By Wayne Erbsen
Thunderstruck. What better word to use to describe the reaction of fans of old-time fiddle music when they first tuned into the Grand Ole Opry and heard the fiddling of Arthur Smith coming out of their radios? From the time Smith first stepped up to the WMS microphone in December 1927, the world of southern fiddling would never be the same again. Who was this man that set fiddling so much on its ear?
Born April 10th, 1898, near Bold Springs, Tennessee, Arthur Smith got his first fiddle when his young wife, Nettie, sold enough chickens to buy him a Sears & Roebuck fiddle for $6.50. After his initial solo performance on the Opry, he went on to become a regular on the show, first with his cousin, Homer Smith, and then with Sam & Kirk McGee, who were known as the Dixieliners. Eventually, Smith played and recorded with the Delmore Brothers and toured widely with country-western star Jimmy Wakely.
Perhaps it was Jim Shumate, who was Flatt & Scruggs’ first fiddler, who best described the impact of Smith’s fiddling: “He was a genius, a flat genius, when it comes to playing the fiddle. He fiddled stuff like nobody else you ever heard. Smooth…he didn’t fiddle a whole lot of fancy stuff; he was flat, down to earth. He didn’t do a lot of fancy, show-off, kick-up-the-dust stuff, but when he fiddled a tune, it was fiddled just like it ought to be.”
Jim Shumate was far from the only fiddler to come under the spell of Arthur Smith’s fiddling. In fact, Smith single-handedly changed the style of the countless fiddlers who faithfully tuned in to his Saturday night performances on the Grand Ole Opry, bought his RCA Victor records, or were lucky enough to see him in live performance.
Before Arthur Smith came along, a country fiddler’s main role in old-time music was playing for square dances. Except for playing a few waltzes, fiddlers mainly played what we call “hoedowns.” Their fiddling was propelled along with a rhythmic bow stroke known as the “shuffle.” To play this shuffle, the fiddler would make his bow go long-short-short or ONE, two, three, with the accent on the one. This heavy, rhythmic accent played by the bow arm goes back to the early days of frontier fiddling when the fiddler literally played the entire night for a square dance backed up, or “fortified,” by nothing more than a jug of moonshine. By the time other instruments like guitar, banjo, and bass began providing rhythm behind the fiddle, the shuffle was so embedded in the tunes themselves, that most old-time fiddlers maintained the shuffle in their music.
Arthur Smith changed all that. He let the back-up instruments provide the basic rhythm, and he simply glided along on top of the rhythm they provided. Although it sounds simple enough, this was a revolutionary new approach to fiddling. It meant that Smith’s music was designed not for dancing, but for listening. His tunes became known as “breakdowns,” rather than “hoedowns.”
Smith’s left hand provided another key to his unique approach. Whereas most old-time fiddlers pumped out the tunes with their bow arm, often using a separate bow stroke for each note, Smith developed what has been called the “longbow style.” This meant that he often used the full length of his bow to play a series of cascading notes, with the fingers of his left hand doing most of the work, rather than his bow arm.
Even as country fiddlers were reeling from the impact of hearing Smith’s music, he was introducing yet more techniques that changed fiddling. He was among the early fiddlers to include blues in his fiddling, which he accomplished by the use of frequent slides, both up and down. He combined single notes with chords, which fiddlers now refer to as “double stops.” He even introduced the technique of moving or sliding these chords from one position to another.
Smith’s impact on southern fiddling was profound. It seemed like no fiddler managed to escape from his influence, or wanted to. Bluegrass fiddlers, in particular, owe a special debt to Smith because, without exception, every one of them credits Smith as a major influence on his or her own style of fiddling.
It’s an interesting coincidence that Smith was indirectly involved in Bill Monroe’s first recording session with the Blue Grass Boys. In October 1940, Smith had a session for RCA Victor set up in Atlanta, but had no band to back him up. Hearing that Bill Monroe would be taking his new band, the Blue Grass Boys, to Atlanta to record at the same time, Smith approached Monroe and asked if he could catch a ride from Nashville to Atlanta and if Monroe’s band could back him up. Monroe agreed, and Smith rode in Monroe’s Hudson to the session where he was backed up by Monroe’s band that included Clyde Moody on guitar, Bill “Cousin Wilbur” Westbrooks on bass and Tommy Magness on second fiddle. This session produced Smith classics including K.C. Stomp, Smith’s Rag, Peacock Rag, Crazy Blues, and Bill Cheatham.
Besides fiddlin’, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith loved to fish. One time while fishing on Trace Creek about five miles out of Waverly, Tennessee, he got a little impatient, and decided to get his limit quick by using a stick of dynamite. To mask the sound of the explosion, he tried to time it so the charge would go off at the same time that a big freight train rumbled over the huge trestle. As luck would have it, the charge didn’t go off as planned, and the train was long gone by the time the explosion went off. When the dynamite finally exploded, it announced to everybody in the county that Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith was fishing again.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Portions of this article are excerpted from Wayne’s book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.