Fiddle tunes are musical DNA. Like our genetic code, they recombine the same twelve notes in nearly endless permutations and they’re passed down to us through the ages, weaving together far-flung ancestral strands. While they are potent vessels for conveying our heritage, fiddle tunes are by no means an historical or archaic musical form. Great fiddle tunes are still being written all the time. To kick off our new video series, Curly’s Wide Word of Fiddle Tunes, here’s a prime example of a contemporary composition that extends the tradition:
Catchy as all get out, isn’t it? That’s the exciting young band, Town Mountain, featuring an original fiddle tune penned by their fiddler, Bobby Britt. The performance is from this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.
Bluegrass was built on a foundation of fiddle tunes. The father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, always said as much. Monroe could be parsimonious when it came to sharing credit, but he was always fulsome in acknowledging the debt his music owed to two fiddling forbearers, his uncle Pen Vandiver and Arnold Schultz. Vandiver was a relative and a neighbor of Monroe’s; Schultz was an itinerant African-American musician. Each in his turn helped introduce young Bill to the vast canon of fiddle tunes. These traditional melodies, some locally produced, many imported from the British Isles and Europe, were the popular dance music of the day in Appalachia. Many of the songs that Monroe subsequently wrote borrowed phrases from these tunes, and of course Monroe always interspersed vocal numbers with plenty of original and traditional fiddle tunes. Town Mountain and most contemporary bluegrass acts carry on this practice of leavening their set lists with fiddle tunes.
Britt relayed a poignant story behind the writing of “Four Miles.” About three years ago, he was recovering from surgery and had a couple of weeks of time on his hands, so he decided to make use of it by writing his first-ever fiddle tune. The title is a play on the phrase “For Miles.” Britt’s girlfriend had a brother named Miles who passed away. Miles loved bluegrass, so Britt penned the tune in his honor.
As Britt’s composition demonstrates, fiddle tunes have an elemental quality that makes them timeless. “Four Miles” fits right into the tradition, taking its place on the shelf between “Fire on the Mountain” and “Frosty Morning.” *
Britt hails from North Carolina, but he is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he works with master fiddler/teacher/arranger Darol Anger, among others. Britt recently received The Fletcher Bright Award at Berklee, the largest award in the school’s American Roots Music Program. “I am extremely honored and grateful for this award,” reports Britt, adding that it “will help make it possible for me to finish my degree at Berklee.” This is a neat detail, because while Bright made his money in real estate development, he is known in musical circles for his unfathomable repertoire of…fiddle tunes! By supporting Britt’s studies, Bright is insuring that the wellspring of good tunes will never run dry.
“Four Miles” is on Town Mountain’s latest release on Pinecastle Records, “Leave The Bottle.” We’ll be offering up some further selections from Town Mountain in the weeks ahead, as well as many more fiddle tunes from fare and wide.
Yer Pal— Curly
* Before the Fiddle Police write, I know that I’m cheating with my alphabetization: the full title is “Cold Frosty Morning.”