Gatherin’ around J. P. Fraley

by Steven Harvey

[I originally wrote this article for publication in a magazine, but the project fell through and the magazine folded. I have included it here in honor of J. P., whose music is an unending source of pleasure for me. You can hear his music on two CD's: Maysville and Wild Rose of the Mountain.]

When J. P. Fraley takes the amphitheater stage at the Carter Caves Campground, a hush falls over the chatty audience and everyone in the semi-circular rows of benches leans forward a little in anticipation. He sits in a chair beside Barbara Kuhns who plays harmony lines for him on her fiddle, his legs spread in a slightly open stance that looks comfortable and relaxed. He runs the bow over open strings—the tuning is fine—brings the fiddle to his chin and looks out over the group assembled around him wearing on his face an impish, almost quizzical, expression that puts us all at ease. Even before he draws on the first note of “Stepdown,” one of his most familiar tunes, he has created a sense of intimacy among us all. Gathered here for a Friday concert, in the presence of one of America’s finest old time fiddlers, we feel welcome and at home.

We are at the “J.P. Fraley Mountain Music Gatherin’” that has been held annually in early fall at the Carter Caves Campground in eastern Kentucky for the last thirty-two years. First organized by Annadeene Fraley, J.P.’s wife, it is a celebration of old-time music that attracts old-time players and fans from around the country. Few of the musicians are well-known nationally—they include Bob Buckingham, Alan Freeman, Sunset Dawn, and the Reed Island Rounders among others—but among the folks gathered here these are performers who keep the old songs of the mountains alive. Chief among them is Fraley himself, a small, spry man in his late seventies who has won many old-time fiddle contests at places like Fiddler’s Cove, North Carolina and Clifftop, West Virginia, conducted workshops in fiddling all over the United States and in Ireland, and was named an “Appalachian Treasure” by Morehead State University in Kentucky.

Once J.P. begins to play the impishness gives way, shifting to the alert and wary expression of a traveler looking far ahead for a bend in the tune. On stage he is always listening, his ears cocked. There is, in his demeanor and in the expressions that shift across his face, the look of someone searching. “I hear the note in my head before I ever touch it,” he explains, and with each held note there is a patience—a love of the held sound and a reluctance to let it go, especially on the upstrokes, the hesitancy built into the way the tune unfolds in his mind. When he does, at last, take the note his right hand bounces happily at the down stroke as if with the joy of discovery. J.P.’s style is called expressive—a word that tries to capture the patient but playful attention he brings to each phrase—and the music floats from him out into the group gathered around, drawing us all in, the tune taking us on an all-too-brief journey far from our earthbound days before bringing us back home again fulfilled.

***

The next day I’m taking the trip back again, this time to J. P.’s house located on a hillside on a piece of his father’s land. I follow directions that Barbara Kuhn has written up for me: heading south at an exit on I-64 near Grayson to a winding road. I pass small communities of clapboard houses, cross two one-lane bridges, looking for yellow buildings that mark the next turn. On my right tobacco fields stretch to the line of trees, the leaves green despite the drought, and beyond those fields the next ridge of hills that hem in this place. Eventually I find J. P.’s road which gives way to gravel as it winds deep into Hogshead Hollow. I pass a cemetery and see on my left a large embankment supported by railroad ties—J. P.’s father used to sell wooden ties, J. P. tells me later, for twenty-five cents a piece—until the road forks into a driveway that takes me to his cabin on the hill. He and his dog Chigger greet me while family and musician friends stand behind him, all smiling.

The trip back to this green spot feels more like a return than a journey, a peeling back of layers, not to an older time—J. P.’s cabin is relatively new and he and his family thoroughly modern—but to a present that finds joy and love more bountiful by being grounded firmly in a place that has a past. His daughter, Michelle, is there, and Shelley who often drops by to help, and the guitarist, Robin Kessinger, whose uncle played fiddle with J.P.—a protective circle. All of them love the man—I can see that in the way that they tease him and watch out for him—but they also know what he does with the fiddle and know, as well, what that thread of sound winding through all their lives means, binding them to each other and to those who came before and will come after. They know that, for now, this thread forms a lovely loop around this one old man.

***

J. P.’s musical education began when he heard his father whistle fiddle tunes while working—no mean feat. “Have you ever tried to whistle a fiddle tune?” J. P. says shaking his head. “I’d stick with him all day just a-listening to him working and humming and whistling.” Richard Fraley was “a front porch fiddler.” He sold real estate and ran various businesses, but on weekends, musicians from the surrounding area came to his house to play. “They’d come from Olive Hill and so forth. They’d all gang up and have a fiddlin’ on the front porch.” The young Jesse Presley Fraley—later called J.P. by almost everyone—would listen and absorb the sounds. “It meant a lot to me,” J. P. explains.

