Bluegrass and old-time fiddle player Arvil Freeman passed away peacefully during the early hours of Thursday morning, October 21, 2021, at 89 years of age. He is known for his distinctively personal style, with a smooth and melodic long bow style, which apparently attracted job offers from Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, and Grandpa Jones during his professional life.
A native of Madison County in western North Carolina, Freeman was born on April 14, 1932, and lived in Buncombe County most of his life. He inherited some Cherokee Indian blood from his maternal grandmother.
Freeman’s grandfather and father, both named Zeb, were fiddle players. Otherwise, his early influences came from his two of his siblings, particularly older brother Gordon, who graduated from guitar to fiddle. The close-knit family lived on his grandparents’ farm on Pawpaw Creek in Madison County, and were mostly self-sufficient.
His grandfather used to play records by the Skillet Lickers, the Delmore Brothers, and The Carter Family, among others.
Freeman picked up the fiddle as a seven-year-old and he became aware of two well-respected fiddlers from the region, Tommy Hunter and Byard Ray, with the latter including an old-time version of Sourwood Mountain, and a minor key rendition of Polly Put The Kettle On, in his repertoire.
While his earliest influences played old-time fiddle, Freeman played somewhere “in between” that style and bluegrass, and he respected the traditions’ shared repertoire. “Those tunes have always been around,” he once said.
Freeman’s introduction to professional music came in 1946, when Bascom Lamar Lunsford recruited him for a tour of colleges in Texas and Oklahoma with the Bailey Mountain Cloggers and the Hunter Brothers Band.
After leaving school he moved to Michigan, where his brothers were working. There they met Carl and J.P. Sauceman, and on moving back east Arvil and Carmon Freeman joined the Sauceman Brothers and the Green Valley Boys, based in Bristol, Tennessee. They performed twice a day on Radio WCYB’s Farm and Fun Time Show as well as going out to do four or five live shows a week.
After a year with the Sauceman Brothers, Freeman toured with Reno & Smiley for six months, before doing two years Army service in Korea. On returning to his homeland he became more serious about his fiddle playing, collecting records by the well-established professionals of the day, notably Tommy Magness, Benny Martin, Chubby Wise, and Kenny Baker.
For a while Freeman had day jobs, then he resumed playing professionally doing weekend shows at the Folkway Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and then in Arlene Kesterson’s New Day Country Band, staying with them until the late 1970s.
Arvil Freeman – Dance Around Molly (circa 1978)
Thereafter he joined Marc Pruett in setting up his band, and from October 1979 until 1988 Freeman played several nights a week in the Marc Pruett Band at Bill Stanley’s Barbecue and Bluegrass in downtown Asheville. Although they performed for a week at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, and made an appearance at a bluegrass festival in Las Vegas, they rarely strayed away from their home turf.
The band recorded a handful of albums with a few releases on the Skyline label, which was organized by Marc Pruett and the band’s bass player, former Blue Grass Boy Randy Davis.
Subsequently, Freeman formed The 40 West Band, a group that featured Pruett, Buddy Davis (bass), the talented singer-songwriter/guitarist Marty Lewis – who contributed some original songs to their repertoire – and Don Lewis (mandolin).
He won countless fiddling competitions, including the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (in 1974, 1993, 1994, and 1995); Union Grove; and Georgia’s Official State Fiddlers’ Convention.
Freeman was one of five fiddlers (with Benton Flippen, Audrey Hash Ham, Red Wilson, and Josh Goforth) chosen to represent the variety of traditional fiddle styles in North Carolina on UNC-TV’s Folkways series.
He has appeared on more than 40 different albums, including some with Raymond Fairchild and three with the Crowe Brothers.
For the past 40 years Freeman devoted much of his time to teaching rather than performing, instructing his students by ear, the old-time way. Pupils have praised his calm and patient teaching style and demeanor. Many of them, including Josh Goforth, Emma and Bryan McDowell, and Danielle Bishop, used the knowledge and skills they gained from him to become professional musicians and well-known contest winners themselves.
He was proudest of his work as a teacher, which filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman captured beautifully in this short film.
As well as continuing to give fiddle lessons, Freeman performed regularly as a member of the Stoney Creek Boys, the house band for Asheville’s Shindig on the Green.
The North Carolina Arts Council honored Arvil Freeman with the prestigious North Carolina Heritage Award in May 2018.
R.I.P., Arvil Freeman
His funeral service was held on Sunday, October 24, in the Chapel of West Funeral Home in Weaverville, NC. Hi body was interred in the Nina Freeman Roberts Cemetery, in Marshall.
In lieu of flowers, the family request that donations be given to Folk Heritage for the preservation of “Arvil’s Heritage” at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.
- Saturday Night Fiddlin’ (Wes Sound Shop IRC 893, released 1978)
With Carl and J.P. Sauceman
- Live Again! WCYB Bristol Farm and Fun Time (Rebel REB 854, 1988). This is a various artists collection.
The Asheville Bluegrass Band
- The Asheville Blue Grass (No label RSR 514, 1977)
The Marc Pruett Band / Marc Pruett
- The Marc Pruett Band (Wes Sound Shop IRC 1083, 1980)
- Moonlight Madness (Marandee Records MR001, 1981)
- Streamline Cannonball (Skyline Records SR006, 1981)
- Dance Music Square & Clog (Skyline Records SR007, 1981), with The Midnight Plowboys
- Center Stage Live (Marandee Records MR002, 1982)
The 40 West Band
- Live At Stanley’s (unknown)
The Crowe Brothers
- I Know It Wasn’t You (The Telephone Song) (Atteiram API-L-1654, 1989)
- Sing Always True (Skyline SR-004, 1981). See Regenesis (Copper Creek CCCD-0167, 1999) also.
- Sing The Gospel Way (Skyline Records SR 011, 1984) Re- eleased (Copper Creek CCCD-0157, 1997)
- Plays Requests (Skyline Records SR 012, 1985)
- See Raymond Fairchild-King of The Smoky Mountain Banjo Players Plays the Classics (Copper Creek CCCD-0194, July 2, 2002) also.
- Raymond Fairchild-World Champion Banjo Plays John’s Dream (Skyline SR-016, 1987)
- Raymond Fairchild-Smoky Mountain Christmas: A Bluegrass Holiday (Rural Rhythm RHY-290, September 9, 2003)
Raymond Fairchild & Bruce Moody
- Two Old Friends (Whoa Mule Productions, Inc. No #, 2003)
- Rhythm of the Rails (UnaMae Music UM001, 1995)
- Old-Time Gospel Instrumentals (Native Ground Books & Music No # 2001)
- Pickers Paradise (Buncombe Turnpike Music BT 0290, 2006)