Story Jason Browne | Photograph Luisa Porter
Let’s build the perfect bluegrass fiddler. We’ll make him a good-natured country boy with a thick red beard in the front and a thick red ponytail in the back. We’ll say both his grandfathers were coal miners. And that he lives in a mobile home … on a gravel road … with a gang of loose chickens running around the yard. Too farfetched?
It’s funny how many stereotypes Leslie Smith, Lowndes County’s country/bluegrass savant, fits. But the man is no joke with a fiddle and a bow.
And he knows it. Smith, 44, possesses a calm confidence. He’s friendly almost to a fault; you’d never mistake it for cockiness, but he knows what he’s accomplished and he doesn’t hold back when he describes the hurdles he’s cleared.
“You’ll never play the fiddle.”
Born to a minister in a family of musicians, Smith was baptized in a river of music, patience and discipline. He began playing the guitar when he was seven years old and soon added the Dobro, banjo and mandolin to his repertoire.
When he was 14, Smith frequented a music store in Columbus where the owner had a cheap violin he would let Smith fiddle with.
(Quick side note: There’s no difference between a fiddle and a violin. Just the style of play. The term “fiddle” may be derived from a foreign word, but Smith likes to think it comes from self-taught musicians learning to play by “fiddling,” or playing around, with a violin.)
So Smith asked the owner of the store, who could only play three or four tunes on the fiddle, to teach him to play. It started out as an every-now-and-then hobby; then someone had to go and squeeze the lemons.
“An uncle of mine said ‘You can play the guitar and mandolin, but you’ll never play the fiddle. You can’t play all that,’” Smith recalls.
Having taught himself to play most of his other instruments, Smith was determined. He knew full well the fiddle was a different beast.
“No matter how good a guitar player you are, when you pick up a fiddle, you don’t know nothin’,” he said. “It’s as much difference as driving a truck and getting in a 747 jet. They both get you there, but it’s totally different.”
With no frets dividing the neck, fiddle players have to move their fingers instinctively to create subtle variations. In fact, the placement of a finger need not even change to change the pitch of a note at times. Simply leaning the finger at a different angle will bend the note.
It’s a lot of trial and error. Ten years worth, to be exact, before Smith considered himself a professional. Now his fingers dance effortlessly along the six-inch neck of his violin.
A HIGH, LONESOME SOUND
Smith has never actually smashed a fiddle, but he’s been tempted plenty of times.
The instrument tried his patience, and his family’s, often as he learned to play the hard way. But his father gave him sound advice.
“When I first started, I practiced enough to drive my mama crazy. At least an hour a day. Or I might go a day or two and not play,” he said. “The fiddle is challenging. You’ll work a while to get something just right with the bow and you can’t get it and it will just about drive you crazy.
“My daddy taught me, when you get disgusted, just quit and come back. No matter what it is, because you’ll have time to think about it instead of getting mad.”
Smith heeded his father and took plenty of breaks. Then he’d get the technique right and move on to the next impossible sound.
The man from the music store taught Smith all he knew, but soon Smith grew past him and was back to learning on his own. Playing by ear. Trying to make those beautiful sounds come out of that tiny instrument.
“The fiddle has got a high, lonesome sound and old country bands had the fiddles in there because they made up a harmony. And it’s such a challenge; it was something everybody couldn’t do or wouldn’t do,” said Smith. “You see a whole lot of guitar pickers. And I play guitar as good as I do a fiddle, and been playing a whole lot longer. What kept me coming back to the fiddle, I just loved the way it sounds and I loved how it made people feel to see me playing one live.
“A lot of people see me play and tell me they’ve never seen a live fiddle player. They’ve just seen them on TV. And a lot of them would just be amazed that much sound can come out of that little-bitty instrument.”
By trade, Smith is a self-employed carpenter and painter. And yes, he’s very careful with his hands when he’s working.
He also gives private lessons on how to play the fiddle. One woman he worked with was 70 years old and only wanted to learn to play a handful of songs which held sentimental value to her, and Smith helped her realize that dream.
“There’s no such thing as ‘can’t.’ I forgot how to use that word years ago. It’s whether you want to or not and how much time you’re willing to put into something,” said Smith. “When someone learns the fiddle, they really feel like they’ve achieved something because it’s harder than all other instruments put together to get the sound right.”