Fred McBride – North Carolina Fiddle and Banjo – FRC722
by Lucas Pasley
Article courtesy of the Old Time Herald, Volume 13, Number 10.
I remember the first time I saw Fred play down at a little jam around Wilkesboro. I was young and in search of a real old time sound, and when I heard Fred I almost fell on the floor. I drove straight up to Alleghany County and told my grandmother I’d found my hero fiddler. She smiled and said, well, what’s his name?” “Fred McBride.” I said reverently. “Fred McBride!” She yelled back as she sat up in her recliner. “Good Lord,” she said, “You’ve known him your whole life – you’ve seen him at every family reunion you’ve ever been to!”
When I went down to visit Fred a few days later, we all had the first of many good laughs over the story. At the family reunion, Fred was just part of the blur of old men standing together talking about the stuff old men talk about while I was going back and forth from the playground to the food table at the Lion’s Club in Sparta. Suddenly, Fred became a whole lot more. For starters, he was the nephew of Guy Brooks, the fiddler for the Red Fox Chasers and my grandmother’s uncle. Second, he was Faye Wagoner’s 1st cousin (and my grandmother’s). Faye was a wonderful guitar player who spent her Saturday nights making music with the Caudill family in Alleghany County. Finally, he was a living fiddler with one foot in a world of old time fiddling the world will never hear again.
From then on, I spent as much time with Fred as I reasonably could while I was doing some 20’s rambling and starting a family. Many a Saturday or Sunday, I’d bring my growing family down to visit with him and Frances and his children and grandchildren depending on who was around. We’d eat some of Frances’s fine cooking, visit, and always get in a few tunes.
My wife would want you to know that Fred was a sharp dresser: he was neat, clean, and had a sense of style she didn’t always associate with me. I won’t say which side of politics he stood on, but he was sharp and had clear opinions. I remember having a politically cynical moment and saying to him, “those dang political parties are all the same anyway; they’re all crooked.” It wasn’t loud, but it was firm when he said, “No, I don’t think they’re quite the same.” It was enough to let me know I’d better give some thought to my words when I was talking politics to Fred.
Thinking back, I can picture him so clearly: legs crossed, toothpick in his mouth, quietly in control of a jam; we’d wait for him to start, we’d match his rhythm. When a friend of mine, TJ Worthington, caught him in a painting, this was the pose he captured; I don’t know if there was any other that would have summed him up.
I loved that he always welcomed everyone into play in a jam. I guess old time musicians are always fighting a battle over wanting to have a good-sounding jam and wanting to be open and friendly to everyone. Fred took a firm stance on the open and friendly side. You might have found him in the middle of an overcrowded, out of time and tune jam upon occasion, but you never saw him turn someone away; he was a gentleman. When he left the house, he looked sharp, and he treated people with respect and decency. In addition to teaching me a lot about the fiddle, Fred came to serve as a bit of a moral compass for me in the world of music. I didn’t always follow it, but I always knew where it was pointing.
Fred grew up in a family full of music. Although Uncle Guy was the only one to achieve much commercial success with the Red Fox Chasers, most of the family was making music one way or another. His mother was a Brooks, and all of her siblings made music except for one: my great-grandfather. The next generation, Fred’s first cousins, was just as full of singers and instrumentalists. Fred’s mother had married a McBride with deep roots down on Greenstreet Mountain in Wilkes County, and that’s where he moved as child. There’s a story of my great-grandfather, the only one around with a vehicle, tying a tree to the back of his car as they were heading down Greenstreet Mountain so it wouldn’t run away on them.
As Fred was learning to play, he was influenced by old time fiddler Laud Bowers (father of Gar Bowers who played banjo with Bill Monroe). Laud was an old time fiddler with a “houseful of kids” who lived on Absher Road in Wilkes County, not far from Greenstreet Mountain. Laud would “play for a dance or something, you know. If somebody around had a molasses making or a corn shucking. Course, they didn’t get paid then – there wadn’t nobody had money to pay you in first place.”
Fred and Garr were young boys, and they would play clawhammer banjo while Laud fiddled. As far as Fred could remember, Laud’s fiddle “was a pretty good old fiddle – but it didn’t have no fine tuners on it. You know, it was hard to tune, He’d spit tobacco juice on them tuning pegs and fool with that thing for half an hour. He’d finally he’d get it where he wanted it.” Fred would “watch him more than anything else. The minute I’d get home, I’d start to fool with the fiddle a little bit, try to get the bow kinda like he was doing. I never did accomplish that but he was a good fiddle player…I kinda learned as much from him as far as the bow is concerned as I did the Caudills. Yeah, he had a good lick with the bow.”
