Art Stamper at the 1967 Bean Blossom festival. Photo by Harry Bickel.

I chose the title “The Last of Stamper” because “The Last of…” is a theme that runs throughout traditional American fiddle music. Anytime you 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 Art’s death, it is about his life and some fond memories I have of him.

I first met Art Stamper in the middle 1960’s. 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 Martin’s, 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 don’t 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 Art’s farm and play all night on the front porch. I remember hanging out with him at some of the early festivals at Bean Blossom. I especially 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 it was difficult to get him to stop playing long enough to tune my banjo.

Much of Art’s 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 another 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 Art’s shop and we would take turns in the chair while the others picked. When everyone’s 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 hairdresser’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 solo. Art seemed to create as he went along.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been heavily involved in both Art’s first album and his last CD. They were two quite different projects.

Back in the early 1980’s 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 first and 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 company’s 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 banjo, 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 Stamper, Art’s 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.

Art’s 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.

Fortunately, technology 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.

Interestingly enough, as much as technology has changed, Art’s 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, recording them 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 Art’s 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, Art’s 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 for 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 Phillip’s recently completed private recording studio. We chose Ben Andrews, of Andrew’s 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 couldn’t 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. I’m 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 Grant’s 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 “yes”.

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 can’t tell you how much that picked up Art’s spirits. People tend to forget, but Vince was also a big part of the music scene here in Louisville back in the 1970’s. We were a pretty close-knit bunch back then, and Vince was a close friend of Art’s 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 his spine. 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 O’Brien 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 Art’s 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 Art’s 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 fiddler from Eastern Kentucky.

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 Records, who stepped up to the plate. He had put out Art’s previous album Goodbye Girls, I’m Going to Boston, and it had been a good seller for him. He told me he really liked Art’s 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 photographs used 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 Art’s 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 sometime 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 Art’s favorites.

I don’t 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 Anonymous

The Louisville Bluegrass Music Association
PO Box 21821
Louisville, KY 40221-0281

The recently departed Art Stamper may very well have been the world's greatest fiddle 'stylist'. He played with depth and tone instead of virtuoso speed, and turned the fiddle into his own expressive 'vocal instrument'. Nowhere is Art Stamper's expressiveness more evident than 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 banjo and Doc Hamilton on guitar. Vocals are supplied on six of the songs by none other than Tim O'Brien. His 'chalkboard scratching' vocal performances 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 Art.
Live concert recorded at the Sheldon Concert Hall in the Grammy Nominee's home state of Missouri.

The Stamper Family Project
is the property of Golden Combs Ferguson