California Report: Master Fiddler Brandon Godman

Brandon Godman is a Kentucky native, master fiddler, and relatively new transplant from Nashville to San Francisco. He has played with greats such as Dale Ann Bradley, Melvin Goins, Karl Shiflett, Doyle Lawson, and David Peterson and 1946. He currently plays with Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands and Windy Hill. Brandon has a passion for all things violin and fiddle, including past stints at the Violin Shop in Nashville, Tennessee, Sousa Bows, CodaBow, and now the Fiddle Mercantile.

Hi Brandon. I guess you’re pretty settled into California by now. Tell us about the last couple years of transition.

I can hardly believe I’ve been here for three years now! It’s been a pretty amazing experience so far. I moved to the West Coast to pursue greater knowledge and experience in the violin trade, but I’ve found so much more. The West Coast music scene has been very welcoming. I’ve found a good community in San Francisco, and I’ve had lots of opportunities to learn and grow in the violin trade. 

Are you finding Californians as laid back as the everyone says?

Not while driving! Only kidding. San Francisco has been more relaxed than what I expected. I anticipated the rush of a big city, but I find folks to be pretty chill. 

What a great way to start out by joining Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. Is it as much fun as it looks like?

Yes! To play with Laurie and all the Right Hands is an absolute pleasure. The repertoire is very diverse, which is a challenge but keeps it interesting. We can go from a song that swings to a good hard-driving bluegrass tune, then wind up on one of her beautifully crafted originals that requires all of your attention. It’s also really fun to travel with them, as Laurie loves and celebrates the West Coast. Every trip I learn something new about California!

What are some memorable venues you have played?

I have been fortunate to play some great venues! Some favorites would be:

  • Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium with Ray Price
  • Carnegie Hall with Dawn Kenney
  • The Old Faithful Inn in Yellow Stone National Park with the New Radio Cowboys
  • The Island of Diego Garcia on an Air Force Entertainment tour
  • Bluegrass Caverns with Dale Ann Bradley

Very cool. I saw you on your Youtube channel playing at the Station Inn with the Music City Doughboys. Is Western Swing and twin fiddles another passion?

Yes. I’ve been in love with swing and Western swing since I started playing fiddle. I think my heart beat actually swings… I love the colors that you hear in jazz harmonies, which is something that I always try to include in my twin fiddle arrangements. The Music City Doughboys is a band that my friend Billy McClaran and I started in 2012 to be an outlet for our love of Western swing and beyond. We were lucky to have some our favorite players play with us on our gigs around town and on our self-titled album that we released in 2013. The album is 75 percent original material, but sounds like it was written 80 years ago. I’m really proud of that album! 

Is fiddle tone any different when playing bluegrass, old-time or jazz?

I’d say it’s a combination of tone and feel. It really depends on the ensemble I’m playing with at the time, and what I’m trying to achieve with the particular tune. If I were to play the tune Flop Eared Mule in each of those three settings, my tempo, variations, dynamics, and approach to the melody would be very noticeably different. 

Who were your old-time fiddle mentors in the Kentucky and Cincinnati areas, and what styles were you exposed to then?

I was very lucky to have a lot of folks from various styles help me out when I was getting started. My first teacher, Blanche Coldiron, played more old-time fiddle. My second teacher, Harold Zimmerman, was from northern Ohio originally and played a lot of contest music, jigs and reels, and square dance music. He was also a big fan of Howdy Forrester. Jeff Guernsey and Daniel Carwile were my teachers in my mid teenage years, and they really shaped my technique and exposed me to a lot of great styles of fiddling. I was fortunate to play with a lot of bands around the Northern Kentucky area in square dance halls and bars. I learned backup fiddling on those gigs by trial and error… and a lot of being told to “quit playing over my singing!”

You’ve had a lot of support from your family haven’t you.

My family was really supportive by taking me to lessons, gigs, festivals, and fiddle contests throughout the years. They all really enjoy music and the communities surrounding the various scenes. They gave me the freedom to do all of these things and never hovered too closely over me. They also always encouraged me to do what I love and follow my passion. 