When he was nine or ten J.P. got a ‘tater-bug’ mandolin, a simple instrument with an oval shaped body tuned like a violin, and began picking out tunes for himself. The fiddle was “off-limits”—a precious item in the household that children were not supposed to touch—but J.P. was the only one of Richard Fraley’s fourteen sons and daughters to show an interest in music and eventually his father took him “under his wing” and introduced him to the mysteries of the instrument. “When I started playing tunes,” J. P. explains, “I had a whole new world to play in.”

His father even let him get out of chores to practice. “Dad,” the young J. P. would say as the family hauled corn in the muggy summer heat, “I believe if I was down home I could play ‘Sally Goodin’ on the fiddle,” and his father would let him go, despite his resentful brothers. “I had my mind more on skinny dipping than anything,” J. P. admits. He would get his Dad’s fiddle from its place under the bed, remove the cloth case, and play for about five minutes until he got Sally Goodin down and then head off for the river at the lower end of the farm to swim with his friends, getting back in time for his hair to dry before his Dad and brothers got home. “They’d think I had been playing all day.”

J. P.’s father took him to hear the best fiddlers in the area including Ed Haley, the blind street musician from Ashland, Kentucky, that J. P. calls the “Sage of Fiddling.” Haley’s granddaughters would lead him to street corners in Ashland where the fiddler played for tips. After giving Haley some money, J. P.’s father would instruct the musician to play while his son listened, insisting only that he play “Billy in the Lowground” along the way. J. P. would stay for hours. Passersby and shopkeepers often abused Haley, and J. P. remembers some merchants kicking the musician’s feet to get him to move on. “I got so mad,” J. P. says angrily. “He was just a genius.”

Haley played the fiddle in the old-fashioned way, holding it on his chest rather than under his chin. He would often rock the violin back and forth beneath the bow as he played, a technique that allowed him to create nuanced and subtle tones from the fiddle. “He could make a dark fiddle talk with his short strokes up with the bow,” J. P. explains.

“Nobody else I know could do it—as if the tune had words.” For J. P., Haley’s sound was the epitome of expressive playing. “I’ve heard the most prominent fiddlers as we know them today,” J. P. explained in a brief autobiographical sketch that accompanied his first recording, but “I don’t think any of them could equal Ed Haley.”

***

J.P. met his best friend and musical collaborator when, at age sixteen, he fell in love with Annadeene Prater from Star Branch. She was only fourteen when he saw her in the schoolyard getting off of a bus. Pictures from the time show a dark-eyed girl with a fondness for bows and flowers in her dark hair. I show J. P. one photograph of her holding a guitar and standing beside a friend and sense the emotions gathering in him. She is wearing a jumper and a white blouse and looks into the camera with a half-smile, a knobby knee showing just under her skirt hem. J. P. studies the picture for a few minutes, saying nothing at first. “When Annadeene got off the bus, she wasn’t nothing but heel strings and eyeballs,” J. P. says, “just a leggy kid, but I thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.” He hands the picture back to me. “It never did change.”

Annadeene was an accomplished musician, “one of the Rachel Valley Girls that played over at WCMI in Ashland all the way through high school,” J. P. explained. She loved singing close harmonies and was particularly good on the guitar. “Annadeene was musically intelligent,” J. P. says. “She knew how to get the sound out of the guitar to match the fiddle.” Eventually she and J. P. eloped in Maysville and settled down to raise a family, and, for a while music was put on hold. “We got busy raising a family. We had four children, three girls and a boy.” It wasn’t until the children had gotten older that J. P. borrowed a guitar for Annadeene, and the two of them entered a contest that would give their lives a new direction.

“Tell me about the contest where the fiddle exploded?” I ask J. P.

“We had gone to the contest more or less as a joke,” J. P. said. It was held in the little town of Flatwoods, Kentucky—where, as J. P. put it, “both city limit signs hang on the same post”—but it drew fiddlers from as far away as Nashville. He had borrowed a guitar for Annadeene from a local dealer promising that if he won he would buy it for her. His own fiddle was held together with a clothespin on the tailpiece. The contest came down to a playoff between a flashy Nashville fiddler and J. P. and after an exchange of songs J. P. won. Less than an hour after it was over J. P. raked his bow over the strings, the clothespin popped off and the bridge flew in the air. “The fiddle blowed up on me!” he said, but he didn’t care. “Someone up above must have been with me,” he explains.

The contest was the beginning of J. P.’s return to music—and the best part was that Annadeene returned with him. For years they played together in other contests and at concerts throughout the region. Together, they made two beautiful recordings: Wild Rose of the Mountain and Maysville, both still available. In the sixties, Annadeene decided to locate the Fraley family reunion at the Carter Caves Resort in Kentucky and the “J. P. Fraley Mountain Music Gatherin’” was born. After Annadeene died in 1996, Wild Rose of the Mountains was reissued in her honor as a CD, with J. P.’s daughter, Danielle, accompanying him on new selections. Informally, the Fraley Mountain Gatherin’ is held in Annadeene’s honor as well, as a legacy to the musical tradition she fostered. She was, as J. P. puts it, “a jewel of a woman.”

