12, SPRING 2005
REMEMBERS THE LIFE
OF LEGENDARY FIDDLE
PLAYER ART STAMPER
Art Stamper at the 1967
Bean Blossom festival. Photo by Harry Bickel.
I chose the title The
Last of Stamper because The Last of
a theme that runs throughout traditional American fiddle music.
hear a fiddle tune with the title The Last of
you know that it was written by a fiddler who was about to die,
often on the gallows. This is
not something you will find written down anywhere, for it is
part of the oral tradition that is passed down among musicians.
Art was an integral
part of that tradition. His repertoire, which was vast, included
several Last of songs that he had learned from his
Dad, Hiram, such as The Last
of Sizemore and The Last of Callahan. Despite
the title, however, this article is not about Arts death,
it is about his life and some fond
memories I have of him.
I first met Art Stamper
in the middle 1960s. I was taking banjo lessons from J.
D. Crowe at the time and spending a lot of my weekends in
Lexington, listening to his band play at Martins, a bar
on Limestone Avenue. I walked in one night and there was this
wonderful fiddler sitting
in with the band. During the break, I asked J. D. who he was
and I still remember him saying You mean you dont
know Art? Needless to say,
after that night, I knew Art.
Nearly 40 years later,
it is sometimes difficult to remember my earliest days with Art.
I do remember trips to Lexington with him to listen to J.D.s
band. I remember many weekends when Danny Jones and I would go
out to Arts
farm and play all night on the front porch. I remember hanging
out with him at some of the early festivals at Bean Blossom.
remember how much fun Art was to play with. He was always laughing
and joking and having a good time while he was playing. Sometimes
was difficult to get him to stop playing long enough to tune
Much of Arts playing
around town came while he was a hairdresser. Unlike most of
us, who were still struggling to learn the music, Art already
had a professional career in music and had given it up to start
profession and raise a family. During one period, I remember
we would have hair-cuttin day. That was when
a bunch of musicians would
show up at Arts shop and we would take turns in the chair
while the others picked. When everyones hair was cut, Art
would take out his fiddle
and join in the jam session. I also remember going to the Red
Dog Saloon on Washington Street one night to see Ralph Stanley
and the Clinch Mountain Boys. There was Art, still in his hairdressers
smock, fiddling away.
Art was also a farmer.
He never lived in town, he always lived in the country. In all
the years I knew him, I never remember a time when he
wasnt working the soil. He was raised on a farm and it
was as much part of his life as his music was.
I believe Art played
with almost every Bluegrass and Old-Time Band in town at one
time or another. He would often just show up and play,
whether he was paid or not. He was seldom a full-time member
of any particular band, he just enjoyed playing with them all.
If a band needed
a fiddler for a job, they called Art. He didnt need to
practice with the band,, he just needed to know what key the
next song was in. I
remember one band that he played with a lot. They only played
in one key, the key of G. That didnt seem to bother Art
any, he just transposed
all of his fiddle tunes into G. He did tell me later, however,
that some of those fiddle tunes are hard to play in G.
Art was one of the most
amazing musicians I have ever met. Although he studied and practiced
his music throughout his life, when he played it
just seemed to flow from his head to his hands. This was particularly
evident when he was sitting in with a band or improvising tunes
that he had
not played before. Many musicians in this situation will take
their tried and true licks and recombine them into a rather mundane
seemed to create as he went along.
I consider myself very
fortunate to have been heavily involved in both Arts first
album and his last CD. They were two quite different projects.
Back in the early 1980s
Art decided that it was time for him to do a solo album. We contacted
several different record companies and it
was Dave Freeman of County Records who finally agreed to the
project. Unlike today, back then, you found a record company
then you did an album. In those pre-Internet/pre-computer days,
it was very difficult, and expensive, to produce an album. Few
records were attempted without a record companys resources
and distribution network,
Although, at the time,
Art was known primarily as a Bluegrass fiddler, he decided that
his first record would contain half Bluegrass tunes and
half Old-Time tunes. He asked me to play old-time banjo and we
decided there was only one person we wanted to play Bluegrass
J. D. Crowe. It only took one phone call to get J. D. to accept.
He was ready to go. The other players on the album were Blake
Arts son, on guitar, Danny Jones on mandolin and Steve
Cooley on bass.
