oscar with a few variations added. GDAE
15. Pickin’ Out Cotton. This is very close to ”Sally Gooden”. Oscar played as a distinct, different tune as “Sally Gooden” which he also played. AEAE
16. Dotson’s Waltz. A nice waltz from Oscar. GDAE
17. I Don’t Love Nobody. Lum Thomas played this one. Sonny Thomas said that his dad could play the fastest, the slowest of any fiddler he knew, referring to Lum’s smooth bowing and the fact that he made very slight movements with his left hand fingering. We don’t try this one at Lum’s pace. GDAE
18. Peapatch. From Oscar, very similar to black fiddler John Lusk’s “Old Sage Friend.” GDAE
19. New Payne’s Tune. One of several unusual tunes played by Newt. AEAE
20. Going to Town. An Arthur Smith tune learned via Jake Cooper’s fiddling. According to Jake’s son Pee Wee (Harold), another favorite of Jake was Smith’s “Sugar Tree Stomp.” GDAE
21. Booth Shot Lincoln. From Oscar. AEAE
22. Cornstalk Fiddle and a Shoestring Bow. Oscar used to tell Charles Higgins about making and playing cornstalk fiddles, although he never demonstrated how they were made. GDAE

This recording was originally released in April 2001, re-released in digital format March 2017.


released March 31, 2017

Bob Townsend: fiddle, Charles Higgins: guitar, Tim Higgins: banjo, guitar, mandolin.



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