It All Started With The Fiddle

Bruno Bruzzese

A deep dive into the hundred year journey of one fiddle tune
and how it contributed to the development of Bluegrass style fiddling

Video and audio reference recordings for this article have been uploaded to a YouTube playlist.

Links to each individual reference recording are also provided in the body of the article.

Thanks for wanting to learn about Bluegrass fiddling. My name is Bruno Bruzzese. I’ve been playing fiddle for 50 years and playing Bluegrass for most of that time. I’m going to share with you some of my own opinions and feelings about Bluegrass fiddle, and some ways of listening to it.

Here are my goals for this article:

  • To show you how Bluegrass fiddling is related to several styles of fiddling that were around many years before there was any music called Bluegrass.
  • To help you hear some details of a fiddle performance.
  • To show you a sample of where is Bluegrass fiddling at today.

We’re going accomplish these goals by getting familiar with one staple of Bluegrass fiddling – a tune called “Sally Goodin”.

Why did I pick “Sally Goodin”?

Let me start by telling you how my relationship with this tune began.

The first time I went down south to play Bluegrass music was in 1989, to a Bluegrass festival in Kentucky. I walked around the camping area hoping to find some folks jamming, like they do at Bluegrass festivals, and very soon came on a group that was playing great Bluegrass and had no fiddler. I joined in on the song they were playing and as soon as it was over, all the musicians and listeners turned towards me and an enormous guitar player with a cowboy hat stepped forward and said; “That sounds good son, now these people want to hear you play “Sally Goodin”!”

If a died in the wool Bluegrasser wants to know what kind of fiddle player you are, there’s a good chance he’ll ask for “Sally Goodin”. That’s not so true here in the Northeast. But anywhere in Appalachia or Texas or any of the places where this music has generations of tradition behind it, “Sally Goodin” is a tune a fiddle player needs to know and listeners want to hear. I hope this article will help you understand why, and maybe you’ll start asking for it too.

To get the most from the next section of this article, click on the link below and learn how to sing the words to “Sally Goodin” before you read any further. While listening to a fiddle performance, if you can sing along inside your head, you’ll hear things that you might otherwise miss. Don’t worry… learning to sing “Sally Goodin” is going to be way easier than you might think. You’ve never heard such a simple melody or such simple words.

Listen to “Learn the Words and Melody to “Sally Goodin” .

Had a piece a pie, had a piece a puddin’
Give it all away to see Sally Goodin.

Looked down the road seen Sally comin’
Thought to my soul I’d kill myself a runnin’.

So simple it’s almost nonsense. But on the other hand, you don’t need much more information to build a picture of how the singer feels about “Sally Goodin”. You could imagine a whole story out of those two sentences. That’s fiddler poetry.

You might be asking yourself by now, why such a simple fiddle tune is so important. Let’s start finding out.

This is photo shows part of a poster commemorating a Texas fiddle player named Eck Robertson and the recording he made in New York City at Victor Records in 1922, many years before there was anything called Bluegrass music. If you ever go to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the first exhibit you come to will be about Eck Robertson and this recording of “Sally Goodin”. Musicologists credit it with being the very first commercial Country Music record. In 1923 it was the number one Country Music seller nationwide. At that time Country Music just meant any music that didn’t come from a city. This recording proved that rural music, or “Country” traditions, could be a commercial success. And that started some rural musicians thinking about how to reach a wider audience with the music they grew up playing. Years later, Bill Monroe became one of those innovators with the music he called Bluegrass. Like the poster says; it all started with the fiddle – and specifically with this recording of the fiddle tune, “Sally Goodin”.

The link below will take you to this 1922 recording, remember this is not yet Bluegrass fiddling. Eck Robertson was a Texas Style contest fiddler, a style that developed years long before Bluegrass. Listen to the whole recording. When he plays the melody at the very beginning, sing along. Then he’ll start playing variations. In the next section of this article, we’ll examine five of the variations Eck plays and hopefully you’ll see why it’s worth taking the time to do so.

Listen to Eck Robertson-“Sallie Gooden”.

Did you like that? Do you get the idea now that if a tune is very simple, like “Sally Goodin”, that might just be an opportunity for a fiddle player to show off – like you’d want to if you were trying to win a contest.

