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Senator Byrd's love of mountain fiddle music shows in CD

Sep. 03, 2010 @ 11:20 PM

At the beginning of the fourth cut on the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd's one and only fiddle album titled "Mountain Fiddler," he starts off the fiddle tune "Cripple Creek" by doing a recitation.

In the long tradition of talking about the history of a fiddle tune on a recording before the music begins, here the former West Virginia Senator chose to tell his own history of playing Appalachian mountain music.

"The first person who ever really got me interested in playing old time music was my wife's father," said Sen. Byrd, on his album Mountain Fiddler. "Of course, I was just a little fellow at that time and had no idea that I would end up marrying his daughter. But, he played the violin. He was a coal miner, and one of the tunes he played was 'Going Up Cripple Creek.'"

Sen. Byrd died this past June at 92 years of age. He had not played the fiddle for a many years by the time of his death. But, his love for Appalachian music never left him. In his younger years, he played the fiddle with much enthusiasm and talent, and the best proof of this is his recently re-mastered and re-released album, "Mountain Fiddler."

The album was recorded in 1977 and was produced by Barry Poss, founder of Sugar Hill Records. The idea was to record Sen. Byrd with a talented group of musicians surrounding him instead of recording a solo album. The musicians tapped for the project were well-respected and established bluegrass pickers that included James Bailey on banjo, Spider Gilliam on bass and Doyle Lawson on guitar.

Doyle Lawson is a veteran musician who is sure to be a future bluegrass hall of famer. He and his band were recently nominated for multiple International Bluegrass Music Association awards for his Light As A Feather, Ready To Fly album. Lawson also appears on a new CD called Old Friends Get Together recorded with fellow bluegrass legends J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams. For the last 30 years he has fronted his own award-winning band called Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver where he is known for his singing and mandolin playing. However, he is also known as an expert multi-instrumentalist.

Early in his career, Lawson played with top musicians such as J.D. Crowe and The Country Gentleman. Crowe fronted a lot of famous versions of his bands in the late 1960s and early 70s, and in one noted version of the group Lawson became known for his guitar playing.

"When Doyle went to guitar and Larry Rice went to mandolin (in the early 1970s) , that's my favorite J. D. Crowe band," said bluegrass star Sam Bush, who was honored by the Commonwealth of Kentucky legislature earlier this year for being the Father of Newgrass Music. "That was just an incredible group. I think Doyle is one of the greatest rhythm guitar players I've ever heard. Doyle is a great guitarist."

When Lawson went to meet with Sen. Byrd to work on recording the album, he didn't know what to expect. He knew who Sen. Byrd was, but had no idea about what kind of fiddle player the West Virginia politician would be. As the sessions progressed, there were some adjustments that needed to be made as the group worked out the tunes. The problem was that Sen. Byrd was used to playing the fiddle all by himself without a band backing him up. So Lawson, who is also a fiddler, showed him the classic fiddle tune kickoff known as the Georgia Shuffle which put the rest of the band on the same page.

"He was very attentive and he was very receptive and quick," said Lawson. "He understood what I was trying to tell him. I said, 'We need (the Georgia shuffle) to get started so we can all start at the same time.' If you made a suggestion, he listened to it. But, at the same time, he was firm in what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. Basically, it was easy because all he wanted to do was play his fiddle and sing and I figured with a starting point and a stopping point, we could hold him in the middle of a song. So, we laid down a rhythm track for him and let him go."

By the end of the recording session, everybody was happy.

"He played with drive," said Lawson. "I enjoyed his fiddle playing. I was amazed. I thought, here was a guy that's got a lot on his plate (as Senate Majority Leader at the time) and he still finds time to dig deep into his roots and enjoy the music and I was very impressed. He was ecstatic."

As Sen. Byrd got older, he had to deal with all that comes with that reality. For the Senator, it was realizing that he couldn't play his fiddle anymore, a traumatic experience for any musician. That was clear when Lawson went to visit Sen. Byrd the last time he saw him alive.

"We talked about the fiddle and he made mention of the fact that, he said, 'I just had to give up my fiddle playing,'" said Lawson. "He said, 'My tremors are so bad.' He shook pretty bad in his later years, and he said, 'I can't control it anymore.' I will say, to me, I thought that was a real credit to him to know it was time to back away. He loved his fiddle. He loved it with a passion and I know that it was probably real hard for him to step away and not play the fiddle anymore. He enjoyed it and he liked the crowd. But, (laughing) there were times when we would be onstage and if he thought they weren't listening quite close enough he'd tell them, 'I'm not up here fiddling for you all to talk. Now you all pay attention to me!'"

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