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This article first appeared in the Old Time Herald in Spring 1994 and is reprinted with their kind permission. The first part of this reprint appeared in the previous issue of Fiddle Sessions. - The Editor
Though Jim gave up the professional musician's life, he never stopped playing. Zelma played the banjo, and together they would play often, both at home and at the homes of their neighbors. Jim also maintained a loose association with a local group, the Combs Family band that began in the early 1930s and lasted until around 1960. This group played for picnics, homecomings, and in talent shows and contests, frequently taking home ribbons and prize money. Jim also made occasional guest appearances with local country bands on local radio stations and at dance halls in the late forties and early fifties.
Contests were Jim's primary musical outlet for years after he stopped playing for dances. He traveled throughout central Kentucky and middle Tennessee to compete against the finest fiddlers around. Some well-known fiddlers would usually show up at these contests. Once Jim encountered Clayton McMichen and Slim Miller at a contest in Columbia, Kentucky. Cooney Perdue, a Monroe County fiddler who was once brought to Michigan to play in a contest sponsored by Henry Ford, frequented local contests and often took the prize.
In 1960, Jim was once again playing on the radio. This time it was on WTKY, a new station based in Tompkinsville. There Jim played with a left-handed banjo player, Earlie Botts, and a guitarist, Kenneth Biggars. This trio had a one-hour program every Saturday morning at nine o'clock that lasted for nearly four years. The show was sponsored by some local businesses and featured the same type of music that Jim had played on the radio almost twenty-five years earlier in Tuscola—straightforward old time country music.
After his wife died in 1966, Jim's playing activities slowed down some. In the 1970s, he moved into an apartment in Tompkinsville and worked for several years as the custodian at a local grade school. There he would occasionally play for the students. Whenever Jim's family had a get-together, he would sing and play for them on his fiddle and banjo. Various members of the family have many hours of recordings made during these gatherings.
Unfortunately, Jim never did make any commercial recordings and, for the most part, he escaped the notice of the folk music revival of the last two decades. However, his music has been well documented by folklorists and collectors who have visited him over the years. In the summer of 1959, folklorist D. K. Wilgus, then a professor at Western Kentucky University, and one of his students, Lynwood Montell (now teaching there), visited Jim and Zelma at their home in Rockbridge. A number of recordings were made during those visits that feature Jim's fiddling and banjo playing, and some in which Jim fiddles while Zelma plays some nice two-finger style banjo. While attending Western Kentucky University in the early seventies, Bruce Greene spent a lot of time with Jim and learned much from him. During this time, he recorded Jim extensively. These recordings and those made by Wilgus and Montell may be found today in Western Kentucky University's Folklife Archives.
It was through Lynwood Montell that I became aware of Jim Bowles. Montell had taken a group of us new folklore students to a shape-note gospel sing and, on the way home, off-handedly mentioned that he know of an old fiddler who enjoyed visitors. That was enough to get me interested. When I finally met Jim a couple of months later, it was immediately apparent that advanced age and poor health had taken some toll on his fiddling. Although his playing skills may have declined some, Jim's enthusiasm for music had not. He had a list of the tunes he knew (about eighty by his count), all typed up and laminated in plastic, which he showed to me. He played everyone one of them before I left that day.
I visited Jim several times over the next year and we became good friends. Jim loved to play and would regale me stores about Uncle Wash Carter and the many other musicians and characters that had made their lasting impressions on him. Jim remembered and spoke highly of other young people who had visited him over the years, especially Bruce Greene. [An article on Bruce Greene was published in the OTH vol. 1 no. 1.]
After visiting Jim a couple of times, I expressed an interest in issuing a recording of some of his music. He was enthusiastic and supportive of this project (an album assembled from field recordings is to be released by Marimac Recordings) from the start. He called me often and asked how it was progressing. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it through to completion. On one of my last visits with him, Jim told me as I was leaving that he wanted me to come to his funeral. He took sick with pneumonia around Christmas, 1992 and passed away on the 28th of January 1993. Three days later, I honored his request.
Jim Bowles was a truly unique and remarkable musician. He first began playing nearly eighty years ago, before radios and phonographs became commonplace. This fact is readily apparent in both his technique –on the fiddle and banjo—and his repertoire. He cut his teeth playing for dances, developing a style that is rhythmic and hard driving. When he played, he made frequent use of alternate tunings, most often when playing in the keys of D (ADAE) and A (AEAE and AEAC#), a practice becoming increasingly rare among each younger generation of fiddlers. Also a fine banjo picker, Jim played the banjo in two distinctive styles. When playing instrumental pieces he usually frailed—or “knocked” as it is called locally—the banjo, but sometime he would use a thumb and index finger picking style.
Though Jim was known primarily as an instrumentalist, he was also a powerful and expressive singer. Not at all bashful, Jim sang in an unornamented and unrestrained manner, often at the upper end of his vocal range, accompanying himself on the banjo. His song bag included ballads and songs learned at home and from traveling medicine show performers and pieces learned from records, and radio performers. He also knew several play party songs and song fragments that he would sing along with his fiddling.
Jim learned most of the tunes he played from local musicians he met as a youth. Many of these pieces—“Christmas Eve,” “Old Sage Fields,” “Apple Blossom,' “Nancy Dalton,” and “Calico” for example—are not widely known or played outside the area in which Jim lived. As an adult, Jim heard fiddlers from all over on records and on radio programs like the Grand Ole Opry. He expressed a great deal of admiration for such fiddlers as Howdy Forrester, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, and contest fiddler, Dick Barrett. He even attempted to incorporate some of their tunes into his repertoire. Despite this, Jim's playing seemed largely unaffected by more modern influences, reflecting, I think, his preference for the old time tunes of his younger days. This preference became clear to me the first time I ever played with Jim. After playing a hot version of “Calico” for about ten minutes, Jim looked up, grinned, and said, “Now that one's got some music in it.”
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.
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.