The old barn leans in about equal proportion to the fences, the gates, the sheds, the old house, and even the people who live here, Charlie and Noah Kinney, and Noah’s wife, Hazel. Past the barn and the garden, a tiny shed crowded with Noah’s wood carvings: an ensemble of life-sized female musicians with guitar, mandolin, dobro, and fiddle; a miniature old-time threshing machine; a fire engine; a horse-and-buggy; and a mule pulling a plow. The front porch of Noah’s and Hazel’s house is piled with rocks and lumps of coal that Hazel, not to be outdone, has painted with faces, flowers, and forests. Charlie’s shanty across the creek is littered with strips of hickory bark that he uses to make garden baskets. The old house where the brothers were born is inhabited now by Charlie’s puppets, bizarre creations assembled from rags, aluminum foil, and bits of junk that hang from the end of a tobacco stick and dance while Charlie fiddles. The stripping room and barn display Charlie’s paintings: crayon, house paint, and acrylic on window shades and poster board. The gate beside the barn keeps nothing in and nothing out. As visitors arrive and enter the yard, the last one through is left to figure out how to stand it back up and get it to stay. No farming has gone on here for a long time. To pass through that gate is to enter another world.
For years now neighbors and visitors have entered this world, struggled comically to replace the impossible gate, and settled themselves in the barn on apple crates and old car seats for a Saturday night round of music. Nearly everyone here is a “musicianer” of sorts or a dancer, but the fiddle is the instrument of choice, and the pickers, dancers, and listeners align themselves around the circle of fiddlers like filings pointing to the pole of a magnet. “This is fiddle country,” Brooks Mineer explains. Indeed, few places in North America at that time could have provided such a collection of genuine old-time fiddlers from the same neighborhood as the head of Salt Lick in Lewis County, Kentucky.
Unlike a jam session today where fiddlers play familiar tunes all together in a group, in the Kinneys’ barn one fiddle is passed around the circle and each fiddler plays individually. A guitar and sometimes a banjo, are likewise traded around as the fiddle is passed, giving everyone the opportunity to second as well as lead. The order of performing is set by a custom long established among themselves—no one better to lead off than Brooks Mineer, who always claims he has to play first because he’s not even supposed to be here and has to leave early or his wife will kill him. When he plays his “Gray Eagle,” the fiddle held low on his left arm the old-fashioned way, his body swaying in counter-rhythm to the rolling of his bow, his eyes gleam and sparkle, and he seems transported to another realm beyond this brief instant of time in the old barn.
“What? Play the ‘Gray Eagle’ AGIN?” he whines in disbelief. Gus didn’t have the tape recorder on, so Brooks will oblige, but with a condition: he will play it again if someone will dance. The plywood board is dragged out into the driveway and another instrument is added to the ensemble, its partner in evolution, the ancient rhythm of the feet. Now he plays for a long time and puts the young lady through a real workout until finally, when one or both of them has had enough, they end with a flourish, bow strokes and feet together! Brooks protests he has already stayed too late: “I’m a dead man when I get home.” He passes the fiddle to his brother-in-law, Bob Prater, the premier dance fiddler in Lewis County, and so the music continues as different ones, from old men in overalls to adolescent girls in designer jeans, try out their steps on the plywood board.
These fiddlers are close observers and students of each other’s playing. Noah leans over to me and allows, “Bob’s got a keen cut with the bow, don’t he?” In fact, there is some similarity in the playing of all these fiddlers, having grown up and learned from a previous generation in the same place, an exaggerated emphasis on the bowing, artful, graceful, and flamboyant, articulating difficult and complex phrases that most other fiddlers would not attempt. As we were learning, it was something that had to be seen as well as heard. The way they played could not be learned from tapes or records.
And so it goes as the fiddle is passed around the circle. After Bob Prater, Clarence Rigdon takes the fiddle and saws his way through beautiful and lively old tunes learned from his father, who learned them from men who came down the Ohio on the riverboats. Then Roger Cooper plays, a generation younger than the others, whose playing reflects the years he spent learning from the late Buddy Thomas, the greatest of all the Lewis Co. fiddlers. After Roger, Gus and I take our turns, feeling honored to get to play in such a company.
The evening wears on and now the fiddle is passed to Charlie, who being the oldest, always plays last. Noah seconds him on the guitar as only a brother can with runs that weave in and out of the tune like the shuttle through the shed of a loom. Charlie remarks that he can “catch a feller’s bow-hand” if he can study it long enough, and I am relieved to know the reason for his unnerving stare while I was playing one of his tunes. Now he takes the fiddle and imitates first Gus’s, and then my style of bowing. Gus and I didn't play at all alike, but Charlie had captured each of us perfectly. Over the years he had picked up tunes from us just as we had from him, and now here he was giving us his rendition of our renditions of his tune!
It is a vision I will never forget: old Charlie with his legs crossed, sitting on a crate, the old felt hat partly hiding that inscrutable gaze, his bow arm hanging loosely at his side and his hand drawing curves in the air. As I watch and listen, my attention is drawn to Charlie’s paintings tacked up on the inside of the old barn: hounds trailing a fox into a mountain sunset while a little girl stands peacefully fishing in a tiny pond; a man hauling dogs in a horse-drawn sled, the dogs with dog-smiles sitting up on their hind legs enjoying the ride; and the one that still speaks to me across the years: a hawk’s eye view of this valley from the top of the mountain, with a life size hawk on a limb in the foreground, and below in the distance this same barn caught in this same instant: brush-strokes and bow-strokes, weaving the signature patterns of our lives.