Legend continues to make beautiful
soundsBy STEPHEN THOMAS,
SHEPHERDSVILLE - The fiddle that once
belonged to Grandpa Thomas remains silent in its case.
Fortunately, there are 15 other fiddles
in Bullitt County still thriving upon the sound of fingers with
Their owner is Art Stamper, long-time
Shepherdsville resident and member of the Bluegrass Hall of
The life of "The Lost Fiddler" began
along Troublesome Creek, near Hindman, Ky., located in Knott
An old-time fiddler, Hiram Stamper, a
famous square dance caller throughout the southeast Kentucky region,
raised one of seven children, Stamper. Hiram's father was a drummer
during the Civil War.
Stamper's current home lies on farmland
along the outskirts of Shepherdsville. The area is similar, in a
small fraction, to the world Stamper was raised in.
As a cow stared and chewed hay in a
nearby field, and a dog howled on the front porch, Stamper offered a
warm greeting with a firm handshake. His other hand grasped the
fiddle bow as if he were born with the attachment.
The first thing Stamper did was display
his favorite fiddle of the moment, a custom-made Ferguson 1985
five-string. He explained with five strings one could make both a
viola and a violin sound from the same instrument.
Sitting nearby Stamper was longtime
friend and banjo picker Harry Bickel. The two have played music
together for 40 years. Bickel mentioned he learned the most about
music from Stamper and Bluegrass artist J.D. Crowe.
With Bickel's 1922 Vega open-back
five-string banjo tuned to compliment Stamper's fiddle, the duet
soon exploded musically.
Poised as stern as a statue, yet with the
ease of a floating feather, Stamper created what he does best. His
bow sparked the strings until notes could be envisioned flying from
As the song progressed, the thump of
Stamper's foot kept time and reverberated through the walls. His
fingers seemed to leave his left hand and dance along the fiddle's
All the while, Stamper stared straight
ahead, concentrated and content, gazing through the front door and
toward the field, as if looking back in time to his Knott County
Although Stamper is an accomplished
Bluegrass fiddler, his current style is known as Old Timey, a slight
variation from today's more widely known Bluegrass.
Old Timey, according to Stamper, is an
attempt to play songs the way they were intended to be played when
first established. The instruments work together throughout the
tune, and there are no grand solos like in Bluegrass songs. Stamper
said the pace of an Old Timey song is slower as well.
"I like Ricky Skaggs but he plays too
fast," said Stamper. "A fiddler doesn't have much time to think what
Stamper moved to the area in 1956 when he
first attended cosmetology school.
"In Knott County you either worked in the
coal mines or you left to pursue something else," Stamper mentioned.
He decided he wanted to cut hair for a living.
The fact that a Bluegrass Hall of Famer
chose hairdressing over a musical career was not an insane one for
its time. Lots of musicians came from Stamper's area, and what he
was doing didn't seem special to him then.
The hairdressing decision came four years
after Stamper's first musical recording, on Rich-R-Tone Records in
the winter of 1952. Rich-R-Tone was known as the "World's oldest
Bluegrass label" at one time.
By 1952 Stamper was already touring with
Ralph and Carter Stanley, famous as the Stanley Brothers, one of the
biggest Bluegrass acts in music history.
The Stanley Brothers had also recorded
with Rich-R-Tone, and Stamper joined them on their first of many
legendary recordings with Mercury Records in August 1953. Among
songs from that session were, This Weary Heart You Stole Away (Wake
Up, Sweetheart) and (Say) Won't You Be Mine, two of the first
nationally popular Bluegrass tunes.
"Back then we were Hillbillies," said
Stamper. "There was no Bluegrass reference yet."
In 1956 Stamper played on the first
recording of the Osborne Brothers, another famous Bluegrass band
most noted for their song, "Rocky Top."
Songs from the first Osborne Brothers
session included, My Aichin' Heart, Whodunit, Ruby, Are You Mad? and
Teardrops In My Eyes."
Stamper's fiddle work has been featured
on some of the greatest early Bluegrass recordings, but he still
stepped away from the music business to pursue hairdressing in
"Back then you didn't know if you'd make
any money (in music)," said Stamper. "Now there's the realization on
looking back on the history of the music. I was really making
history playing and didn't even know it."
Stamper began cosmetology school in
Louisville in 1956. He moved to Bullitt County in 1968 to get out of
After a talk with his barber in Hindman,
Stamper decided on hair styling. It was better financially and the
job also protected his hands.
"People that play are more picky about
their hands," he mentioned.
"The Way Of Art" was Stamper's hair salon
in Louisville. He was owner/manager as well as stylist. He won a few
hairdresser awards over the 20 years he maintained the
Over that time Stamper still played
fiddle frequently, sometimes for customers in the salon.
Stamper finally returned full-time to
music in 1978, playing with different musicians and appearing at
various Bluegrass festivals.
His nickname, "The Lost Fiddler," was
popularized following his return. He recorded a song by that title
with J.D. Crowe in 1982. He also released a solo album by that name
Stamper's playing was rewarded three
consecutive years, 1986-88, when he received the Best Old Time
Fiddler award presented by the Society of the Preservation of
Bluegrass Music Association (SPGMA) in Nashville, Tenn.
Later into the 1980s and throughout the
90s Stamper turned his talents to the younger generation of
fiddlers. He began teaching at clinics and colleges and anywhere a
student was willing to learn a trick or two from the old
Stamper's latest solo album, "Goodbye
Girls, I'm Going to Boston," was released in 2000, earning as much
acclaim as any other recordings in his career. Part of the album
appeared as background music on a television episode of National
It was also in 2000 when Stamper was
diagnosed with throat cancer. The following year he survived throat
surgery and a tracheotomy.
Stamper still has his good and bad
moments. He is still able to perform on occasion, including a recent
appearance with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys at the
Shepherdsville Country Music Show.
Through all the years, the many careers,
musical changes, and physical challenges, Stamper still plays the
fiddle like ringing a bell.
In fact, he is prepared to record a new
album with Bickel, covering many Old Timey songs.
Stamper still enjoys each day with Kay,
his wife of the past 20 years. Kay is originally from Japan, where
Bluegrass is surprisingly popular. The couple met at a Bluegrass
festival. Kay admitted she originally attended to meet Grandpa
Stamper's family consists of three
children and four grandchildren. His son, Blake, is currently
touring and promoting his own album, which features Hickabilly
Through memories, recordings, and family
life, Stamper's days remain full and enjoyable. Although he has
countless precious moments to choose from, he is quick to tell which
is his favorite.
"My most exciting moment is when I learn
a new tune," he said. "When you get to a point where you can't learn
anything, it's time to quit."