If you liked this article, you might be interested in:
[This article first appeared in the Old Time Herald in Spring 1994 and is reprinted with their kind permission. - Stacy Phillips]
South-central Kentucky has long been known as an area possessing rich and distinctive traditions of both vocal and instrumental music. There were particularly strong traditions of fiddling and banjo picking which shared certain characteristics of playing styles generally associated with the mountains to the east. However, most of the fiddlers in the region, and there were many at one time, had a number of tunes in their repertoires that were not played outside of the immediate area. In the not too distant past, one could hear this music on a regular basis, as it was not uncommon in small settlements throughout Monroe, Barren, Metcalfe, and other surrounding counties for neighbors to get together at someone’s home and have a dance. In Monroe County, one of the most sought-after dance fiddlers was Jim Bowles, whose playing career spanned nearly eighty years.
Jim was born to Flem and Sarah Belle (Carter) Bowles on February 6, 1903 in Rockbridge, located near Tompkinsville in Monroe County, Kentucky. Except for one or two brief periods, he lived in Monroe County his entire life. Although no one in his immediate family played the fiddle—his father did pick the banjo a little—Jim began to show an interest in fiddling at an early age.
I guess I was about ten years old. I’d always play—you have those little sticks of stove wood, you know, and I’d get on ’em and saw on ‘em like I was a-fiddling—when I was a little bitty feller. And my father, times was hard, and he had to go to Indiana and make money. Back in them days, there wasn’t no money to be got, hardly. I think he only made thirty-five dollars a month. And he came through Louisville, and he came to a pawnshop. He bought me a fiddle...
Jim remembered that fiddle fondly. He recalled that it was a Hopf, and the best one he ever had.
Though his parents did not play fiddle, his uncle, Wash Carter did. It was from his uncle that Jim learned most of his playing technique and much of his vast repertoire. Wash Carter was, at various times, a storekeeper, a schoolteacher, and a lawyer. He was also a fiddler of near legendary status who taught Jim much about music, keeping after him to “play it right” even after Wash himself could no longer play.
He (Uncle Wash) got drawed double with arthritis and he couldn’t fiddle, but he had to make me fiddle. He wanted me to fiddle. He’d just sit there and listen and tell me how to play. He’d hum the tunes, you know, for me.
There were other fiddlers in the area that Jim listened to and watched closely. Among the most influential were a neighbor, John Brady, Thomas Page, Warner Carver (who with his brother Noble, and cousin Robert recorded as the Carver boys for Paramount Records in 1929) and Henry Carver (Warner’s cousin and father of Cynthia May, the best-known member of the family, whose stage name was Cousin Emmy). From these men Jim picked up his basic repertoire and unique style, both of which are rooted firmly in the nineteenth century and closely identified with south-central Kentucky.
Those early years provided Jim with an invaluable musical education, and he learned his lessons well. By the time he was fifteen, he was playing for local dances. Square dances at neighbors’ houses were a popular form of entertainment as far back as Jim could remember and remained so until the advent of World War II. The dances were held at least once a week, often twice or three times. Because of his skills, Jim found soon himself in constant demand to supply the dancers with good, solid dance music.
They would just come and get me. They’d bring a horse or sometimes come after me with a buggy... Lots of times just come. Just drive up and say you’re going tonight...
Typically, all the furniture would be cleared out of the house to make room for the dancers, set caller, and musicians. The dances would sometime continue all night long. Each individual dance set could often go on for 30 minutes or more. To provide for some variety and relieve the potential monotony of playing a single tune for a set that lasted for a half hour or more, Jim and his band frequently would play a medley consisting of several pieces rather than just a single tune. The band usually consisted of fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Sometimes it was just the fiddle and banjo, but the dancers wanted a guitar, too, if one was available.
For all this hard work, Jim recalled that there were some rewards. In order to dance, couples had to pay each time they danced a set. This money was then turned over to the musicians.
They’d pay you. I think they gave us then about twenty-five cents on the corner. Just would be a dollar, see, them four men. I think it’s four they had in a set, four men and four girls. That’d be twenty-five cents on the corner. That’s what they’d pay us, for a whole set.
There were other rewards as well. Jim recalled that there was always moonshine whiskey around at these affairs, which was shared with the musicians.