I see Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands are at the John Hartford Memorial Festival in May. Is there anything special in the works?

I’m sure Laurie will include something. She’s really good at adapting the set list for the occasion. I love Hartford’s material and always love any opportunity to play his songs. 

Have you played at Bean Blossom before?

I got to play Bean Blossom for a few years with Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show. The first time was my audition for his band when I was 18 years old. 

You mentioned that you are a big Stuart Duncan fan. What about his playing grabs you?

Stuart is one of those fiddlers who always seems to play the perfect thing in any situation. He doesn’t play like any one player in particular, but like all of the players all at once. His tone, intonation, creativity, sensitivity, and dynamics are all unparalleled. I’m inspired and learn something every time I listen to him.

Since you’re from Kentucky and interested in bluegrass, old-time, and jazz, you must have a serious connection to Kenny Baker.

I love Kenny Baker’s fiddling. He played with such authority and had the sweetest tone. One of my favorite and most unique possessions is a Lucky Strike cigarette butt that was pulled out of the ashtray of Kenny Baker’s truck. His friend Ron Eldridge got the truck after Kenny’s death and has been passing them out to friends and fiddling fans. He gave me one right before I moved to California. I keep it in a little vial in my fiddle case as a bit of a good luck charm. 

Whoa, so you have his DNA. Did you ever play with Kenny?

I once got to hang out with Kenny at a festival in Pennsylvania. We sat in the green room for four hours one night where he told me story after story. I’ll never forget that!

You attended Morehead State, which houses the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music programs. Was that in full force when you were there, and do you still have connections there? 

I attended Morehead State for two years before moving to Nashville and was a jazz studies major with an emphasis on violin. The KCTM program was operating then but wasn’t yet offering a full degree. However, it was because of the KCTM that I chose Morehead and received the scholarships that I did. I still keep in touch some of my professors and visit when I’m in the area. The KCTM archives are expansive and a really valuable resource. 

You’re active in the California Bluegrass Association. Tell us about that.

I’m currently serving my second term on the CBA board of directors. I strongly believe in the work of the organization and feel that it’s a very important part of the bluegrass community. We have a lot of exciting things on the horizon!

I love your tune General Kuster, do you compose much?

I am not disciplined about it, but I do enjoy writing tunes. Most of the time they come from a passage I come up with while practicing or testing out fiddles. Sometimes I’ll wake up with a tune in my head and record it before it gets away from me. I’m not a lyrical person, so everything I write is instrumental. 

What one thing would you recommend to any musician to keep getting better?

Never stop listening, whether it be to the musicians you’re playing with, your heroes, live bands, recordings, or just the sounds of the world around you. As long as you listen you’ll continue to grow. 

What’s the Fiddle Mercantile?

Thanks for asking about this! The Fiddle Mercantile is essentially a violin shop for fiddlers. Everything, from instruments and bows to accessories, is curated and adjusted with the fiddler in mind. I like to say it’s all “fiddler approved.” While there’s no difference between a fiddle and a violin, there’s a lot of difference in the preference of tone, setup, playability, and what’s required of the instrument. That’s my specialty. My goal is for it to be a place for fiddlers to turn to for their instruments and bows, and a place for people to connect and learn about fiddling. 

Do you envision this being a store front?

At some point, but currently it’s by appointment only at my workshop in San Francisco, and online at www.thefiddlemercantile.com. I do outreach at teaching studios, festivals, and camps, and that will continue to be a large part of my activity.

You’ve accomplished quite a lot for your age. Do you have any long term goals?

I’ve been fortunate to have lots of wonderful opportunities so far in life. I hope to continue to play music that I love, deal in instruments that I love, and explore this wonderful world we live in. 

What non-musical hobbies do you have when not tending to your fiddles?

I enjoy traveling, cooking, history, the outdoors, and trains. I love trains! But steam engines, not those new diesel or electric trains. It’s been a love of mine that I picked up at a very early age from my pappaw Jimmy. 

Thanks Brandon and we’re so glad you made it to the Golden State.

Thank you Dave for the questions and the thought you’ve put into them.

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.