He was a multi-musician, composer and virtuoso fiddler born in Kinard, South Carolina, and growing up in Kissimee, Florida.
He performed his first song “There’s An Old Spinning Wheel in the Parlor” after he had taught himself to play at just seven years of age and by the time he was 14 had started out on his career in music by working with Bill Monroe and becoming a member of the Blue Grass Boys with whom he would perform for the next seven years. In 1957 he joined up with Jim & Jesse McReynolds and after staying with them until 1961 he changed his direction for a while.
Although fiddling was his forte he also tried his hand many different jobs including at plumbing the Kennedy Space Center, selling insurance, owning a potato chip franchise, running a convenience store in Huntsville, being a switchman for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and working at a paper mill.
1967 arrived and he went back into his music and became a much sought after studio musician in Nashville, often being heard on the tenor banjo. After having toured with Faron Young and having recorded Aero-Plain as a member the Dobrolic Plectoral Society with John Hartford, which was termed as “newgrass”, he teamed up with Earl Scruggs and his Earl Scruggs Revue. Still in the 1970s he recorded “Walking in the Park With Eloise” and other tracks with Sir Paul McCartney, Chet Atkins , Floyd Cramer and others when Sir Paul put The Country Hams together during a visit to Nashville.
Throughout 50 year period he performed with literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of artists that included Sir Paul McCartney, Jerry Douglas, Linda Ronstadt, Jerrry Garcia, Earl Scruggs, Woody Herman, Elvin Bishop, Maria Muldaur, The Allman Brothers, Norton Buffalo, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jimmy Buffett , The Monkees, The Grateful Dead to name but a very few.
His albums which number over 2,000, with 27 of his own, include his Grass Routes, Hillbilly Jazz, The Bottom Line Encore Collection, Once in a While, Together at Last with Stephane Grappelli and Man Must Carry On, Vol.1 by Jerry Jeff Walker, Livin’ With the Blues with guest artists. He also features on Old and in the Way with Jerry Garcia and others, Bluegrass 1950-1958 by Bill Monroe, Heroes by Mark O’Connor, Will the Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean by Jimmy Buffett , Let it Flow by Elvin Bishop, Definitive Collection by J.J. Cale, Wake of the Flood and Beyond Description by the Grateful Dead, No Big Surprise: Anthology by Steve Goodman , Full Moon by Kris Kristofferson & Rita Coolidge , Complete Greatest Hits by Gordon Lightfoot.
Over his career he received a minimum of five Grammy Award nominations and won “Best Country Instrumental Performance” in 2005 for his “Earl’s Breakdown” with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
As a composer who played seven instruments; mandolin, viola, bass, cello, guitar, tenor banjo and the violin; he wrote very many instrumental works. Making an entrance into the movie world he was seen in the 1975 film Nashville and the 1976 Welcome to L.A.
He was struck down with cancer in the mid-2000s and on 4th February 2005 he gave his last performance at Jamestown, New York. He died in Nashville in August that same year when he was 77 years old leaving us with a legacy of great fiddling where he never learnt to read music and just said “I play what I hear”.
Here he is performing “Orange Blossom Special” with the Del McCoury Band and a host of all-star fiddlers….