Did listening to that make you feel good? It’s very common for people who love fiddle music to say that it makes them feel good, or makes them want to tap their feet. There’s something about the fiddle that makes people more inclined to feel the music with their bodies than to listen to the melodies with their minds. And that’s great! It’s the main reason we love the fiddle. If the only way you experience fiddle playing is by feeling good when you hear it, that can still be pretty special. But just for today, I’m going to encourage you to listen in a different way and maybe learn a few things you can take with you and enjoy recognizing when you hear fiddle music in the future. Now we’re going to dive a little deep into parts of this recording.

Do you remember the first time you used a microscope or magnifying glass? Do you remember the feeling of excitement at seeing things you couldn’t see before and maybe didn’t even know where there? We’re going to put 5 phrases from this recording under a magnifying glass. This exercise will demonstrate for you some things that are very exciting to me; I hope they will also be exciting to you.
Eck said he played “Sally Goodin” 14 different ways. I never counted, but I guess he knew. Over the next hundred years “Sally Goodin” is going to be recorded many times by fiddlers in different styles, leading up to and including Bluegrass. We’re taking the time to focus on these 5 variations Eck played because they come up again and again in all those different styles. A hundred years later fiddlers are still using these variations. These variations also introduce some devices that are not only still used in the tune “Sally Goodin”; they are also great examples of the kind of fiddle ideas that eventually become important parts of Bluegrass fiddling regardless of what tune is being played.

The following link will take you to a recorded version of the next section where you can hear the variations demonstrated along with comments about them. I suggest you listen and follow along while reading this part of the article.

An audio file of the following section “5 Variations” can be found here.

As I demonstrate these short variations one at a time, you’ll see that there is a very deliberate progression towards a climax. This is very exciting to me, and if you bear with me for 10 minutes, I hope you’ll see why.

OK, first variation – and this one will be repeated multiple times in most recordings of the tune. It’s a variation on the 2nd part of the melody.

Did you hear the second part of the melody in Eck’s recording? Most fiddle tunes have at least two parts. The second part of “Sally Goodin” is a lot like the first, the words fit in either part, but it would be harder to sing them to the second part because the melody goes higher than most voices can reach. That’s common for the second part of a fiddle tune.

It goes like this. ♫♬♫♬♫♬ ♫♬♫♬♫♬

Now here’s the variation. ♫♬♫♬♫♬ ♫♬♫♬♫♬

Can you hear what he did? He made at least 4 significant changes. Let’s identify 3 of them.

He simplified the melody by removing notes. ♫♬♫♬♫♬ compared to ♫♬♫♬♫♬
That gets your attention.

He also gave phrasing a little hiccup or syncopation.
Instead of

da da da dada dada dada


da daaa dada dada ♫♬♫♬♫♬

That second phrasing is actually a little jazzy. Let’s say that phrasing together without the melody. I do this when I’m learning a tune, before learning to play the melody I vocalize the phrasing without the melody to get it in my head.

Melody – da da da dada dada dada

Variation – da daaa dada dada

Finally, he used what fiddle players call double stops. That means that you are playing two notes simultaneously and not using any open string; you’re using two fingers to “stop” two adjoining strings; like playing a chord on a guitar.

♫♬♫♬♫♬ ♫♬♫♬♫♬

A couple of decades later, this technique is going to become a significant element of Bluegrass fiddling. And so is that jazzy, syncopated phrasing.

Second variation: It sounds like two variations, but I’m calling it one because these two lines are always played together in this same order.

♫♬♫♬♫♬ ♫♬♫♬♫♬

Can you hear what he did there? This is a variation on the first part, the “Had a piece a pie” part.

He starts by leaving some notes out again, but he also moves it up to the high string and he does a downward little slide that I like to describe as vocalizing. You could almost imagine a child with a high voice singing

“Had a piece a pie, had a piece a pudding” ♫♬♫♬♫♬ ♫♬♫♬♫♬

By the way, in his performances Eck Robertson had a trick of making the fiddle talk so clearly that he promised to pay a dollar to any child in the audience who couldn’t understand the words he was making it say. There’s a link to good bio of Eck Robertson in the extra materials we have posted on line for you. It describes his live performances.

