If the recent focus on music’s roots has you hankering to hear more, a young pair of old-time Tennessee fiddling wizards, captured on 21st-century digital CD for the MTSU Center for Popular Music’s Spring Fed Records, may have the answer.
A new grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, funded in part by specialty license plates, helped the center bring new MTSU graduate Austin Derryberry of Unionville, Tennessee, and young Trenton “Tater” Caruthers of Cookeville, Tennessee, into the university’s Studio A this summer to capture their takes on the state’s unique musical styles.
“Both of these young men need to be heard,” center director Greg Reish says. “Austin and Tater have so much to offer, in terms of old-time music, for their own artistry and also for the way they represent this Middle Tennessee and Cumberland tradition … that’s been kind of overlooked.
“They recorded two tracks together, and it was just unbelievable — high energy, just a barn-burner! Most of the tracks are Austin and Tater individually; they have different styles and tune repertoires, and we wanted to let each of them shine. This is true Tennessee fiddling from the up-and-coming generation that’s keeping the tradition alive and well.”
Derryberry, 21, has been playing old-time fiddle since he was 5 and has bowed his way into multiple championships, including the Old-Time Fiddler of the South honor at the 2015 Great Southern Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention. A Country Music Hall of Fame Musician Spotlight performer in 2018, he apprenticed with luthier Jean Horner to learn to make violins in the arts commission’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.
Now with a brand-new degree in audio production and a minor in American music studies, the multi-instrumentalist is still driving the raucous Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny, a Bedford County-based old-time string band.
“There are a lot of hotshot young fiddlers around the country, but Austin … was playing genuine Middle Tennessee old-time music, the source recordings of which date back to the 1920s and ’30s,” says Reish, a fellow old-time musician and multi-instrumentalist.
“It’s very different from fiddling in Eastern Kentucky or in West Virginia or western North Carolina. Those are the styles that tend to dominate the old-time music scene today, but Austin was immersed in something different, something he’d grown up around.”
Caruthers, 16, who’s also a banjoist and champion junior buck dancer, has performed at the Smithville Fiddlers Jamboree, Uncle Dave Macon Days, Crossing the Cumberland and Knoxville’s Jubilee Festival. He received a 2018 Tennessee Arts Commission Award to apprentice under the late Michael DeFosche, who specialized in the traditional fiddle repertories and playing styles of the Cumberland Plateau.
“Tater must’ve been maybe 12 when I first met him, and he was eager to learn. … He’s emerged rather suddenly as a musical force to be reckoned with, somebody who sounds so much like these source fiddlers and these old recordings,” Reish observes.
“Tater has studied this music very, very carefully and absorbed it. It’s not just that he is able to play it; it’s uncanny the way he can recreate those sounds.”
The Center for Popular Music has so far released 15 CDs on its Spring Fed Records label, compiling collections for artists ranging from Mississippi John Hurt to Lorenzo Martinez & “Rabbit” Sanchez to the Fairfield Four. The Grammy-winning label has also reissued 15 CDs by regional artists, unavailable since the 1970s, from the renowned Davis Unlimited label.
This new fiddlers’ release is the first Spring Fed CD recorded at MTSU, and the recording sessions were MTSU-centric, too.
Gleb Iarovoi, an audio engineering graduate student in the university’s Master of Fine Arts in Recording Technologies program, recorded, mixed and mastered all the performances. Derryberry’s wife, MTSU alumna Courtney Williams Derryberry, and Reish played guitar on his songs.
East Tennessee State University music student Conner Vlietstra, Caruthers’ bandmate in the New Stillhouse Reelers, played banjo on his tracks. ETSU graduate Corbin Hayslett served as Caruthers’ guitarist.
The two-part Tennessee Arts Commission grant is funding the fiddlers’ CD production first, then covering a series of spring 2020 release shows, ideally in Bedford, Putnam and Rutherford counties.
“We’ll get Austin and Tater together, hopefully with the musicians who played on the CD, too, and take this music back to the communities where it came from … because this is community music,” Reish says.
“Some people think that grass-roots music doesn’t really exist anymore because of the internet and the homogenization of mass media, but there are these really important pockets of traditional music-making that are alive and well and thriving … and not just with the old-timers who remember the bygone era. It’s happening with young musicians, and Austin and Tater are living proof of that.”
The Center for Popular Music at MTSU, part of the College of Media and Entertainment, is one of the nation’s largest repositories of research materials related to American vernacular music. For more information on the center and its projects and special events, visit www.mtsu.edu/popmusic.
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org)