betty's father and family

Aunt Lena Dotson, Earl Dotson (the author's father), and Uncle Frank Dotson on Jim's Fork, near Grundy, Virginia,
c. 1930
Photo: Courtesy of
B.L. Dotson-Lewis

I can’t remember a life without bluegrass music. It came with living in the Appalachian Mountains — part of our roots, the way I understand it — but I was never confronted head on with this acoustic music until my father took it up.

My family moved west while I was still in high school, and it didn't seem a big deal that I would stay behind with my sister and finish school in West Virginia. I was around 15. Like most teenagers I was heavy into listening to popular rock ‘n' roll.

When my father moved to the west coast he refused to give up his Appalachian citizenship. His roots were in Jim's Fork, Buchanan County, Virginia, and, later, Nicholas County, West Virginia. I have heard my father say that he wasn't looking for a Western culture, he loved Appalachia. What the West could provide for him were taller mountains, bigger game and a closer relationship with nature. Born and raised in Southwest Virginia, my father's love for everything Appalachian, including mountain music — especially bluegrass — never left his veins.

The way I see it, this romantic attachment to our unique culture makes my father totally responsible for my near brush with bluegrass.

You see, I was visiting my parents the summer between my senior year in high school and my going off to Berea College. There, I would study fine arts and foreign languages; my entertainment would be symphonic concerts on the greens of a renowned institution of higher learning. I was seeking a liberal arts college degree. My father’s formal education went up to the 8th grade but he had common sense and a flair for writing.

Early on that summer, shortly after I'd arrived at my Western home, my father traded one of his hunting dogs for an old fiddle. He decided to take up playing bluegrass. The fiddle was his instrument of choice. (No, he didn't read music.)

The fiddle came in an old, banged up black case. The latch was broken so a piece of hay-baling twine was wound around and knotted to keep it closed. My father kept the fiddle underneath his bed, where he kept most of his valuables including a Smith and Wesson pistol, a shoebox containing the deed to the property, a small wooden box containing stories and poems he had written, and my mom's Dad's Bible carefully wrapped in a piece of newspaper and stuck down in an old pillowcase.

Every night after supper that summer, my father pulled out that old black case, opened it and gingerly lifted out the bow and the fiddle, as if it were a Stradivarius. He would examine the bow from one end to the other. I believe he was concerned that one of the neighborhood children might have visited the fiddle case in his absence during the day, but my mother diligently guarded those valuables.

Following the examination, my father would rosin the bow, letting a flourlike substance fill the air and fall to the bare floor. Then he would position himself in a wooden, straight back chair. He would bend the upper half of his long, lean body (being over 6'4″) at a slight forward angle, leading with his chin. He would tuck the fiddle under his chin. He would prop one foot against the wall as if he needed to brace himself for some type of a jolt. He would begin a slow, raw, saw, back and forth across the strings. The fiddle would squeak, scratch, ring and cry.

fiddler and angel

“Falling in Love with the Fiddle”
Painting by Sean Boyce

On weekends, especially on Saturday nights after visiting the local Blue Moon Tavern, my father would come in a little tipsy and in a higher than ordinary upbeat mood. As soon as he hit the door he would take off the plaid woolen coat he wore summer and winter, hang it on a wooden peg behind the stove. Leaving his hat on his head, he would saunter into the bedroom and pull out his fiddle and bow. He would begin playing. Unknown and never-before-heard tunes made up of screeches and whines filled the night air. On rare occasions a recognizable note would fly out, surprising him as well those of us who were trying to sleep. He would play nearly all night long with little regard for the rest of the family. This lasted throughout the summer.

My father never gave up until he mastered a few of the old mountain fiddle tunes he grew up with and loved so much. By the end of my summer vacation, my father’s versions of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Arkansas Traveler” and “Sally Goodin” were locked in my memory.

I suppose my father inspired my five brothers, who lived either at home or close by, because they also took up playing bluegrass, as did several cousins. They learned like my father did, by playing. They actually formed a family bluegrass band and played local gigs and for family reunions. My father, when present, was always the star of the show, playing his fiddle or singing songs like “The Picture of Life's Other Side,” “Wildwood Flower” and “Mother’s Not Dead, She is Just Sleeping.”

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