Traditional and old time musician Bill Birchfield has died this morning (May 15), after having suffered a stroke last night. He was known widely as both a banjo picker and fiddler, and for his many years with the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, with whom he performed with his wife Janice on washtub bass.
The Hilltoppers were started more than forty years ago by Bill’s parents, with his father, Joe, on fiddle, his Uncle Creede Birchfield on banjo, and his mother, Ethel, on washboard. Bill played guitar, and Janice bass. Since Joe’s passing 13 years ago, Bill has played both fiddle and banjo with the group.
Despite performing in a completely authentic old time, pre-bluegrass style, Bill’s approach to the banjo has always set them apart. He played in what he called an upside-down and backwards style, with the instrument flipped over in his lap like a left-handed person might try it. It looks awkward, but he made it work for both guitar and banjo.
His loss will be mourned by the large community of old time musicians in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia where the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers have been popular, and by all his family and a wide community of friends.
Here’s a pair of videos that capture his artistry from the Laurel Bloomery Fiddlers Convention.
R.I.P., Bill Birchfield.