The second half of this variation plays the melody in the high register and makes it sound quick and bluesy.

♫♬♫♬♫♬ ♫♬♫♬♫♬

Those bluesy notes and quick phrases up on that high register of the fiddle are going to become another iconic element of Bluegrass fiddling.

Third Variation, this also on the first part of the melody: ♫♬♫♬♫♬

Now he’s using a double stop on the second beat, the upbeat of the phrase, that contains a dissonant note. It goes by quick so you don’t hear the dissonance very clearly, but along with the bowing and phrasing, it makes that second beat stand out.

Here’s the dissonant double stop. ♫♬♫♬♫♬

Sounds like a car horn right? What’s a car horn for? To get your attention! And he is doing that on the up beat, which is normally the less important beat of the phrase.

Instead of:

HAD a piece of pie had a piece of pudding


had a piece of PIE had a piece of pudding

Let’s sing it that way.

had a piece of PIE had a piece of pudding
give it all away to see “Sally Goodin”

looked down the ROAD seen Sally comin
thought to my soul I’d kill myself a runnin

Fourth variation: this one is getting a little further away from the melody but still referring to it. ♫♬♫♬♫

This is also like two variations, but as with the other, they are always played together and they complement each other. This one adds a note that is not dissonant, but is also not part of the chord that is being outlined by the melody. The basic chord of this tune is A major, made of 3 notes: A C# E. ♫♬♫♬♫♬ Just like the melody of the second part.

This variation starts with a note that is just above E, the highest note in that basic chord. But unlike the dissonant chord in the previous variation, this note F#, is a note that adds a little jazzy color to the chord. It goes by pretty quick so you don’t hear it very clearly, but you feel it. Your emotions know that something cool just happened. This particular shading of the basic chord to a song becomes a common element of jazz in the Texas Swing style a decade or so later and eventually becomes a significant element of Bluegrass fiddling too.

Here’s the chord he’s using to start the variation ♫♬♫♬♫♬

Here’s the variation again ♫♬♫♬♫♬ ♫♬♫♬♫♬

By putting that chord on the first beat with a strong bow stroke, he is doubly emphasizing the down beat. The most important beat of the phrase.

The second half does something significant; he repeats the phrasing and bowing but returns to the most important note in the melody and places it on that emphasized down beat, but on the high string. ♫♬♫

This is an intermediate climax in the performance. It’s not over yet, but it reached a high point with emotional impact. The performance doesn’t start at the bottom and climb directly to the top. Eck starts with the melody, then builds to a climax, then drops back down to the melody and builds again. A fiddler playing “Sally Goodin” will do that as many times as it takes to say everything he’s got to say about the tune. Remember, Eck said he played “Sally Goodin” 14 different ways, we’re only looking at 5 of them.

Finally, the fifth variation. This one is almost always near the end of the performance, in the same spot where Eck placed it, after he’s said most everything he’s got to say. It brings in a relative minor chord, which is just a darker shade of the major chord in which the tune is set. It evokes a melancholy feeling, despite the energy in the tune. Remember that melancholy note from the fourth variation ♬. Now he’s using a chord built on that note. ♫♬♫♬♫♬ ♫♬♫♬♫♬. There will be lots of Bluegrass tunes and songs that use this kind of coloring to introduce a darker mood into an upbeat song.

This arrangement, as primitive as the recording might sound, moves through a beautiful development of energy and emotion. This is very exciting to me! I hope you’re getting just a little conscious understanding of why this tune feels so good when it’s played this way.

First – Melody


1st Variation – Simplify and syncopate by removing notes ♫♬♫
2nd Variation – Vocalize then add quick bluesy notes ♫♬♫♬♫♬.
3rd Variation – Emphasize 2nd beat with dissonant note ♫♬♫♬♫♬.
4th Variation – Emphasize 1st beat with the jazzy note, then return home with the octave ♫♬♫♬♫♬.

We’ve experienced a progression of phrasing and color that reaches a musical climax with the most important note in the melody being played in the high octave, on the most important beat.

