Poor Ron Stewart… he just doesn’t have enough to do.
In addition to recording and touring with The Boxcars, he is among the most in-demand producers and session players in bluegrass, on both banjo and fiddle. On off days, he works on fiddles with his dad, buying older instruments and revoicing them for resale. Now, the two Stewarts have embarked on a new venture, building new fiddles under the name F&R Stewart Violins.
These will be high end instruments, targeted at the professional market, offered on a limited basis. They are taking orders now, first come, first served.
We asked Ron to explain a bit about how he and his father, Frank, got involved in luthiery, and he responded with this lovely remembrance of growing up around the music, and the powerful impact his dad has had on his life – and his music.
“In 1968, the same year I was born, my dad, Frank Stewart, had taken a fiddle to a repair shop in Louisville, KY to get a neck put back in it that had pulled. When he talked with the repairman, he decided that he could repair it himself, and would give it a try. The neck that he re-glued is still in the fiddle today, and that started a repair business that is still going strong, and the start of one of the finest and most successful violin luthiers in the US.
The first major repair came when I was 3 years old. My dad put my old French violin in my hands, and as I was playing it, it slipped and fell to the floor. It popped the back nearly all of the way off, and the top came loose in a spot as well. He didn’t get upset (I thought the world was about to turn on it’s axis!), as he knew I wasn’t playing around when it happened, it just slipped out of my arms. It is a full size violin, and I was three, so you can imagine the awkwardness of holding it.
Anyway, it devastated me completely, because I didn’t think he would let me play it again. But, a few weeks later, he brought me into the living room, put the repaired violin back in my hands, and said, ‘Try not to drop it again.’ Had he not done that, who knows where I might be, or how that could have affected my musical life.
(On a side note, after 42 years, I had an accident with that very violin this past September, and I ended up doing the repair this time. Kind of ironic that it got dropped twice by me! My case lid came open and it fell to the floor this time, but my first call when I got back in my vehicle was to dad. It didn’t do much damage at all, just a hairline crack that went from the bass F-Hole back a couple of inches, but considering what I value it at – priceless – and what it is appraised for, it made me a little queasy.)
Over the next three decades, Frank repaired countless old violins as his reputation grew from local and regional fiddlers who had work done on their instruments, and I was in the shop with him every minute I could be.
In the late ‘70s, he acquired a Jacob Stainer carved 7/8 bass, and totally restored it, and he played it for nearly 15 years on the road with our family band. I still have that bass, it is amazing, and no, it’s not for sale!
In the 1990s, after helping in the shop since I was a kid, we started talking about re-voicing one of my fiddles. I always had great instruments, but never had that perfect one for bluegrass – deep, growly, double stop heaven tone! Of course he was a little skeptical, but after much persuasion from me, he agreed we would give it a go. That started a business that thrives to this day, and some of the best bluegrass violins, period, are ones that have been re-voiced in our shop. We have sold probably close to 125 of those, and re-voiced at least that many for others. My old French violin went through a re-voice and total restoration in 2006, and some great bluegrass players now play the ones we’ve done. The bass bar tone wood is wood he has had for near 40 years from an old house, and that coupled with a knowledge of wood that is unsurpassed, he can make them do what he and I want. (I’m a hard customer to please on tone!)
If we back up to the early 1980s, my dad had talked of building a violin and ordered some materials at that time. But the repair business, along with working anywhere from 40 to 80 hours a week in construction nine months of the year, and playing music in our family band, left little time for him to build.
So, after retiring from construction in 1995, he has continued to re-voice, repair, and now build violins. Again, after some persuasion, we started building together. This violin is the first offered for public sale and I can say it is absolutely beautiful and is a monster instrument in every way. Each one will be varnished a little differently, in it’s own way, but ALL will have that voice, that much you can be assured! If I won’t play it every day, it won’t leave our shop.
We worked, and will be working together on each of these violins, and it is something I really enjoy doing with him. I do a lot of guitar re-voicing, repair and restoration, work with Warren Yates on our line of banjos, re-voice a few old Gibson mandolins, along with the re-voicing of fiddles, I learned all I know about repairing and building from him, and I am so lucky to have had that gift. He is the ONLY person to work on my instruments, other than myself now, and his track record speaks for itself.
The two piece back violins are priced at $6,800.00 with a very nice case, and a one piece back violin at $7,200.00. Each will have a letter of authenticity and description with the violin, along with a recording of each from me, and each label will be hand written inside the instrument. We are taking orders, as these will be a very limited production item, and we will continue our re-voicing and repair business as well. A down payment is required on each order. This particular violin will have the earliest date, except for the 2 prototypes my dad and I have, so it should be somewhat collectible in the future.
Folks can contact/order from my website: www.ronniestewart.com and just go to the contact tab which goes straight to my personal email. We will have a page dedicated to these violins in the very near future. This one will be up for sale on my fiddles page, along with our re-voiced fiddles.
I also re-voice and repair and sell Martin guitars, anything from a set-up to a major restoration. I just did a ‘60s D35 that belonged to Keith Garrett’s father, who was told it would have to be re-topped. That guitar had a lot of sentimental value to Keith and his Dad, so I looked it over, took it to the shop, and low and behold, it is up and running again, with the original top, and sounds like a cannon!
I know my dad enjoys doing things for folks and making them happy with their instruments, and that is the drive I have had my whole life as well. I want everyone to be able to have the instrument of their dreams, and it sure makes you a different player!”
If you aren’t acquainted with Ron personally, you might think that last paragraph to be pure sales come-on, but it’s plainly true. He’s one of the good guys, and surely Frank must be one too.
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About the Author (Author Profile)
John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.
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