By Emma Castleberry | Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham
Arvil Freeman is known far and wide as one of the region’s greatest professional fiddlers, but that label doesn’t quite cover it. While the fiddle is an inherent part of his identity and has been since he was young, Freeman is first and foremost a teacher. “There is nothing I enjoy more than teaching,” he says. “The most rewarding thing you will ever do is see your students keep getting better every week.” In addition to his standing gig as a member of the Stoney Creek Boys (the house band for Asheville’s Shindig on the Green) and around 30 live performances every year, Freeman sees about 20 students each week.
Rhiannon Ramsey has been studying with Freeman for more than six years. Ramsey was inspired to start playing the fiddle at four years old after seeing a documentary about Freeman. When her first fiddle teacher went on tour, Ramsey immediately asked her father if she could get fiddle lessons from Freeman. “He has totally been my inspiration all around,” Ramsey says. “You don’t just go have a lesson and you’re done. Most of the time we talk. He’s more like family.” Before Ramsey started taking lessons from Freeman, she was trying to learn to read music. “I liked it, but something about it wasn’t really my thing,” she says. “I went to Arvil and he does it completely by ear. Once I started doing that, I kind of flew because it was way easier for me.” Since studying with Freeman, Ramsey has started a band called Rhiannon and the Relics and is performing much more frequently.
Freeman has a distinctive personal style that he has cultivated over many years of performing and teaching. “My music is between old-time and bluegrass, in that category between it,” he says. “What I play is what I learned on my own. I have my own style of playing.” A self-taught musician, Freeman never had any lessons to shape his skills. Instead, he learned many old-time fiddle tunes from his brother Gordon. Freeman’s parents, while supportive, were not musical. “The only musician in my family besides me and Gordon was my grandpa,” Freeman says. “He was a fiddle player but I was never able to hear him play. He was really old when I was growing up as a youngster.”
While his brother offered a springboard for Freeman’s entrance into fiddling, Freeman eventually diverged into a different style of play. “Gordon was strictly old-time and I branched out into everything,” Freeman says. “You’re limited in old-time as to the type of people you make contact with and listen to. Old-time music has its own audience and people that follow that sort of thing. To be commercial, I decided that I would have to branch out and do it all, so I did.”
The branching-out strategy worked well for Freeman. The fiddler made his first radio appearance at age 14. “It was very, very amazing for me to be on the radio as a youngster,” he says. “That was a big thing for me.” Freeman admits that the tired old adage reigns true: practice makes perfect. “I used to spend as many as four or five hours a day practicing,” he says. “Like I tell my students: you can be as good as you want to be, but you gotta put the time in. Hours and hours of practice—that is what makes it.”
Freeman says one reason he loves the fiddle is because it allows him more freedom than other string instruments. “It’s so hard to learn and you can play any kind of music you want to on fiddle,” he says. “With guitar and bass and mandolin and banjo, you are sort of limited as to what you can play. With a fiddle, you can play anything.”
A four-time winner of the fiddle contest at the Mountain Dance and Folk festival, Freeman has performed for audiences as large as 50,000 people. As a performer, he says crowds don’t affect him one way or another. “I’m really happy in any audience,” he says. “You do what you are supposed to do and play as good as you can. I’m going to play the best I can play whether it is in front of 10 people or 50,000.”
Freeman was recently announced as one of the six recipients of the North Carolina Heritage Award, an honor bestowed upon cultural icons in the state by the North Carolina Arts Council since 1989. “The award means a great deal to me,” Freeman says. “I think it hinges around all these years of teaching as well as playing.” When one tries to speak with Freeman about his personal accomplishments, he often finds a way to redirect the conversation to his students. “He would give up his spot for any of his students in a heartbeat,” says Ramsey. “He always says his days to be in the light are over and it’s our turn. He tells us that the best award he’s ever gotten is the opportunity to teach.”
To learn more, visit blueridgeheritage.com/traditional-artist-directory. The North Carolina Heritage Awards will be presented May 23 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh. For tickets and information, visit ncarts.org.