5th Variation – Relative Minor ♫♬♫♬♫♬. It’s “Sally Goodin”’s way of saying good night

My fiddler’s heart is flabbergasted. This tune and the arrangement on this recording contain musical DNA that spawned generations of fiddle music. For me, in the evolution of Bluegrass fiddling this recording is like watching the first prehistoric amphibian crawl up out of the ocean onto dry land.

Here’s a clip of a contemporary Texas Style Contest fiddler with standard accompaniment for that style. Hulda is pretty young in this video from 2005, she’s still performing. You’ll hear some of the same variations that Eck played plus some he didn’t play. Texas Style fiddlers today often play at least 12 variations, sometimes as many as 18 or 19.

Listen to “Hulda Quebe plays “Sally Goodin” with Joey McKenzie & Mark Abbott”.

Now we’ll back up a little from Texas Style Contest fiddling and listen to some Old Timey fiddle playing. Old Time style predates the fiddling of Eck Robertson and the other styles we’ll listen to today. In the evolution of American fiddle styles, if Eck Robertson’s way of playing “Sally Goodin” was like the first amphibian crawling onto dry land, Old Timey is like the first amphibian – just before it discovered the beach. Old Timey fiddling is the Daddy of Contest fiddling and the Grand Daddy of Bluegrass fiddling. I’ve included the next couple of clips so you can hear this style and contrast it to the Bluegrass style we’ll hear later, but also because these clips give a feeling of where Old Timey fiddling comes from.

Here’s a short clip of Hiram Stamper playing “Sally Goodin” on his front porch.

Listen to the short clip “Old Time Fiddle Melody.”

You might have noticed that Hiram’s version is the reverse of Eck’s, Eck’s first part is Hiram’s second part. And the part that starts with the phrasing of “Had a piece a pie…” is different than Eck’s and for that matter different than most versions you’ll hear that aren’t Old Timey from Hiram Stamper’s neck of the woods. That’s a feature of Old Time music. It’s very regional and front porch. If you hear 5 Old Time fiddlers from 5 different parts of Appalachia and across the south, you’ll most likely hear 5 significantly different versions of any fiddle tune they all play.

I want you to hear the sound of an Old Timey band, so here’s a clip of some contemporary musicians playing Hiram’s version of “Sally Goodin” at a jam session in a festival campground. Listen to the beat, the overall sound and the feeling you get from the music.

Listen to the short clip “Old Timey Band”.

Now that you’ve listened to some Old Timey fiddling here’s a little exercise you can try. Before you read my opinion, take a couple of minutes to form your own.

Think of some words to describe…

  • the beat
  • the band sound
  • the overall feeling you got from Old Timey music.
  • What’s the fiddle doing?

Here are some words I would use to describe Old Timey music: wholesome, organic, blended – playing melody together

Just for fun, here’s another part of that interview with Hiram Stamper where he tells about the origin of “Sally Goodin”. Hiram’s a little hard to understand in the video, so I summarized his story just below the link.

Listen to the short clip “Origins of ‘Sally Goodin’”.


Hiram’s story tells at least one thing about “Sally Goodin”, it goes back to the Civil War, and the melody is probably even older than that.

Here’s another clip of Hiram. He makes reference to a couple of famous country and bluegrass fiddlerswhich leads nicely to the next style we are going to cover.

Listen to the short clip “Big Howdy”.

You can see Hiram’s veneration for the old tunes and how he values the passing on of those tunes to his son. That’s a big part of Old Timey music. His son was Art Stamper who played fiddle with some of the most famous Bluegrass and Country recording artists.

Remember that jam session I wandered into down in Kentucky? Well, after I played “Sally Goodin” that group told me how much they liked it and sort of adopted me as their New York cousin. I was feeling pretty full of myself for a few glorious minutes. Then another fiddler player showed up and joined the session. It was Art Stamper, Hiram’s son. It only took a few phrases from Art for me to figure out I still had an awful lot to learn about Bluegrass fiddling. From that moment on, my attitude about fiddling was never the same. I stopped feeling I had anything to prove and learned to play for my own pleasure and the joy of sharing the music.

