Love of fiddle making leads to unique partnership

Harold Howell works on one of the fiddles in his workshop in Cookeville. (Photo: Bradley Hanson)

COOKEVILLE – The love of music and instruments combined with a desire to preserve the craft of fiddle making led two Cookeville natives, Harold Howell and Jimmy Bilbrey, to partner and participate in the 2022 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program as Howell teaches Bilbrey the traditional method of being a luthier. 

Howell is a furniture, cabinet, and instrument maker with decades of experience in woodcraft. 

“I started out working in a small shop, making carvings, Christmas ornaments, etc.,” Howard describes. “Making cabinets and furniture was how I made my living. Then, after retiring, I got interested in making banjos and violins.”

In particular, Howard’s interest in instrument making was sparked through his friendship with Charles “Jean” Horner, of Westel, Tenn. Horner, a Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award recipient, is perhaps Tennessee’s finest living luthier.

“I learned a lot from Charles Horner. In this area, he is really the only accomplished luthier. He is 87 now and is dealing with some health issues,” said Howell. “A trade like making violins and luthier work is only one generation from extinction, and it is important that younger people get involved in and learn how to carry on the tradition of being a luthier. I feel like I have a lot to share and pass down to those interested.

“Here in the Upper Cumberland, traditional music is the music of the people,” Howard explained. “There’s always a festival, pie supper, family reunion being held and music is very important to those functions. I show my fiddles to anyone who wants to look at, play or buy one.”

See related story: Cookeville duo among 12 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship projects selected across the state 

As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Howard will teach 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.

Bilbrey, an expert musician from a deeply-rooted bluegrass family, is eager to incorporate instrument making into his artistic life. 

“I am passionate about making fiddles,” Bilbrey said. “I have played fiddle since the age of 13 and have always been intrigued by the construction of the instrument and have wanted to know what makes them “tick.” I was raised on bluegrass and country music. My dad, Ron Bilbrey, is a master banjo player. We always had instruments around the house for my brother and I to play. But no one in my family makes them. Harold recently turned 80 years young, so I feel there is an urgency to learn all I can from him while he can impart his knowledge to people like me who want to carry on the tradition.

“Harold is an absolute master woodworker and fiddle maker,” Bilbrey continued. “His knowledge of the craft of making fiddles mixed with his knowledge of the properties of wood, and the ability to make his own tools to expedite the process is so rare. He only lives about six minutes from my house and that accessibility is a blessing. My goal is to learn to make violins from start to finish, doing all the things that make them pleasing to the ear and the eye.”

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