County had arranged for
us to use Riverside Studio near Ashland, Kentucky. We started
with the tunes that J. D. played on and finished
them by supper time on the first day. After dining at a local
steakhouse, J. D. returned to Lexington and the rest of us went
back to the studio
to work on the old-time tunes. That night, we all piled into
one motel room. The next day, which was a particularly long one,
we returned to the
studio and completed the old-time tunes. The album, titled The
Lost Fiddler is still available from County Records, as a CD.
Arts final CD,
Wake Up Darlin Corey was an entirely different proposition.
During one of his week-long bouts of chemotherapy, I went to
visit Art in the hospital. Although it was difficult for him
to talk, he managed to whisper in my ear, When I get out
of here, I want you,
me and Doc (meaning Doc Hamilton) to record an album of old-time
music. That was the inception of Wake Up Darlin Corey.
has changed so much, it is now quite easy to produce your own
CD, with or without the help of a record company.
That is what Art and I decided to do, record it now and then
try to find a record company.
as much as technology has changed, Arts music and his audience
may have changed even more. Although Art is still known
and revered as a Bluegrass fiddler, he has also become a legend
in old-time music. Even before he became ill, he had given up
the idea of touring full-time with a band, preferring to accept
the occasional gig, rather than spend his remaining years on
the road. Many, if not most, of these
offers came from the fans and musicians of old-time music.
Once we had decided to
do a CD, it was then a matter of selecting the tunes and practicing
them. Art always told me that he thought old-time
tunes were much harder to play than Bluegrass tunes. We went
over scores of tunes, learning them, playing them over and over,
and listening to them. We managed to whittle the pile down to
some 30 or so tunes that we would consider doing on the CD. I
sent sample CDs
of the tunes to Doc Hamilton, who was then living in Bowling
Green, so he could begin practicing. He came up to Arts
once or twice and the
three of us spent the day practicing together.
This whole process probably
took a year or more to complete. During that time, Arts
health continued to go up and down, although the overall
trend was somewhat downward. By January 2004, Art was taking
a new type of chemotherapy that would leave him feeling terrible
about 10 days. Then he would feel fine for about a week before
the whole process would start over again. If we were to record
the CD anytime soon, it was obvious we would have to schedule
it between his treatments.
We had decided to use
my friend Jim Phillips recently completed private recording
studio. We chose Ben Andrews, of Andrews Recording Service,
as the engineer. As it turned out, both were excellent choices.
They understood our dilemma and were willing to be quite flexible
with studio time, even to the point of canceling other sessions
if need be.
We chose several days
in February and booked the studio. Doc was now living in Texas
and arranged to come to Louisville for a week to give us enough
time to complete the recording. My wife Ann and I were living
part-time in Florida at the time, so we arranged to come back
here for a several week stretch. Art and Kay, his loving wife
and companion of over twenty years were about thirty minutes
away, on their farm in Bullitt County. On the appointed day,
which just happened to be Valentines Day, we all showed up at
the studio and things began to happen.
Photo by Sheila Nichols
Art performs with
Harry Bickel at a
Homefront concert at
the Kentucky Theater
Photo by Paul Colon
Art with Doc Hamilton
(left) and Harry Bickel
(right) during the
recording sessions for
Wake Up, Darling
Photo by Sheila Nichols
Art gives some direction to Vince Gill between
recording sessions for Wake Up, Darling Corey.
Day one in the studio
is always the hardest because of the time involved in setting
things up. Fortunately, with only three instruments and no
vocals at this point, this went fairly quickly. Art was definitely
not feeling well, but you couldnt tell it from his fiddling.
The three of us
managed to knock out ten tunes before we quit for the day.
The next day proved to
be much more interesting. Ann and I went out for breakfast that
morning and when we got back home, there was a
message on the answering machine Hey guys, this is Vinnie.
Im in town for the day and wanted to see what was going
on. Vinnie, was my old roommate Vince Gill and he was in
town for his wife, Amy Grants concert that evening. I called
him back, told him we were in the studio all day
and he asked if he could come along. The answer, of course, was
We decided to surprise
Art, so Doc and I went ahead to the studio and started recording
while Ann waited at home for Vince to arrive. A little
while later, just as we finished recording one of the tunes,
in walks Ann with Vince in tow. I cant tell you how much
that picked up Arts spirits. People tend to forget, but
Vince was also a big part of the music scene here in Louisville
back in the 1970s. We were a pretty close-knit bunch
back then, and Vince was a close friend of Arts just like
the rest of us.