Hiram also talked in this clip about how much he liked the playing of Big Howdy, known to most as Howdy Forrester, another early Bluegrass fiddler who spent many years playing Country Fiddle with Roy Acuff and other country greats. : Let’s listen to a little of Howdy’s “Sally Goodin” and see if we can hear the difference between it, Old Timey and Contest Fiddling. As you listen to Country Style fiddling try to think again of some words to describe the beat, the sound, and the feeling, what’s the fiddle player doing?

Listen to the short clip “Country Fiddle”.

Here’s what I hear… The beat is the same as the beat in the Old Timey band we listened to. It’s a very straight up down, up down, one two, one two. But what’s different is that the fiddle is right up front and stands out from the band, nobody is playing melody along with the fiddle. The lead instrument is in the spotlight and the rest of the band is back drop. This allows something that doesn’t happen very much in Old Time. It means the spotlighted instrument can play variations, because it’s not trying to blend in and play the melody simultaneously with the banjo or other instruments. At the end of that clip, Howdy goes into a variation and if we listened to the whole recording we’d hear him continue playing variations. That spotlighting of individual instruments with variations is going to become a trademark of Bluegrass fiddling.

The next style we’ll listen to is called Texas Swing. Texas Swing and early country music were contemporary with each other and with popular music from the big band era. The same way that big band orchestras grew out of Dixieland and Ragtime, Country and Texas Swing grew out of Old Time and Contest styles. Here’s Bob Wills, the most famous of all Texas Swing band leaders playing his fiddle version of “Sally Goodin”. After this clip, spend a moment to think of some words that describe: the beat, the band sound, the overall feeling you get and what the fiddle is doing.

Listen to the clip “Texas Swing”.

Here’s what I hear… First of all, ignoring the band and focusing on the fiddle, was Bob Wills’ fiddle version of “Sally Goodin” very different from the Contest, Old Timey and Country versions we heard? No, it’s not. Which leads us to realize that sometimes it’s the accompaniment that defines the style as much or more than the fiddle playing. When it comes to the band though, this beat is very different than Old Time and Country. It’s not an up down, even one two. It’s a swingy, syncopated feeling like a high hat and bass drum playing – and one, and one, and one, and one. Bob Wills made his money by getting crowds on the dance floor, much like his big band contemporaries. His beat was designed to get the crowd hopping.

Something new here is that the spotlight shifts from the main instrument to other instruments in the band, giving everyone a chance to shine, like in Jazz orchestras. The piano improvises spontaneously using scales and riffs, not just playing a set variation. The guitars play an arranged harmony. In recordings of other Texas Swing fiddle tunes, you might also hear the fiddle improvising spontaneously like that piano or several fiddles playing arranged harmonies like those guitars. The spotlighting, improvisation and harmonies will all become important elements of Bluegrass music and Bluegrass fiddling.

By the way, the father of Bob Wills was a contest fiddler, a contemporary and rival of Eck Robertson. Did you hear that signature Bob Wills holler during the piano solo? Apparently, he got that from his father. Eck once said that Bob Wills’ father beat him in a fiddle contest not by out fiddling him but by out hollering him.

Before we finally get to Bluegrass fiddling, I want to pose a question that’s not about the beat, or the variations or the sound.

“Why do Fiddle Players Play?” And do you think that Old Timey fiddlers are motivated differently than Country and Texas Swing fiddlers?

Here’s what I think, all fiddle players play because they love the music and the instrument, but there are different motivations in different styles. Most Old Timey fiddlers are following a tradition that has it’s roots in a local community and they are playing for that community. The gold standard for an Old Timey fiddler is to play the tunes his Grand Daddy played, the way his Grand Daddy played them and keep them alive for another generation. Sure, if an Old Timey fiddler is good he’ll probably make some extra cash playing for dances and local or even regional shows and a very few might even make a living at it and become recording artists. But that’s not how the music came into being. Old Timey playing developed in a time when it was one of the few kinds of entertainment available for a family or a community and the fiddlers played to bring their community together and celebrate.

