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Lesson 40: Ora Lee
James’ bowing style is long and elegant. It’s more reminiscent of European styles than the hard driving short bow strokes of southern old time fiddling. That coupled with his slower pace allows him more time to insert trills, slides, and other melodic ornaments.
Ora Lee is heard here on “Banging and Sawing” a seminal set of recordings featuring Bob Carlin’s banjo and several great fiddlers, including James Bryan of Alabama
James Bryan learned this tune from an older Tennessee fiddler, Edward Winter.
James Bryan –
“James stands out from [other old-time fiddlers.] His tune selection draws upon fiddlers local to his part of Alabama instead of the Round Peak fiddlers preferred by other fiddlers of his generation, and his bowing reflects the long bow used by bluegrass musicians rather then the short rhythmic strokes favored by older fiddlers[…] And whereas [many other well-known modern fiddlers] learned primarily through the fiddlers’ convention scene of the upland south, James grew up in a culture where fiddle music was a part of his everyday life.” -Bob Carlin on James Bryan’s style
James Bryan of Mentone, Alabama is considered by many to be one of the best traditional Southern fiddlers playing today, with a unique repertoire and smooth bowing style. Born in Boaz, Alabama in 1953, James grew up in a musical family. He was especially inspired by his father Joe, a guitarist who could also play some fiddle. Joe Bryan brought young James to performances, introduced him to local fiddlers such as Monk Daniels and members of the Johnson family, and encouraged him to start playing music at an early age. Six-year-old James’s first attempts at fiddling didn’t go so well, he remembers:
“[My dad] bought me a little three-quarter-sized fiddle when I was about six years old, probably, and I sawed on it for a few months and just couldn’t get anything going; I didn’t really have a teacher or anything. It was a little different learning back then, you know – it was a lot of just watching people play and trying to learn by ear at first. It was just hard at that age to stay with it, so I was about ten when I took it up later. Really, just being around [my dad and his bandmates] when they would practice and play on the radio was what got me wanting to play.”
James learned quickly his second time around, starting with tunes played by his father and other local musicians, and soon apprenticing with master bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker of Bill Monroe’s band. He won his first fiddlers’ convention prize at the age of twelve. In 1970, at the age of sixteen, and again in 1973, James won the title of Fiddle King at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddler’s Convention in Athens, Alabama. During these years, he also frequently teamed up with his father to play at local radio stations, dances, and fiddle conventions, honing his skills in both the bluegrass and old-time genres.
“I was playing bluegrass when I was a teenager,” James remembers, “but I always liked the old-time stuff. I would listen to [old records]. There weren’t any fiddlers around at first that had a lot of rare tunes; seemed like they just played the standards, things like Soldier’s Joy. As I got a little older, the revival for fiddle tunes and old time music came about in the seventies, and I started trying to dig out more obscure tunes myself.” Bluegrass technique continued to influence his playing style, but he increasingly became known as an old-time fiddler.
“The dances I played with my dad were more freeform” than modern contra or square dances, James recalls. “They were kind of square dances… They would have a caller, but he would be out there dancing too; he wouldn’t be on a microphone or anything. And it didn’t seem like the tune had to be a square tune, like they want now – they want two parts, even tunes, you know. You could play about any kind of tune back then to dance to.”
James eventually joined Norman Blake’s Rising Fawn String Ensemble, where his mastery of the fiddle and repertoire of old-timey songs was honed. He made his solo debut on Rounder with Lookout Blues in 1983; The First of May followed two years later. Both albums featured a mix of old-timey Southern tunes, many with hints of their English and Scottish heritage intact. James continued to perform throughout the 1980s, both solo and with Norman and Nancy Blake. In 2011, James received the prestigious Alabama Folk Heritage award for his lifetime of fiddling.
Now living in Mentone, Alabama, James still makes regular appearances at bluegrass and folk festivals, often accompanied by his daughter Rachel Bryan on guitar. He also teaches fiddle workshops and lessons, and he has served as a master artist for the apprenticeship program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. At home, he and his daughter play together “every day,” in her words!, “just as much as we possibly can.” James continues to expand his repertoire of rare fiddle tunes, seeking them out from old recordings and books. “I look for more obscure tunes and styles that are not heard much any more,” he says. “I try to promote traditional music on whatever level I’m able and encourage others to do the same.”