Cookeville duo among 12 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship projects selected across the state

NASHVILLE — When the Tennessee Arts Commission Folklife Program selected 12 teams to participate in the 2022 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Cookeville fiddle makers Harold Howell and Jimmy Bilbrey had the good fortune to make the cut. Entering its sixth year, the program is designed to sustain Tennessee’s diverse folklife practices by investing in the passing of traditional art forms from master artists to the next generation.

“This Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program has developed into a key initiative for preserving traditions that are rare or endangered in Tennessee,” said Jan McNally, Tennessee Arts Commission Board Chair. “In many ways, Tennessee is defined by its cultural heritage, but we know that we cannot take these traditions for granted. This program works to ensure that these traditions are a vibrant part of our state’s future.”

Each of the 12 teams selected to participate is committed to preserving a traditional folklife art form that is deeply rooted in their cultural heritage. The artists will embark on one-on-one or small group training for an eight-month period.

“Traditional arts are essential to the story we tell about ourselves, and that we tell to visitors,” said Anne B. Pope, Executive Director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. “For many of these artists, this program is an investment in the sustainability of their family business or a way of life. Folklife practices enhance livability and the pride of place in all Tennessee communities, especially in our rural areas.”

The master artists awarded this recognition from the Tennessee Arts Commission are considered to be of exceptional skill as recognized by fellow artists, community members, and folk arts leaders. Five of this year’s master and apprentice teams from the Appalachian region, including the Cookeville duo, are funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.

See related story: Love of fiddle making leads to unique partnership

As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Howell will teach his apprentice, Bilbrey, the methods, tools, materials and procedures involved in fiddle making. 

“Here in the Upper Cumberland, there is a dearth of luthiers, and I would like to actively change that by passing on the knowledge I’ve acquired over my lifetime to those that are passionate about learning how to make fiddles, such as Jimmy Bilbrey,” said Howell.

The awarded apprentices are chosen by the master artist. Each apprentice demonstrated outstanding aptitude and potential in the chosen traditional art form. Folklife practices include traditional music, crafts, dance, foodways and occupational skills. Traditional art forms are learned and passed down informally by imitation, word of mouth, observation or performance in cultural communities that share family, ethnic, tribal, regional, occupational or religious identity.

“Our state is rich with traditional art forms, some that have been here for decades or centuries, and others that are newer. However, many traditions have only a handful of living practitioners,” said Dr. Bradley Hanson, Tennessee Arts Commission Director of Folklife. “Since 2016, the Commission has funded over 50 folklife apprenticeship projects. Taken as a whole, these artists comprise an inspiring panorama of Tennessee culture.” 

Masters and apprentices will also share their work together in public and online performances and demonstrations. All projects are documented by the Tennessee Arts Commission Folklife Program to further archive and preserve the state’s current folklife practices.

A panel of traditional arts and folklife specialists was convened to review a deep and highly competitive applicant pool. The twelve teams are:

Harold Howell, master and Jimmy Bilbrey, apprenticeFiddle Making. Cookeville, TN.*

Marcellus Barnes, master and Quanterious Caruthers, apprenticeAfrican American Gospel Singing. Chattanooga and Ooltewah, TN.*

Sarah Boyd, master and Elizabeth Fulbright, apprenticeDoll Repair and Restoration. Maryville, TN.*

Paul Brewster, master and Wyatt Ellis, apprenticeBluegrass Singing. Gallatin and Maryville, TN.

Yvonne Harbin, master and D. Michael Campbell, apprenticeTraditional Herbalism. McMinnville and Altamont, TN.*

Jack Martin, master and Kelly Wright, apprenticeBroommaking. Selmer and Pinson, TN.

Carmen McCord, master and Ian Kirkpatrick, apprenticeUnaccompanied Ballad Singing. Bon Aqua and New Tazewell, TN.

Aundra McCoy, master and Andree Glenn, apprenticeMixed Media Quilting. Memphis, TN.

Arkan Muhammed, master and Ayan Muhammed, apprenticeTraditional Kurdish Music. Murfreesboro, TN.

Richard Turner, master and Jeffery Boyland, apprenticeCanning and Food Preservation. Stanton, TN.

Jeanette Underwood, master and Charlotte Underwood, apprenticeAppalachian Agricultural Folkways. LaFollette, TN.*

Felipe Vasquez, master and Michael Galvin, apprenticeTraditional Dance of Michoacán, “La Danza de los Viejitos” (Dance of the Old Men). White Pine and Morristown, TN.

*These teams are funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.

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