I ask J. P. to play a tune. He retreats into the house to get his fiddle and returns a few minutes later with fiddle in hand and Robin Kessinger, the guitarist, in tow. J. P. picks at the strings with his finger to check the tuning. His fiddle is lovely. Made by the fiddler Jim McKillop and given to J. P. during his tour through Ireland, it has a sweet sound with a nice lower register perfectly suited to J. P.’s playing. Robin and J. P. play “Margaret’s Waltz,” a tune written by the Scottish fiddler Ally Bain, a fan of J. P. who often returns the favor by performing J. P.’s tunes in Ireland. As J. P. plays, he remains still, but fully animated, his face aglow and his facial expressions matching the lilt and movement of the slow waltz. The word ‘effortless’ first comes to mind—“If it were hard work,” J. P. told me earlier, “I wouldn’t do it!”—but effortlessness does not describe these motions. They are intuitive and solid and steady. He does not strike the strings or cut into them so much as lay the weight of his hand on the frog and pull the sound from the instrument. “ I love waltz’s,” J. P. explained. “When you start your low notes it’s kind of rough, but seems like it climbs into the key you want.” J. P. lays into the base strings—his head slightly tilted—his bow starting at the low end of the note with a rasp and coming to pitch early, the note retrieved, it seems, from some dark well and offered up to sunshine like pure water.

When he was a boy, J. P.’s father warned him of the importance of taking care of the bow while playing. “Don’t lean on it too hard,” he said. “It’d quarrel with you.” He cautioned J. P. on the need to play with the whole bow, saying he could make six fiddle bows out of the young J. P.’s choppy strokes, J. P. still believes that using the whole bow leads to smooth fiddling, but he rarely swings his arms for wide and dramatic strokes. He uses the whole bow, yes, but gets to the other end eventually, never hurrying his stroke to pump up the performance or charge it with bravado. “One of the greatest things about playing with J. P.” Robin tells me later, “ is that he listens to everybody playing.” That is the clue. For J. P., playing music is an intense form of listening—that is what his face, with its shifting expressions, registers. He pays attention to the other performers—it is part of his generous spirit to do so—but he also remains attentive to the music in the air. “I learned the fiddle tunes in my head,” he tells me, “long before I ever thought about playing them.” When I ask him what he is thinking about when he plays, he says, “the next note.” For J. P. the instrument is not played; rather the sound is discovered in some hidden place and teased out. He is not paying attention to the fiddle when he plays, or the bow for that matter, but is alert to something far off, some resonance far away that he is coaxing into audibility.

***

Later that night, after the interview, I’m headed back to the Carter Caves for the Saturday evening concert. This is Kentucky limestone country and the cut hillsides on the winding road down to the park are lined with flat rocks that emerge out of the bank, trees and bushes clinging to a thin layer of soil. I never get a chance to ask J. P. directly what he thinks about the future of the music he plays. I don’t think I have to. This festival is a testament to his hope for the future. He watches every act that performs on the stage while I am there and smiles as broadly for the young players like Jake Crack as he does for his old friends, Bo D and Jennings Morgan. “This man is a great guitarist,” he says of Robin Kessinger, clearly proud of his old friend’s nephew. The music grows naturally in a place like this, clinging like spindly trees to the rocky edges of modern culture. When I see Sherry Standford’s little girl dancing in front of the hotel while her mother’s group, Sunset Dawn, leads a jam, I know that the call of this music is irresistible—and in good hands.

Later I make my way down to the amphitheater and find J. P. talking to his daughter Michelle. On stage, a musician has called him a living legend—a phrase often invoked at this gathering for J. P. and the adulation clearly makes him a little nervous, but he has decided that when his bit on stage is done, he will stay to watch the rest of the show, declining an early ride home. “I guess if you’re a living legend,” Michelle says with a wry smile, “you can do what you want!”

Eventually it is his time on stage again, and he and Barbara settled in for a couple of tunes. Once again, the crowd seems to lean forward, drawn to him, a gathering of people around a sound, and when he starts to play the night sky over Carter Caves fills with the sweet sound. J. P. may not use sweeping bow movements to create his sound, but he gets more sound per inch out of his bow than six other fiddlers could. The sound sweeps over the crowd hemmed into this arena and holds us together as one. This is what the music at a gathering like this does for us. We lose ourselves to find each other, and, paradoxically, run into our best selves along the way. We feel, among the strangers who have taken us in, welcome and at home.