I grew up in a musical tradition like that and I’d like to tell you a story that illustrates what I mean. It wasn’t Appalachian music; my parents were from a remote mountain village in southern Italy. Some of their people played instruments, almost everyone sang and everyone danced. When we had parties, after dinner the furniture got moved out of the way, the guitars, tambourines, accordions and harmonicas came out and the singing and dancing started. They only knew a few tunes and songs but they played with enthusiasm and we had a blast. When I learned to play a little guitar, banjo and harmonica as a teenager, my dad thought that was nice, even though it wasn’t his kind of music. But one day I came home with a violin and he was confused and concerned. He said, “Why would you want to play a violin? That’s an instrument for real musicians.” He didn’t think of music as something commercial or professional, it was just a way to enjoy yourself and celebrate with your family, not something to dedicate your life to. That’s where Old Timey music is coming from. There are some examples of Old Timey players who found some commercial success in recording or getting on stages like the Grand Old Opry, but that’s not the rule and the style wasn’t created as a commercial commodity. Maybe that’s partly why the emphasis in Old Timey music is on playing the melodies together and blending in.

On the other hand, Country fiddlers were moving in a world where the style was crafted with the goal of reaching as wide an audience as possible, on big stages, powerful radio stations, maybe even national or international reputation and success. Texas Swing maybe had a focus that was more regional than Country Music, but it was still aimed at commercial success. That’s not to say that people like Bob Wills, Howdy Forrester or Roy Acuff, didn’t love the music they played or that they weren’t true to expressing what they felt in their hearts. Remember, their Grand Daddies were fiddle players and they grew up with that tradition. But they decided to innovate and crafted styles they hoped would appeal to millions of listeners and bring them commercial success along with fulfilling their love for the music. Bob Wills describing how his style formed said that the band tried different things and whatever got more people on the dance floor became a part of the repertoire. The goal was not to blend into a community but to stand out. Maybe that’s why the style spotlights individuals and makes room for innovation and creativity.

Bluegrass formed in a similar way, it borrowed from other styles that were aiming at commercial success and added its own unique features, including Bluegrass fiddling.

Here’s a short clip in the style of early Bluegrass music and fiddling. Even though Ralph Stanley’s band made this recording of “Sally Goodin” in the early 70s, his style always stayed rooted in early sounds of Bluegrass. Curly Ray Cline is on fiddle. Listen to the beat and the feeling and ask yourself how it’s different from Old Time, Country and Texas styles? How is it similar?

Listen to the short clip “Early Bluegrass Band”.

Like in Country Fiddling, Curley Ray’s fiddle is in the spotlight. The band is providing a backdrop for his performance not playing the melody along with him. Like in Texas style fiddling, he is playing variations. We didn’t listen to much, but you heard him move the first part up into the high register and then, as the clip was ending, you heard him start into variations. He also had some of the feel of an Old Timey fiddler. When he’s playing the straight melody, it’s more the band than the fiddle that makes it something other than Old Timey music. Like with Bob Wills’ fiddle in his Texas Swing “Sally Goodin”.

Before we consider the beat, sound and feel of Bluegrass let’s listen to a live recording from the early 80s. This is Byron Berline, a fiddler from Oklahoma who grew up in the tradition of Texas Style Contest fiddling. Bill Monroe brought him into the Bluegrass boys in the 60s. Here he is about 20 years later doing a cameo with the Bluegrass Boys to celebrate Bill’s 71st birthday. Throughout his career, “Sally Goodin” was Byron’s signature piece and he always played it with a lot of that Texas Contest feel and content. Although this video is from the early 80s, he’s playing very much the way he played it with Bill in 1967.

If you followed along and listened carefully to the five variations covered at the beginning of this article you’ll be able to hear Byron play them during this performance. Try to recognize:

The wailing child… and the quick bluesy variation that always follows it

The emphasis on the 2nd beat with a dissonant chord

The the emphasis on the second beat with a jazzy chord then jump to the octave

Get out with the number one variation, take out notes, use double stops and syncopate

Listen to “Monroe’s 71st BIrthday–“Sally Goodin”–Byron Berline”.

