If you’re after some good old-fashioned fiddling, what better place to look than America? With its strong jazz presence and being the birthplace of bluegrass, there’s no shortage of American fiddlers throughout the history of music. Here are some of the more prolific ones that have made their mark on the industry for one reason or another.
If you ever wanted old-school bluegrass music with a hefty dose of jazz, Vassar Clements is the man for you. The father of illbilly Jazz’ as he liked to call it, Clements was an extraordinarily talented fiddler who didn’t hold back his playing one bit. Although he played many different instruments in his music, his fiddling is what he is most known for, and for good reason. Not a lot of people come up with their own genre, after all.
Clements’ unusual musical style was a result of his wide range of influences including swing, bluegrass, jazz, and country music, though he personally cited swing as his biggest influence.
Despite his bright beginnings, it was a rough journey to become the icon he did. He started playing at the age of 7, and although he had some success in the industry by the age of 21, his real career didn’t kick off much until he was already nearly 40 years old. Once he got his career moving, though, he didn’t stop– his discography spanning over 40 total works and his Grammy award can testify to that.
A much more conventional fiddler, you’ve no doubt heard Alison Krauss’s music whether you’ve noticed or not. Playing across many genres, Alison has had a lengthy career as a fiddler and former singer, primarily with her bluegrass band Union Station. From the age of just five years old, she’s excelled with her instrument, even landing a record deal at the age of 14. From there, she continued to impress and lead many performances across the board, all the way from bluegrass to rock n’ roll.
Krauss may not be known for playing the fastest violin runs humanity’s ever heard, but she did have quite the impact with her career, particularly by bringing bluegrass to the mainstream. Her success in her music career lead to a multitude of achievements including a whopping 27 Grammy awards and her compositions landing in the soundtracks of two successful movies, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain.
Perhaps one of the least conventional players in the field, Jean-Luc Ponty is hard to fit into a category. If you ask a violinist, his style of music gives him the title of fiddler, but you wouldn’t necessarily hear his playing in your average bluegrass band despite their similarities. Sometimes even dredging up almost guitar-like sounds from his electric fiddle, Ponty is known for pushing the boundaries within jazz and rock as a trailblazer of the electric violin. Utilizing effects never intended for violin, he made his mark playing alongside some of the greatest legends in said genres such as Elton John and Frank Zappa.
As a child, Ponty was truly dedicated to his craft. Following in his parents’ footsteps, he pursued music with such tenacity that he even left school at the age of 13 (source) to fully pursue music. His expertise continues to inspire the modern violinist, unsurprisingly. Although he’s technically French, the bulk of his career sprouted from his immigration to America, so he easily deserves recognition as one of the best fiddlers of America.
If there’s a fiddler in America who’s truly become a household name, it’s Charlie Daniels. All the way back in the 1950s, Daniels kicked off his career as a successful session fiddler before eventually setting off to make his own music and form the Charlie Daniels Band. His biggest claim to fame, the hit song The Devil Went Down to Georgia, performed quite well on the charts upon its release in the 1970s and remains a classic to this day. It’s been covered, parodied, and even unofficially granted a sequel since its original inception from numerous bands all across the spectrum, from the hard-to-define funk group Primus to the commercial radio masters Nickelback.
Although he’s most known for his work with the Charlie Daniels Band, he made some noteworthy accomplishments before its formation, including the co-writing of a song with the legendary king of rock Elvis Presley. His style is hard to nail down given the scope of his career, but whether you call him country or bluegrass, one thing’s for sure: he played a mean fiddle. You don’t need to listen to much of his music to understand why he’s become such an icon with his irregular and impressively fast playing that manages to remain easy on the ears along the way.
Widely considered the finest fiddler out there, Michael Cleveland is one of the best examples of raw talent you’ll find in the world of bluegrass. The speed at which Cleveland plays is easily one of his music’s most defining traits, a feat that would be hard to achieve even without the great deal of articulation with which he does so. Equally impressive is that Cleveland manages to accomplish these feats despite his blindness and partial hearing loss. His perseverance to be the fantastic fiddler he is in the face of a hurdle like that is an inspiration to say the least.
Another younger bloomer, Cleveland started his fiddle playing journey at the age of 4 and began to catch professional attention as a teenager in the 1990s. Things picked up rapidly from there and he’s since released a number of solo albums as well as a few albums with his band, collectively called Flamekeeper. Along the way, he’s been nominated for and won several noteworthy awards, including a Grammy and multiple IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year awards. He still works with Flamekeeper today.
The documentary Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story tells more about his incredible achievement and the journey he took to get there. You can watch it right now on Amazon Prime.