And then, at 17 years old, like a lot of mountain folks at the time, Fred left the region for more opportunity. He worked briefly at a defense plant in Darlington, MD and got acquainted with his future wife, an Ashe County native. As soon as he turned 18, he joined the Air Force. Fred and Frances’s courtship grew via letters, and when Fred left the military in 1945, they married and were ready to settle down and start a family. He worked for Aberdeen Proving Ground until he was able to retire. In those Maryland years, he made a little music with his cousin Lester Brooks, but was mostly focused on work and family.
After retiring in the mid 1970’s, Fred decided to bring his family back to North Carolina, and that’s when the fiddling of his childhood took shape. His new neighbor, banjo picker George Eller, found out he had a fiddler for a neighbor, and the two became a traveling pair. On Saturdays, they would head up the mountain to cousin Faye’s house. These sessions merit an article of their own because they housed some of the finest musicians and music of Alleghany County. Joe and Clell Caudill were on the fiddle, their sister Bertie Dickens was on the banjo, Fred’s cousin Faye Wagoner played guitar. Gary Poe and many other notable personalities and musicians came by to soak up some of the good music and food. Fred’s fiddling must have grown tremendously in those years.
On Mondays, Fred would head over to the Crouse house, and I always felt admiration from Fred for Thornton Spencer. I don’t think Fred wanted to play like Thornton, but he respected him tremendously. On more than one occasion he told me the story of Thornton’s response to a young aspiring fiddler: “Look at my left hand and Fred’s bow arm, and you’ll get it.” It was a compliment that meant a lot to Fred.
Fred’s bowing was always a mystery to me. He did as much pushing as he did pulling on the bow, and it always threw me off. Sometimes, I could make a tune sound a little like Fred, enough so that you knew it came from him, but never in a jam could I sit down and match him bow for bow. There was just too much pushing. Plus he was a three-finger fiddler, putting his middle finger where other fiddlers might put their ring finger and hardly using his pinkie at all. There’s certain slides that happen with three-finger fiddlers that you just can’t make happen any other way. Fred had a graceful light touch on the bow that he never compromised for volume or speed.
Another thing that made Fred hard to catch up with was that he never stopped learning tunes. Something would catch his ear and he’d work and work on it until he got his version down. I remember him hearing Old Horse and Buggy and Shove That Pig’s Foot a Little Further in the Fire from David Sawyer. Those tunes caught his ear and the play on the low strings especially suited his fiddling. It didn’t take him long to work out his own versions. I remember talking to Fred about Hus Caudill who Fred admired greatly and giving him a tape of Hus fiddling. Belle of Lexington caught his ear and he went to work on that. Fred always called him “that old man” even though he was probably the same age as Hus was when he was recorded. I guess we’ve all got a younger picture of ourselves in our minds. He’d always say, “That old man could pull a bow.”
Fred also played in several groups. When he came into my life, he was in a great band with Bon and Keith Jolley called the Rock Creek Band and Judy (Holloway). They formed the heart of the old time jam at the Crouse House in Sparta for awhile, and I can still see them standing in the middle, Bon singing his heart out, Keith’s homemade banjo lick keeping time, Fred’s fiddle steadily holding it together, and concentric circles of musicians gathered around. The last group he played in was with the Stone Mountain Stringband with David and Tammy Sawyer and Linda Cabe. Their CD Old as the Hills was Fred’s last commercial recording.
It’s hard to know what to do with cancer, and in the end the cancer and radiation got him together. As Fred was dying, my wife and I had three kids under 5 years old. It was a crazy time and I was worried about Fred slipping away on me. When he started to get sick, we took a day-drive up to his family home place on Greenstreet Mountain. It had become a golf course, but it was off-season and when I realized Fred was too sick to walk far and the chimney was too far to see much, I just turned the car onto the fairway, and we rode on down. It was his grandfather’s chimney, where his father had been raised, and where Fred had spent much of his youth. It seemed to mean a bit to him to put his feet at the end of his life where they’d trod in their younger days.
I went to see him once when the radiation had set in. It was a hard visit. The next time was when we got the call that he was at the end. I took the fiddle and went down to the hospital in Wilkesboro. I played Sally Ann for him one last time- it seemed like a good one to go out on, a tune he would have played with everyone he loved and that surely would have called to mind many happy memories. At his funeral, I asked Frances if I could play a tune. She was bit hesitant; her deep religious convictions weren’t quite sure about the mixing of the sacred and the fiddle, but in the end, she decided fiddling had been such a part of Fred’s life that it would be alright. I played Going Across the Mountain, a melancholy tune that I only ever heard Fred play. I hoped to commemorate his journey.
Fred’s passing marked the passing of so many things. A kind of sound that comes out of fiddle, a kind of quiet man that doesn’t say more than he should. We had supper with Frances over Thanksgiving. I’ve gotten used to Fred not being there, but I miss him all the same. His daughter Lisa asked me to take his fiddle out to check on it, but it was groggy from not being played. I laid it back in the case, thinking on the many tunes it had brought in the world.