Old time music is all about discovery. The search for new tunes and players is as intriguing as playing the music yourself…and sometimes more so. This search and desire is what brought me to the front door of “Banjo” Billy Mathews’ cabin.
There are many great players who have already been documented from the Ozark region: Art Galbraith, Lonnie Robertson, Cyrill Stinnett, Bob Holt, to name a few. Many of them had passed away before I got down there, But I knew the tradition was still alive and well in some holler somewhere. It was just a chance encounter that inspired me to search the hollers of Reed’s Spring, and there I found a spring of an entirely different sort.
Billy was surprised to find me on his porch. He didn’t get many young hippie lookin’ visitors. After a few minutes of explaining why (and more importantly, how) I found him, he invited me inside. That was over ten years ago, and the time between then and now is full of more stories, travels, dances, and tunes than I could count or recall.
But Billy can recall them all. He is one of the sharpest people I’ve ever met. His ability to store and retrieve information is greather than any computer. I can ask him “what’s that one that goes “deedle deedle do de dum” and he pulls it right out of his brain and through his fiddle. I asked him once how many tunes he knew, and his answer was something like “not enough”. His tune list is an old storekeeper’s logbook from the late 19th century. A large, leather bound book with ledger lines full of tune titles and little notes where the weight of tack or feed should have been.
Billy has travelled all over the continent collecting tunes from practically every region. He weaves them into the fabric of his Ozark heritage and shares them with folks from any walk, anywhere, anytime.
So I was not surprised when he announced his newest project “The 500”.
This collection of tunes is a clear look into the depth of Billy’s love and respect for old time fiddling. It consists of 15 discs full of tunes, broke into five volumes of three discs each. It contains a few well known favorites like “The Arkansas Traveller” and “Cindy Cindy”, but mostly obscure old timers from all over with names like “Brudder Bones” and “Dolf Skinner”. Billy has also inserted a few of his own original tunes into the mix, which surely will become “traditional” themselves someday.
There is no accompaniment, just the fiddle. He simply gives the name and key of the tune, then shares his rendition. The goal is to share these tunes with us so that we can do the same with future generations. I feel that he has embodied the spirit of oral tradition in this digital age by giving us very clear and diverse collection of traditional music to learn from, by ear. So light a candle, scoot up close to your CD player, and pretend Billy is right there with you showing you the way.