Performing Arts

Fiddlers of Madison County: Honoring Roger Howell

David Holt and Roger Howell, musicians. Photo by Brian Hunter

The 13th Annual Fiddlers of Madison County concert takes place Saturday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at Mars Hill University’s Broyhill Chapel. The performance features some of the area’s best fiddlers playing a variety of old- time, bluegrass and other tunes in a style unique to the region. In keeping with tradition, the event also honors a master musician from the community. This year’s honoree is multi-award winning fiddler Roger Howell.

“Roger’s greatest contribution is the recordings he has done over the years for Mars Hill University’s Southern Appalachian Archives,” says The Midnight Plowboys guitarist and vocalist Brian Hunter. “No other musician has taken on the cause of preserving our music like Roger has.”

Howell spent 11 years recording nearly 700 fiddle tunes in order to ensure their availability to future generations. He completed the project in the fall of 2018. The recordings, titled The Memory Collection, are housed in the Southern Appalachian Archives at Mars Hill University, with copies distributed to several other universities in the South.

“Over the years we began losing a lot of the old-timers that I had learned from and played with, and, sadly, many of their tunes went with them,” says Howell. “It seemed appropriate for me to make some sort of repository of the many fiddle tunes that I had picked up from these folks, and also from the vast catalogue of tunes I had learned over time.”

Howell has won many awards as a musician, including first place in fiddle at Fiddlers Grove, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the North Carolina Mountain State Fair and other festivals. He won first place in banjo at the Georgia Mountain Fair. He appears on many recordings and has produced several of his own, including the best- selling Hills & Heroes.

“I guess I started playing the fiddle around age 13 or 14,” says Howell. “I was already playing guitar by that time, and banjo too, so the fiddle just came natural since I don’t read music. Playing by ear was the traditional way of passing music down through families here in the mountains.”

In addition to Howell, the concert program includes many other legendary and up-and-coming musicians. NC Heritage Award winner Arvil Freeman will play alongside his protégés Bryan and Emma McDowell and The Midnight Plowboys. Don and Marty Lewis, known as The Sons of Ralph, will return to keep the legacy of their father Ralph Lewis alive, and ten-time Grammy Award winner Bobby Hicks will also make an appearance. The Junior Appalachian Musicians of the Madison County Arts Council and young show-stopping fiddlers Lillian Chase and Rhiannon Ramsey will perform as well.

“I enjoy this concert because of the fellowship with other musicians,” says Hunter. “There is no competition. The focus is not on bands or singers but on celebrating the master fiddlers from Madison County, both young and old.”

Broyhill Chapel is located at 338 Cascade Street, in Mars Hill. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day-of-show. Proceeds from the concert benefit the Madison County Arts Council. To learn more, visit MadisonCountyArts.com or call 828.649.1301.

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