Story by Sandra Davidson | Photos by Linda Fox | Archival Photos courtesy Arvil Freeman
Arvil Freeman likes to say, "I can teach you to play, but how good you’ll be depends on you."
He’s talking about fiddling. Arvil Freeman is one of western North Carolina’s most respected fiddlers and fiddle instructors, and he’ll receive the North Carolina Heritage Award on May 23 for his life-long devotion to the region’s traditional music. He’s been on the traditional music scene since 1950 when he made his radio debut on WCYB in Bristol Tennessee as a 14-year-old member of the Green Valley Boys. His long career is full of moments with bluegrass heavy-lifters, but he’s proudest of his work as a fiddle instructor. For him it’s personal. In this special podcast profile, Arvil freeman explains why.
"I had a hard time learning to play the fiddle because we lived way out back on Paw Paw when I was a youngster. There was nobody within miles that even played fiddle," says Arvil. "I’m self-taught. I had to work hard. Sometimes I would sit as a youngster for four or five hours in the chair and never get up and play. That’s what I’m talking about…more time you put into it the more you’re going to get out of it."
Arvil grew up in Paw Paw, a remote community in Madison County so isolated that his family only headed into town once a year for supplies.
"If you lived on Paw Paw nothing was easy," says Arvil.
"But those were good days. We had no worries. We always had plenty to eat. I’m not sure that them wasn’t better times in life. I think they were. As long as you had good seasons to grow then you was in business because you grew everything you eat. The only thing we ever bought when I was growing up was flour, salt and sugar."
His older brother Gordon was the first of his siblings to pick up the fiddle, and Arvil quickly followed suit. The boys came of age as musicians in the 1940s and 1950s when visionaries like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs were crystallizing the definitive sound of bluegrass. They played with many of the era’s most famous innovators, but Arvil’s playing style falls somewhere between bluegrass and old-time and versatility is something he intentionally honed throughout his career.
"I can play just about any type of fiddle you want to play including western swing…a little bit of jazz. I used to play country a lot," says Arvil. "Over the years I learned enough to be able to play any type…enough to get by if I was asked to get by. You have to, to survive. I teach my students to play everything. If you’re going to play in a working band, you’re going to have to play all kinds of music."
Arvil became a decorated veteran of region's fiddling competitions, and he spent some time on the road as a touring musician. He toured briefly with the popular bluegrass duo Reno and Smiley in the 1960s and even had the opportunity to join Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers, but the lifestyle of the road didn’t suit him. Arvil ultimately chose to make a career of playing local venues around the Asheville area. He’s been the lead performer for decades at Asheville’s annual Shindig on the Green and he spent 14 years as the fiddler for the Marc Pruett band.
Arvil's widely respected for his ability to improvise around a simple melody, and he says his unique style serves an artistic and practical purpose.
"There’s hundreds and thousands [of fiddlers]. If you sit down and take CDs and play exactly like somebody that’s recorded…well then who is going to play like you? So you know, use your imagination! Good Lord give you a brain, so use it."
Arvil’s artistry and perspective have drawn students from all over, and he’s as passionate a teacher as they come. He’s driven by his own memories of teaching himself how to play fiddle, and by the joy his students bring to him.
"I’ve been very fortunate to have the wonderful students that I’ve got," says Arvil. "It’s made my life worth living because I accomplish something every week."
Arvil Freeman will perform in their family band at the North Carolina Heritage Awards Ceremony on May 23. Tickets to the North Carolina Heritage Awards are available at here.