UPPER CUMBERLAND – Beloved by music lovers in Upper Cumberland and respected far beyond its borders are Frazier Moss, the Cluster Pluckers and the Ballinger Family Band, whose careers are as intertwined as the music and tradition of the bluegrass they play.
Moss, who died in 1998 at age 88, received his first fiddle – just a toy – for selling Ferry’s garden seeds when he was 8 years old. By age 12 he was playing a real fiddle and had won his first competition, receiving a $5 gold piece as the prize. In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s he played dances, entered contests and made regular Saturday morning appearances on WHUB radio with his band, the Frazer Moss Band.
For nearly eight decades he played the fiddle, never making a fulltime living as a musician. Jackson County born but a longtime resident of Cookeville, he supported his seven children by working as a carpenter and augmenting his income from musical gigs and with meager prize money from winning competitions. Moss went to Detroit in the ’40s and played music to support his family when he could not earn enough money at home.
His talent garnered his first place awards at the National Fiddling Championship, the Southeast Fiddling Championship and the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers’ Association championship. He won the Smithville Fiddlers’ Jamboree so many times he was banned from competing there.
“Everyone knew who he was,” said Kris Ballinger, who played with Moss for eight years as a member of the Frazier Moss String Band. “Roy Acuff would get him to go into the dressing room at the Grand Ole Opry and play.”
Moss didn’t just entertain stars in the dressing room. He played on the Opry stage and at many other prominent venues.
The Frazier Moss String Band, which included Ballinger and her husband, Dale, both of Cookeville, their friend Margaret Bailey and other musicians, began in 1980. One among many notable appearances together was at the Folklife Festival Exhibition during the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville Ballinger said that when Moss played at the Smithsonian’s 20th Festival of American Folklife, she and her husband were there.
“We just tagged along with Frazier to Washington, D.C.,” she said. “He had other musicians playing with him there, including Jack Sallee from Cookeville.”
In the late 1980s, Moss suffered a heart attack and was forced to wear a pacemaker.
“He was worried that the pacemaker would interfere with his fiddle playing, so they put it on the opposite side,” Ballinger said.
She pointed out that although he was born blind in one eye and deaf on that same side because he did not have an ear, Moss was not defeated by physical challenges.
“Frazier played right up to the last few weeks before he died,” said Ballinger, who maintained a lifelong friendship with Moss. “He never lost his desire to jam, even at the end of his life. He absolutely loved getting together with other musicians and playing.”
Meanwhile, the Ballingers and Bailey developed their musical career. In 1984, Kris and Dale performed with fiddler Junior Daughtery at Carnegie Hall as part of a special American Folk Roots Concert Series.
Kris Ballinger and Bailey sang on two of Vassar Clements’ Hillbilly Jazz Band’s albums, toured the country and performed on The Nashville Network television shows “Nashville Now” and “New Country.”
By 1988, the Cluster Pluckers had been formed and included Bailey, the Ballingers, Mark Howard, Brent Truitt, Blaine Sprouse and Richard Bailey. All experienced musicians, the Cluster Pluckers earned international exposure though appearances on several TNN shows, on “The Statler Brothers Easter Special,” “Rider’s Radio Theater” National Public Radio show with Riders in the Sky and “Reno’s Old Time Music Festival Television” show on the Americana Television Network.
Highlights have included playing on the PBS show “Austin City Limits” with Chet Atkins, performing for the PBS show “Songs of the Civil War” with Hoyt Axton, produced by Ken Burns and entertaining at an inauguration festivity for President Bill Clinton in Washington, at a fundraiser for Clinton in Nashville and at Tipper Gore’s birthday bash.
The Cluster Pluckers have pleased audiences across the country at bluegrass and folk festivals, city festivals, concerts in the parks, conventions, clubs and many other special occasions. They even toured Europe, playing in Holland and Norway, sold out a 10-day, eight-city tour of Japan and recorded five albums.
“We never really disbanded,” Ballinger said of the Cluster Pluckers. “We’ve continued to play, but we started slowing down around 2005 and only play a few gigs a year.”
The Ballingers, who now perform with their son, Ethan, and other musicians as the Ballinger Family Band, speak with pride about the musical accomplishments of their son who grew up accompanying his parents to performances and sessions.
“We bought Ethan a one-sixteenth size fiddle, and by the time he was 2 years old he had played with Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, John Hartford, Chet Atkins and others,” Kris Ballenger said.
Ethan Ballinger, who is now a professional musician, producer, composer, session player and sideman for nationally touring artists, plays acoustic and electric guitars, keyboard, drums, bouzouki, mandolin, bass and fiddle. When Ethan was 15 years old, his parents bought him his first recording machine, which he immediately put to use recording his own instrumental music. Garnering the attention of local television producers, Ethan went on to write, record and produce musical compositions for several nationally aired PBS programs and videos, including the Emmy Award winning “Crank: Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”
In 2008, Ethan released his first solo album, “Wish Upon A Falling Star,” which featured 16 original acoustic instrumental songs. He released his first vocal album, “Don’t Lose It,” in 2012, performing every instrument on the album except drums.
Ethan continues to tour and record with other artists, including Missy Raines and the New Hip, Megan McCormick, Alison Brown, Jill Andrews, Michaela Wallace, The Danberrys, The Blow Jays, Hot Club Time Machine, The Gypsy Cowboys and, of course, the Ballinger Family Band.
Ethan played with the Ballinger Family Band on a 2012 tour of Scotland where his parents had played on three previous tours. A year earlier, he joined his parents for a tour of Japan only two months after the earthquake and tsunami. Kris and Dale Ballinger had played there before and felt compelled to make the trip, especially wanting to play for the people in Sendai, who were left devastated by the disaster. “After we played, a young girl came up and hugged me and said ‘this is the first time I have felt happy since the tsunami hit,’” Kris recalled.
To further confirm their intuition that the trip was on target, the band performed at seven places, one of which was on the eighth floor of a downtown Tokyo building. The club’s name? Rocky Top.