Figuratively speaking, Arvil Freeman has more time to just fiddle around these days.
The veteran musician won the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival’s fiddle contest four times (in 1974, and then from 1993-’95). But the festival, now in its 76th year, is no longer a competitive event — though it remains a top showcase for regional string-band music, clogging, ballad singing and storytelling.
Freeman now performs in The Stoney Creek Boys, the MDFF house band (which opens the yearly show with the song “The Old Grey Eagle”). And he continues to take his “master fiddler” status seriously. Years ago, he expanded his repertoire from strictly old-time fiddle tunes to include bluegrass, country and Western swing.
The fiddler has perfected a long-bow style that goes against traditional mountain-music technique, having more in common with a violinist’s moves than with the choppier old-time bowing method.
Using long strokes, Freeman maintains, “You get a lot smoother tone, a lot stronger sound.
“It’s easier bowing two to four notes in one bow than one note per bow,” he explains.
Freeman stiffens his arm from the elbow down for long bowing, but at other times must pick out each note, using a lot of wrist action.
Technique aside, he still makes the distinction between true old-time fiddlers, with whom melody is paramount, and those who’ve “strayed,” as he puts it, into “this jazzy type of playing around the melody.
“[Traditional] melody playing is harder,” he adds. “If you’re singing a song, it’s very hard to play it just like you sing it.”
Freeman, a Weaverville resident who grew up near the Madison County town of Marshall, has been highlighted on the PBS’ Folkways series hosted by three-time-Grammy-winning local musician/historian/storyteller David Holt (who will also perform at this year’s MDFF). And while he won’t say how old he is, the fiddler acknowledges he’s been performing live for at least half a century (debuting at age 14 at radio station WCYB in Bristol, Va.).
WNC natives may recall that back in the ’80s, Freeman would fiddle — five nights a week — in the Mark Pruett Band at Bill Stanley’s long-gone BBQ and Bluegrass restaurant, an Asheville venue once nationally known for its traditional bluegrass and clogging shows. (Banjo-player Pruett received a Grammy two years ago for his work with country-bluegrass headliner Ricky Skaggs.)
Earlier, Freeman and Pruett played in Ralph Lewis’ Piney Mountain Boys, with guitarist Don Humphries.
“Ralph and Arvil taught me so much about the nuances of bluegrass music,” Humphries gushes. “It was sort of like getting a graduate degree in bluegrass.”
For his part, Freeman admits to having learned a lot from Lewis, who fiddled with Bill Monroe in the ’70s and who now heads Jack of the Wood house band Sons of Ralph with his boys Marty and Don Lewis.
Freeman says Ralph Lewis taught he and Pruett (and many others) “basics of good timing and rhythm.” And Freeman, like Ralph, has kept fiddling in the family: His older brother, Gordon, also a master fiddler, has played MDFF for many years. (Gordon’s daughter, Loretta Rice, and her daughter, Lindsey Rice, will share another family talent — dancing — at this year’s festival).
Freeman remains productive in the studio, contributing to four CDs in the past year, including Raymond Fairchild Plays the Classics with the titular Maggie Valley bandleader, also a renowned banjo master.
Freeman also teaches weekly — and if the fiddler doesn’t get to compete at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival anymore, his disciples, at least, remain in the game.
Madison County fiddler Josh Goforth, 22 (scheduled to play this year’s MDFF with his band), is “a fantastic musician,” says Freeman. Goforth, who has singled out his teacher as his own top inspiration, grabbed the prestigious Fiddler of the Festival award two months ago at this state’s long-running Ole Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Festival in Union Grove (formerly called the Union Grove Fiddlers’ Convention or the Fiddler’s Grove Fiddlers’ Contest).
The McDowell Family (also slated to play MDFF) features brother-and-sister fiddle duo Emma, 14, and Bryan, 11, both of whom were Fiddler of the Festival finalists at Union Grove this year. (Bryan was overall runner-up, and won the junior old-time division and the junior bluegrass division just ahead of his sister.)
Some praise. But their teacher throws out even more.
“These two are by far the best” students he’s yet encountered, he declares.
The 76th Annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival happens Thursday, July 31 through Saturday, Aug. 2 at Diana Wortham Theatre. Tickets cost $10/adults, $5/kids on Thursday and $12/adults, $6/kids on Friday and Saturday; a three-day pass is $30/adults, $15/kids. Call 257-4530 for tickets; for a schedule of performances and more information, call (828) 258-6101, ext. 789, or visit www.folkheritage.org.