Take note, Byron offered two choices to Bill and Bill chose “Sally Goodin” for his birthday tune. That’s significant because the other one, Gold Rush, is a tune Bryon and Bill wrote together and recorded on a Bluegrass Boys album in 1967. You’d think that Bill, always having the commercial end of his business in mind, would choose a song he wrote and published over a traditional melody he didn’t own. That he chose “Sally Goodin” might tell us something. Watch what happens about 2 minutes and 14 seconds into the performance.

Up here in the Northeast you don’t often see people dancing like that to Bluegrass music, just like you don’t hear northeastern fiddlers play “Sally Goodin” very often. But where Bluegrass music is a family tradition those two things go together. It wasn’t uncommon for Bill Monroe to start dancing while the fiddle was being featured on a tune like “Sally Goodin”. When I played “Sally Goodin” at that jam session in Kentucky those people danced just like that all the way through the tune. That’s partly why they asked me to play it, so they could dance. Contemporary old timey players up here have caught on to the tradition of dancing to fiddle tunes and you’ll see it often when Old Timey music is played, even here in the northeast.

You heard Curley Ray Cline playing fiddle a bit like an Old Time or Country player with a Bluegrass band for back up. Now you’ve heard Byron Berline play a lot like a Texas fiddler, but with the quintessential Bluegrass band for back up. Can you see that the band and the context have a lot to do with what makes it Bluegrass fiddling. After all, when Bill Monroe called it Bluegrass music and wanted the fiddle to be a big part of the style, he couldn’t go out and hire Bluegrass fiddlers; there weren’t any! Right? Early Bluegrass bands brought in Old Timey fiddlers, Country fiddlers and Swing band fiddlers and Contest fiddlers like Byron Berline. If you superimpose any of those fiddling styles over a Bluegrass back up band, basically you’ve got early Bluegrass fiddling. A lot of Bluegrass fiddling is about interacting with that Bluegrass style back up provided by the band. If you listened to the reference recordings linked above, you probably got a pretty good feel of what distinguishes different styles like Old Time, Swing and even contest fiddling. Bluegrass fiddling on the other hand is so related to all those other styles that it’s largely defined by the context.

The Bluegrass beat is all about drive. Fiddling has always been about drive and maybe that’s why all the styles of fiddling that came before Bluegrass can find a home in it. It honors Old Timey fiddling while welcoming the polish of country along with the individual spotlighting and ambition of Texas styles. Bluegrass leans towards innovation. And that brings us to the next segment.

What I said about Bluegrass fiddling being mainly other styles of fiddling superimposed over a Bluegrass back up band, is true for at least the first decades of Bluegrass fiddling. After many years of Bluegrass performance and recording, a fiddle style emerges that integrates all those previous styles and creates something new. It lovingly refers to previous traditions but leaves lots of room for innovation and individual expression by each fiddler.

At this point, I want to skip ahead again another 40 years to What’s happening in Bluegrass fiddling nowadays? Here’s a live performance of “Sally Goodin” from 2019 with Michael Cleveland on fiddle playing with Billy Strings and his band.

While you are listening think about this: Bill Monroe created a style of music by incorporating elements from earlier traditions as well as styles that were contemporary to his own time. He chose to feature individual instruments, like the fiddle, and that opportunity to be in spotlight encouraged a lot of personal creativity among the players of Bluegrass. Doesn’t it seem likely that as time goes on the creative musicians who play Bluegrass will continue to innovate and incorporate contemporary ideas. And if that continues over many years, it may evolve to a point where some people will say it’s no longer Bluegrass. Other people will say, no this just the natural evolution of the style. Listen to Michael Cleveland and ask yourself if you think this is still Bluegrass.

Listen to the clip “Contemporary Melody”.

While listening take note of these details…

Michael starts with a little free form, intro in scale based, spontaneous improvisation – that’s new right?
But, early in his performances, Michael always quotes the great fiddlers that came before him. The melody doesn’t get any better and more bluegrassy than the version he starts with.

After stating a clear melody that you could sing along with, Michael starts playing variations. The first one is all Michael Cleveland.

Soon, he quotes Eck with the little wailing child lick, and as always followed by the second half of that variation, quick bluesy phrases in the higher register.

Starting “Sally Goodin” with just banjo and fiddle is a very common bluegrass intro to the tune.

