Arthur Conner, celebrated violin maker in southwestern Virginia, died yesterday at his home in Copper Hill, VA. He was 95 years of age.
He was something of a folk hero in his part of the state, renowned for his beautiful fiddles which were often adorned by ornate carvings atop the scrolls. During his life, Arthur suggested that he had made about 100 instruments, and they are cherished by the musicians and collectors who have them, which includes a number of well-known fiddlers. Ricky Skaggs is perhaps the most visible among Conner artists, a list which also includes Gene Elders and Billy Hurt.
Another loyal Conner endorsee is Mike Mitchell, who has been a close friend and business associate of Arthur’s for more than two decades. When we asked him to share some thoughts on the passing of his dear friend, he sent along this lovely remembrance. In addition to his own career as a singer, songwriter, and fiddler, Mike also operates the Floyd Music School.
Arthur was born in August of 1924. The one room doctor’s office, where he came into the world, still stands at the top of Shawsville Pike, near the old Clyne Angle Store in Copper Hill, Virginia. At that time, moonshine liquor was given to birthing mothers, as an antiseptic and painkiller.
A child of the depression, his was a hardscrabble existence. Food was grown, hunted, and gathered. Tools as well as toys were hand carved out of the local hardwoods. Entertainment was handmade as well, with oldtime fiddle and banjo music supplying the soundtrack for family and church gatherings.
Boys of that era, in this place at least, were lucky to have a high school education. Arthur went all the way through seventh grade. At least one of his classmates, Jo Ann Maberry, is still alive and well. She lives in the town of Floyd where her family has been in the funeral business for 93 years.
Arthur was as ornery as he was stubborn. It is not known to me whether his father was also, but I do know that the two couldn’t get along in any way short of agreeing that young Arthur needed to live somewhere other than home. This sad fact troubled Arthur all of his days.
In his early teens, he went to live and work on a neighboring farm. At the age of 17 he travelled to Norfolk to find work in the shipyards. During World War II, Arthur was an Army soldier, and was proud that he “went clear around the world, and crossed the Himalayas.” In the Transportation Corps, he was spared the experience of combat.
Upon his return from the war, Arthur followed the career path of so many men from eastern Floyd County, and went to work for Norfolk and Southern Railroad in Raonoke. He Married Bonnie, and built a three bedroom brick home on Conner Road in Copper Hill. They raised six children, Mickey, John, Tommy, Katherine, Sandra, and Mary.
Arthur was an avid woodworker, gardener and sporstman all of his life. His freezer was always full of fish from Smith Mountain Lake, mostly striper. He could tell you exactly where and how to catch striped Bbass in SWVA depending on the time of year and the weather. His deer stand was in a great red oak, about a quarter mile behind his house, on the edge of a vast tract of land, known locally as Freestate. He also had a ginseng patch and had transplanted ramps from West Virginia, that still grow beside his pond. In addition to cherry and pear, Arthur also grew and harvested an old-timey apple called a Smokehouse, which is delicious for cooking.
He started building mandolins, and then fiddles in ’69 or ’70, mainly to provide for his family band, The Conner Brothers. They released two albums around 1976-77, for the Copper Hill and County labels. Mickey played mandolin, Tommy the guitar, Johnny played banjo, and their sister Katherine played bass. Gene Elders was their fiddler. Gene later moved to Texas and joined the Ace in the Hole Band for George Strait. The Conner Brothers Band was an award winning group and a big deal in Virginia bluegrass during their time.
During the 1980s, Arthur continued to hone his craft, reading everything he could find about the old Italian master violin making methods. After a few prototypes of different dimensions he settled into the Guarneri body style and stayed, almost exclusively, with that body style for the length of his career. During this time he was given permission, by the US Forestry Service, to harvest red spruce trees from the Cheat Mountain in the Monogahela National Forest in West Virginia. His red spruce fiddle tops are large part of the “woody tone” that his work is famous for.
During this era, Arthur developed a relationship with Ricky Skaggs, who was married to a Floyd County girl. It was for Skaggs that Arthur made his first 5 string fiddle. Ricky played his AC 5 string in those days, many times with Monroe, who also had used the Conner Brothers to back him up, on one occasion.
Always the “whittler” it was natural and fitting for Arthur to experiment with scrolls in the shape of animals. Although his signature Ram’s Head fiddle became the icon of his shop, he also made duck-bill mandolin headstocks, lion’s head fiddle scrolls, and a couple of panther head bass scrolls. One is still in the family, the other was grafted onto a bass played by Ronnie Simpkins.
Always willing to share his knowledge of the craft, Arthur Conner was generous to apprentices. David Morse studied with him, and went on to be a fine violin luthier in Santa Cruz, California. Billy Woods, of Ferrum, Virginia, continues to carve fiddles in the AC style and has made a handful of ram’s head fiddles himself. Paolo Marx builds fine violins up near the area of West Virginia where the red spruce was harvested years ago. Ward Elliot, Glenn Boyd, Mike Mears ,and many other fiddle makers would come by and hang out in the shop to visit, discuss the craft, and sometimes leave or take home some tone-wood or varnish.
Arthur was a savvy manufacturer, and made sure that local and regional professional fiddlers and violinists had his instruments to play. Many professional bluegrass players have been blessed with Arthur’s generosity. This generosity, however, was tempered with a matter-of-fact opinion about whether the artist was living up to his or her end of the deal. On one occasion Arthur came to my house and asked for a ram’s head five string to be given back, on account of I had stopped touring and taken a day job. That fiddle was then given to Chris Sexton of Nothin’ Fancy. I’m not the only Virginia fiddler with a similar story! In hindsight, it was the right thing for him to do.
I have represented Conner Fiddles for 25 years. Have recorded two chart-topping albums of progressive bluegrass, and one album of classical favorites on his instruments. A new album, titled Gospel On Conners, is in production right now, with Gene Elders and I playing the fiddles he gave to us years ago. My students have been playing his instruments for fifteen years, and will continue to do so for many years to come. As his representative I’ve placed his instruments with players and collectors all over the world. I also apprenticed with “the old man” myself, for a year or so. The knowledge of his craft, to me, is priceless.
I wouldn’t say that my career was made possible by Arthur Conner, but I do say that Arthur helped make my career what it’s been. My family and I will always treasure our Conner fiddles, and strive to bring out their best in Tone, Timbre and Taste.
No information on funeral arrangements has yet been announced.
Arthur will be sorely missed by his family and friends, but in the truest sense of the word the man lives on, and will continue to do so as long as his fiddles survive.
R.I.P., Arthur Conner.