We spent the whole day
in the studio and managed to knock out another 10 tunes. Vince
mostly sat on the floor, closed his eyes and listened.
In between tunes, he would occasionally pick up an instrument
and hit a few notes on it, although not for the recording session
itself. He really enjoys this kind of music because it is what
his Dad played. Fortunately, our friend, Sheila Nichols, was
there taking pictures so we have both
a visual and an audio record of the entire day. For me, personally,
the most rewarding part of the day was when we recorded the two
fiddle and banjo tunes, Wake Up Darlin Corey
and Moonshiner. Although I had to talk Art into doing
them, they both came out so well on the first take
that everyone in the studio broke into spontaneous applause when
they were finished. Doc said they made chills run up and down
As it turns out, Wake Up Darlin Corey became
the title song for the album.
It was Art who came up
with the idea to ask Tim OBrien to sing on the CD. Several
of the tunes that Art had grown up with had words and
we wanted to include them. We asked and Tim was thrilled. He
is one of Arts biggest fans. Despite his busy schedule,
he managed to come up
for a day in April and record his vocals. We had recorded all
of the tunes in their original keys, which made the vocals quite
high. Tim did a
great job and sounded much like the old mountain singers we were
hoping to emulate. We also got Tim to sing Arts version
of Little Birdie
which is the only version I have ever heard with a chorus to
it. He learned it from his father, Hiram, also a great old-time
Over the course of the
next month or so, we selected the fourteen tunes we wanted on
the CD and mixed and remixed them until we were
satisfied. We sent the nearly completed CD off to several record
companies and it was our old friend again, Dave Freeman of County
who stepped up to the plate. He had put out Arts previous
album Goodbye Girls, Im Going to Boston, and it had been
a good seller for him.
He told me he really liked Arts fiddling and was happy
to do another one for him. Production coordination was turned
over to Chris King
of County Records and the design of the cover and booklet was
done by David Lynch of Asheville, North Carolina. All of the
on the CD, except for one I took of Tim, were complements of
Sheila Nichols. I wrote the liner notes and the song notes, and
Vince was kind
enough to give us a quote to put on the back cover. Because of
Arts precarious condition, the folks at County Records
went out of their way to
make sure the CD was released as quickly as possible. We received
the first copies in October of 2004 and it was officially released
in the next month or so. All in all, it was a heck of a lot of
work for a number of people, but it was worth it.
We buried Art Stamper
on January 29, 2005, in the family cemetery near Hindman, Kentucky.
It was a cold, rainy day, befitting a funeral,
and it took eight or ten of us to get the casket up the muddy,
moss-covered hillside. Although the service had been large, only
the immediate family and a few friends accompanied Art on his
final journey. One song, Come By the Hill, was sung
by his old friend, Bill Clifton. It was one of Arts favorites.
I dont know what
else to say. A good friend and a great fiddler is gone. We will
miss the camaraderie, his sheepish grin and his sense of humor.
But his music will live on. I guess it is enough to simply say
what Art would have probably said about now. It was a single
word that he learned growing up on the farm in Eastern Kentucky.
He used it often to punctuate the end of his songs. I can still
hear him saying it. Sooie!
Bluegrass Music Association
PO Box 21821
Louisville, KY 40221-0281
WAKE UP DARLIN' COREY
The recently departed Art Stamper may very well have been the
world's greatest fiddle 'stylist'. He played with depth and tone
virtuoso speed, and turned the fiddle into his own expressive
'vocal instrument'. Nowhere is Art Stamper's expressiveness more
on his superb swan song "Wake Up Darlin Corey."
If you're seeking slick production and fancy pickin, seek elsewhere.
The 14 tracks on 'Corey'
are the kind of traditional fiddle tunes that will rattle the
bones and leave behind broken pieces. Stamper simply plays the
music that inspired
him his whole musical life. The human encyclopedia of fiddle
tunes is more than ably backed by Harry Bickel on clawhammer
Doc Hamilton on guitar. Vocals are supplied on six of the songs
by none other than Tim O'Brien. His 'chalkboard scratching' vocal
will be offputting to many, but his uncanny ability to adapt
to Stamper's gutbucket musical approach is simply amazing. "Wake
Up Darlin' Corey"
is a superb epitaph from a true musical treasure. Rest in peace
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