I used to drink a little. Some of ‘em have to take me out. They’d say, “You’ve got to have a little nip. You can’t fiddle until you get it.” And so I’d take a little nip of that. They made it back then. It tasted good... I’d get teed up a little. It’d help me out kinda. Or I thought it did...
Unfortunately, moonshine whiskey was to play a significant role in the demise of these dances. Clarabel Walden, Jim’s daughter, recalls that frequently there was a lot of drinking going on among younger men outside the house where a dance took place. This mixture was a volatile one that often ended with fighting or vandalism. By the early 1940s, these neighborhood square dances had all but died out.
Throughout his life, much of Jim’s musical activity was centered around his home. However, while he was still in his twenties, Jim began a musical partnership that would, for a short while, take him away from Monroe County and give him a taste of the life of a professional musician. No one remembers exactly where or when Jim met singer and banjo player Finley “Red” Belcher. It might have been in Tompkinsville on “first Monday”—that day of the month when folks came to town to trade, to do business, and visit. Every month, Jim could be found there, fiddling on the square by the courthouse. Then again, it might have been at a contest or a dance. Whatever the circumstances, by 1930 they were playing regularly throughout south-central Kentucky at dances, pie suppers, picnics, and other events. They would sometimes play shows at school buildings scattered throughout the countryside and in nearby towns like Gamaliel and Fountain Run. As was the practice in those days, they would go to a place, rent a building, usually a schoolhouse or movie theater, and put on a show that night. Advertising was, for the most part, by word of mouth.
In 1937, Red heard that radio station WDZ, in Tuscola, Illinois, was looking for performers to play over the air. WDZ was, during the 1930s, a pioneering country music radio station featuring live broadcasts. It had a listening audience that extended throughout the lower Midwest into the upper South and was, at various times, the home base for a number of early hillbilly performers, including the Carver Boys, Bluegrass Roy (Freeman), Frank Dudgeon, Slim Miller, Gene Autry, and Smiley Burnette.
Soon Jim, Red, and Red’s younger bother, Levy were on their way to Tuscola. Calling themselves the Kentucky Coon Skinners, they landed a show that aired each day before sunrise. The band’s program consisted of fiddle tunes and ballads, sentimental and comedy songs, and an occasional scared number thrown in for good measure. While in Tuscola, the group was kept busy. Not only did they play every morning, they played personal appearance most every night at county fairs, picnics, and other gatherings. After about a month, the Kentucky Coon Skinners returned home and disbanded. However, Red soon returned to Illinois and resumed a successful career that eventually took him to a number of radio stations including KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, WJJD in Chicago, WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, and finally, WSVA in Harrisonburg, Virginia. At the time of his tragic death in 1952, he was leading the Kentucky Ridgerunners, a group that included the Lilly Brothers, Bea and Everett, and fiddler Tex Logan.
Meanwhile, Jim and Levy decided to stay home. In Tuscola, they were homesick and had found their schedule much too grueling. Levy recalls that he did not think much of the musician’s life.
I didn’t care for it... It wasn’t my line of work. I was young. I was still in high school. I wanted to quit and come home and go to high school
He did just that and opted for a career in law enforcement. Life as a full time musician was not for Jim, either. He was a farmer and a family man with a wife and daughter to look after. He returned to his farm where he and his wife, Zelma, had some milk cows and raised some corn and tobacco, plowing the fields with a pair of mules. Jim also made an occasional batch of whiskey—he was reputed to make the best whiskey in Monroe County—a practice he gave up after a run-in with the sheriff nearly resulted in a jail sentence. Later, Jim was to stop drinking altogether as a result of health problems and religious convictions.
Thanks to Clarabel and Clyde Walden, Levy Belcher, Ray Cain, Iris Ellen (Combs) Bartley, Lynwood Montell, and Bruce Greene, for their help in providing the information used to prepare this article.
[Part Two of this article will appear in the next issue of Fiddle Sessions - Stacy]
About the Author
Jim Nelson lives in St. Louis where he works as a librarian and played guitar with the highly regarded Volo Bogtrotters and Ill-Mo Boys.. He also does freelance writing for various music publications. He recently co-produced and annotated a CD of Cousin Emmy material for the Bear Family label. He is also the proprietor of Vigortone Records, which plans a reissue of Jim Bowles' "Railroad Through the Rocky Mountains" , originally issued by Marimac.