About The Artist
Carl Leming has been piloting airplanes for more than thirty years. He can't remember how long he's been playing the fiddle, but a little arithmetic reveals that it has been something like fifty.
As a senior pilot with Atlanta based Delta Air Lines , Carl currently flies the Boeing 727, a huge complicated piece of machinery built in America in the past decade, a product of numerous aircraft engineers, electronic wizards, and assembly line employees.
Carl's fiddle was made in Italy in 1754 by one man, a master craftsman named Gagliano. In time the plane Carl pilots will become obsolete and be relegated to the scrap heap. With proper care, his fiddle can be expected to be around for another couple of hundred years—a finer instrument with each pssing year.
Carl does his piloting through the week, flying through the air as he transports passengers between Atlanta and cities in distant parts of the country. On weekends he can be found "f1ying" down the highways of Georgia and surrounding states in a spacious motor home on his way to play his fiddle at a festival or some other event with his bluegrass band, The Dixie Hoedowners. No wonder he's called "The Flying Fiddler."
Carl and his wife, Buzzy, who plays bass with The Dixie Hoedowners, have been playing bluegrass music since 1969, the year the country music band with which they once played broke up. When we got into bluegrass, we got back to our roots," explains Carl, a native of Grant county, Kentucky, and the son of an old-time fiddler. "We found that we really preferred the natural sound of unamplified instruments, Carl continues. The Dixie Hoedowners has become one of the most popular non-professional bluegrass bands in the southeast, and their enthusiastic acceptance by bluegrass festival audiences reflects the judgement of professional music critics.
In 1979 the band walked away from the Asheville, North Carolina Mountain Dance and Folk Festival with just about every prize worth having. The band won first place in bluegrass band competition; Carl won the fiddling championship; the group's lead guitarist, John Farley, won first place with his instrument; and the band's other lead guitarist, Billy Scroggs, won second place in the guitar picking category. The year hefore, Buzzy won first place at the same festival for her bass playing abilities.
A band does not become a first place winner overnight. It usually takes a lot of practice, no matter how accomplished the individual performers. For his part, Carl had heen practicing for the championship since the 1930's. It was back then, during the great depression, that he began to perforn hefore an audience as the approximately ten-year-old fiddle player with the Barnyard Banties, a band that was organized by Carl's father. The other members of the band were also youngsters about Carl's age who made their homes in the same Grant county comnunity. John Leming, Carl's brother, played banjo; Lloyd Kells played harmonica; and Donald Kells was the group's guitarist.
We played what, back then, was called hillhilly string music," Carl explains. "Our type of music was a forerunner of bluegrrass. We provided entertainment for family reunions, school events, ice cream suppers, and square dances." Old-timers in the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana area may recall hearing the Barnyard Banties on the radio. "We played on the Liberty Theater Barn Dance that was broadcast over WCKY then located in Covington, Kentucky," Carl relates. "Bands would compete for a monthly championship, and the competition was broadcast. The Barnyard Banties won two champ ionships, and after that they wouldn't let us compete anymore."
Carl recalls that The Barnyard Banties' theme tune was "Cackling Hen." The only other song he remembers from the group's repertoire is "Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine."
"A bread company offered The Barnyard Banties a contract for an early morning, radio program on WCKY," Carl reminisces, "and we actually played an audition show, but our parents talked the matter over and finally decided that it would not be in our best interest for us to go professional at such a young age. They felt that it would be too disruptive to our home life and our school work. If our parents had signed that contract," Carl adds, "I believe it would have been the beginning of a professional career for my brother and me." Although he may have been disappointed at the time, Carl now feels that his parents made the right decision. The Barnyard Banties performed together for about five or six years.
Carl was graduated from the Hilliamstown (Kentucky) High School in 1941, and in March of 1942, at the age of 19, he entered t he United States Air force, an organization he would serve for the next four years. Carl was trained as a pilot and saw duty in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and various air force bases in Texas. He confesses that he found very little time for the fiddle during his Air Force days. He did, however, find time to meet, court, and in 1944, marry Buzzy, the sister-in-law of one of his service buddies.
Following his discharge from the Air Force in 1946, Carl took a job as a pilot instructor with Boone County Aviation which was located at the Cincinnati airport. In 1951 he signed on a s a pilot with Delta Air Lines, and he and Buzzy moved to Atlanta.
Shortly after he moved to Georgia's capital city, Carl's interest in music was rekindled, and he found himself playing fiddle with the staff band on the Dixie Jubilee, a Saturday night country music show presented at the Civic Auditorium in East Point, an Atlanta suburb located a short distance from the Atlanta airport. Many was the Saturday night that Carl would land his plane and rush to the auditorium just in time to go on stage. It was during this period of his career that he acquired the nickname, "The Flying Fiddler"
Other members of the Dixie Jubilee staff band included drummer/singer Jack Greene, the now-popular Grand Ole Opry star; and Jerry Shook, who went on to Nashville and a job as a studio musician. The band fronted for, and on occasion, accompanied the show's featured attractions which consisted mainly of Grand Ole Opry stars.