The band comes in and after a bit the spotlight goes to banjo. We haven’t listened to very much of that passing around the spotlight in this session because I’ve been focusing on the fiddle players. But solos featuring the other instruments is common when performing a tune like “Sally Goodin”. Which is why this whole performance goes on for more than 9 minutes! We’ll limit our examples to a few clips.

Michael plays a style that is fully developed into today’s Bluegrass fiddling. He references earlier styles, but his playing is thick with double stops, slides, bluesy and jazzy notes, many different bowing patterns and twists of phrasing that give a good representation of what Bluegrass fiddling has become after many years of innovation on its early roots.

Here’s a clip of the guitar solo. I want to play it for you because Billy Strings is pretty damn good and I love that he quotes Eck Robertson too!

Listen to the clip “Guitar Melody and Fiddle Chop”.

While listening take note of these details…

Billy Strings starts out playing the melody straight ahead, both first and second parts. Then, Whoa! there’s the wailing child lick again, and the second half of that variation. It’s in the DNA of the tune.

As the mandolin solo starts, look at what Michael is doing. He is hitting the strings with the bow like it’s a percussion instrument. That is very Bluegrassy. You don’t hear it in the styles that came before. The mandolin is the instrument that generally gives bluegrass that back beat, or strong up beat. It’s called chopping. When the mandolin stops chopping, the fiddle picks it up ‘cause you need that back beat in a driving Bluegrass number. The story goes that when Bill Monroe hired a fiddler named Richard Greene, he told him to chop the rhythm on the fiddle that way and that’s how that technique became part of Bluegrass fiddling.

One more clip from this performance. Michael comes back in and we hear some things we haven’t heard in Bluegrass music up to this point.

Listen to the clip “Fiddle Guitar Trade and Relative Minor”.

While listening take note…
That’s totally outside of the “Sally Goodin” melody and tradition – unless… that you remember that “Sally Goodin” evolved from styles that came before Eck Robertson. Maybe this is just “Sally Goodin” continuing to do what it does? Bluegrass was formed by bringing in elements from other music that was popular at the time Bill Monroe was shaping his own style. If Michael Cleveland and Billy Strings quote some Rock and Roll and do some jazz-like trading of licks, is that departing from Bluegrass or just continuing the tradition? Or, has that musical amphibian that crawled up onto the beach in 1922 now becoming an entirely different species?

At the end Michael takes the band into variation number 5, the relative minor. It’s “Sally Goodin”’s way of saying good night.

Here are a few things we might want to consider after listening to Michael Cleveland and Billy Strings…

  • If a style is built by incorporating other styles and innovating, where does that lead?
  • Can it reach a point where it’s no longer Bluegrass?
  • Has Billy Strings reached that point?
  • Do you like this interpretation of “Sally Goodin” compared to Bill Monroe with Byron Berline?

The answers to these questions are subjective and your opinion is as good as mine or anyone’s.

I hope this article succeeded in helping you hear how Texas Contest Fiddling, Old Timey, Country and Texas Swing styles became a part of Bluegrass fiddling; and gave you a magnified view of the details that make up fiddle performance.

If you ever hear this tune again, do you think you’ll turn to the person next to you and say “Hey! That’s “Sally Goodin”! That’s where it all started!”

Thanks for being interested in learning about Bluegrass fiddle.

Bruno Bruzzese

Taking up bluegrass fiddle and banjo in high school, Bruno began to play with local and regional bands at festivals and contests.  Over the years he played and recorded in many circles; Bluegrass, Old Time, Country (he played in one Arizona Honky Tonk 4 nights a week for 3 years), Old Time Jazz and Swing, Cowboy Jazz, Texas Swing (he spent 6 years playing at Trad Jazz festivals with a band called Igor's Jazz Cowboys), Trance Dance Jam Bands, New Wave Songwriter Bands, Arabic, Turkish and Armenian folk music and classical Egyptian music. But now he has returned to playing Bluegrass fiddle and is enjoying it, and being enjoyed by others, more than ever before.

One Response

  • I certainly enjoyed the many points Bruno made in this article. All I will add is what Bill Monroe said about bluegrass instruments — “The fiddle is the King instrument”.

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