In the mid-sixties, Carl formed a new group whicn he called the Dixie Playboys. "This was a typical 'Nashville sound' country music band," Carl explains. "In addition to my fiddle, the band consisted of Buzzy on electric bass; our son, Mark, who played drums; Verne Kendrick on pedal steel; and a brother team, Jimmy and Bobby Williams." The Dixie Playboys performed regularly at the Atlanta Sports Arena, a then popular entertainment spot that featured "round and square dancing" and concerts by top-flight country music artists. It was when their son, Mark, entered military service in 1969, that Carl and Buzzy formed the Dixie Hoedowners and started playing bluegrass music.
It is always of interest to learn of the influences that have helped shape an accomplished fiddler. With Carl, as is so often the case, his early musical influences occurred in the home. Not only did his father play the fiddle, but his mother played the piano, his siater sang and the younger of hia two brothera, John, one of tbe Barnyard Banties, played guitar as well as banjo.
Tha family played a lot in the home and tbe neighbors would come around to pick and sing. Carl's family also owned a radio and a phonograph. Carl remember listaning to WSM's Grand Ole Opry, and country auaic programs on other nesr by radio atatione like WLW and WCKY. Among his favorite artists were Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, The Girls of The Goldan West, Cowboy Copas, and tbe old-time fiddlar, Hatchee, The Indian.
As Carl matured musically, he learned to appreciate certain e1ements from the atylea of sucb fiddlers as Tommy Jackson, Bob Wills, and Kenny Baker, all of whom have had an influence on his own style. In bis playing, Carl strives for accuracy, clarity, and purity of tone. He is not impressed by trick fiddling and fancy frills. To him simplicity is the key to the proper interpretation of most old-time and bluegrass fiddle tunes. Among the tunes that Carl enjoys playing the most are "Road To Columbus," "Frost On The Pumpkin," "Bluegrass in the Backwoods," and, "Cherokee Shuffle."
Carl currently owns four fiddles, but his favorite is his 1754 Gagliano, whose former owners include a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and her grandfather who also played the instrument in a symphony. Carl acquired the instrument from the late W. E. McElhannon, a prominent Atlanta violin maker.
Many good old-time fiddlers seem to be unaware of the tradition they are helping to preserve and perpetuate. Such is not the case with Carl. He has a deep appreciation for his musical heritage and seeks opportunities to help pass this heritage on to future generations. One thing that he has done, and continues to do, is to encourage young fiddlers. "We want to make sure that there's someone around to take our place when we older fiddlers have passed on," he says. Preservation of his musical heritage, and not money, was the motivating force behind the album of old-time fiddle tunes that Carl recorded in the sixties.
The material on the album, which is entitled "Blue Ridge Mountain Fiddle" (Heap Big LP 1001), Carl learned from his father and several of his fiddler friends. (Editor's Note: The Heap Big LPIOOI is an excellent fiddle album. Unfortunately, it is, at this time a rare and much sought after collector's album. I have seen one or two copies on auction lists in the past ten or so years. If you run across one, pick it up. It will be a prized addition to your fiddle library.)
One of the album's tunes, which Carl learned from his father, is called "Voyle's Reel." "This tune," Carl says, "is named for a fiddler named Voyle who lived in Kentucky. My dad, as a little boy, knew him and learned the tune from him. Mr. Voyle was in his seventies at the time, so that makes the tune well over a hundred years old." Another tune on the album, "Stonewall," Carl also learned from his father.
In the 1950's Carl met J. Laurel Johnson, an old-time fiddler and fiddle maker, who lived in Dallas, Georgia. Mr. Johnson introduced Csrl to his (Johnson's) father-in-law, Mako Sneed, who was also an old-time fiddler living on the Indian Reservation at Cherokee, North Carolina. From these two fiddlers Carl learned a considerable number of tunes of which the following were included on the album: "Sixteen Days In Georgia," "Newport Breakdown," "Heck Broke Loose In Georgia," "Walking In My Sleep," "Flat-Footed Henry," "Broken Down Gambler," and "Forks Of Big Sandy."
Carl and Buzzy found Manko Sneed, whom they believe was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, to be an interesting person apart from his abilities as a fiddler. During the time that they knew him, Sneed lived alone in a tiny cabin with a pet snake which had the run of the house. Mr. Sneed, whose father and grandfather before him were also fiddlers, kept rattle snake rattlers in his fiddle. (A picture of Manko Sneed and Carl Lemin appears on the following page.)
The other tunes on Carl's album were learned from Speedy Price ("Greens March"), a second generation fiddler with whom Carl played during the Dixie Jubilee days; and the late Gene Mitchell ("Boggy Road To Texas" and "Rocky Pallet"), who was a competetive fiddler.
In a couple of years Carl, who was born on January 24, 1923, will be eligible for retirement from Delta Air Lines. His friends are making bets that with his retirement will come an increased commitment to the task of preserving and passing on old-time fiddle music. Carl himself has said, "A person should be grateful for any talent he or she has and not 'hide it under a bushel,' but put it to good use."
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