Craig Duncan – a bluegrass music businessman

Who is Craig Duncan? A member of the North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame, recipient of 2018 Dove Award’s Instrumental Album of the Year, and a member of Who’s Who in Music and Musicians, he is quite an accomplished musician. Featured instrumentalist on over 100 record albums with sales in excess of five million copies, his instrumental CDs have been sold in Cracker Barrel, played in doctors’ offices, and soothed patrons in massage therapy. His music has been heard on TV shows Malcolm in the Middle and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as on programs on A&E, Biography, BET, PBS, History, and other cable channels.

The multi-instrumentalist has recorded for Randy Travis, Billy Dean, Kathy Mattea, Charlie McCoy, and Roy Clark. His musical groups have performed throughout the country for a wide array of clients from IBM to the Tennessee Department of Tourism, including corporate, convention, tourism, and gala events. He is also recognized internationally for his many books and arrangements of fiddle and violin music published by Mel Bay Publications, yet his name may not be familiar. And Duncan is OK with that.

“I love music. I’ve spent my career doing things in music that people hadn’t thought of. I provide services for people in town, but most people don’t know who I am,” stated the music entrepreneur.

His interest in music began in third grade when he started learning the violin in his school’s strings class. He also started singing.

“I was invited to sing with Burlington (NC) Rotary Club Boys’ Choir.” Duncan sang with the group for five years. He credits the choir’s director, Eva Wiseman, for helping fuel his passion for music. “She was a red-headed, all-in music person,” he fondly recalled.

Next, he learned to play bass guitar and played with several pick-up bands, while still playing violin with the school.

“I played bass and traveled with a Christian group called New Directions my senior year. You had to have faith to be in it. You had to memorize scriptures and outline books of the Bible.”

Under the direction of JL Williams, an ordained minister, the group traveled and made several performances every weekend. They played for the Billy Graham crusades, the Cotton Bowl, and the 700 Club.

Completing high school, Duncan enrolled at Appalachian State University, and continued to pursue music. “I never had private violin lessons,” so the college student focused on the individual instruction.

“My sophomore year I landed a job playing fiddle at Carowinds Theme Park near Charlotte, NC. During that summer, I played electric bass in their bluegrass band. They taught me how to approach bluegrass.”

Duncan graduated in May 1976, married his sweetheart six days later, and moved to Nashville in October.

“I said we’d give it a year to see if I could make a living in music.”

The talented musician soon found work. He worked for Opryland Theme Park and played the Grand Ole Opry with Wilma Lee Cooper, but he thought he could provide more for his growing family.

“I asked myself, ‘how can I make a living with the skill God had given me?’ Basically, how can I be a musician without traveling the road or being a star? How can I keep my family first?”

He started Craig Duncan Music & Entertainment Services in 1980. 

“Opryland Hotel was a corporate meeting place. Every event had entertainment. By creating a music service, I could coordinate the jobs.”

The business-minded man who had taught fiddle lessons for several years was asked to write a method book for Mel Bay Publications. The Deluxe Fiddling Method was published in 1981. Since then, more than 60 of his music books have been published.

Then he started recording. His first project was Homemade Christmas for Brentwood Music with Duncan on fiddle and hammered dulcimer.

“It didn’t do very well. Six months later, we did a hymns record entitled Smoky Mountain Hymns. It did really well. They re-released the first album as Smoky Mountain Christmas and it sold. It was all about marketing. The name change made the difference.”

After several more recordings, the label released Duncan.

“They wanted me to give up my artist’s rights. It opened me for something else. I did four records in Atlanta, and then I started working with a new record label in Nashville. I produced and played instrumental records. I understand music,” he modestly stated.

As the need arose, Duncan learned to play additional stringed instruments for the recordings. Besides violin/fiddle, mandolin, bass guitar, and hammered dulcimer, he taught himself to play guitar, autoharp, Irish banjo, viola, and lap dulcimer.

His associates sing his praises.

“Craig Duncan has bluegrass music embedded in his DNA. From his childhood roots in North Carolina to his lengthy career in Nashville, he is a consummate musician who doesn’t just love this music, but he understands it. He gets it. He lives and breathes it. I’ve spent forty years of my life playing bass with Craig, and when you play music that much with someone it’s like twins speaking a language together, in that, you can finish each other’s sentences. Music is to us what mother is to infant. It gives life to us. I am grateful to call Craig Duncan my friend,” said bassist, Mark Powelson.

David Talbot, founding member of the Grascals and former banjoist with Dolly Parton, is a part of the Craig Duncan Band and his studio ensemble. The Canadian picker also spoke fondly of the music maestro. “I’ve worked with Craig for twenty years now, both in live performance and in the recording studio for his instrumental recordings that he produces. In addition to his great knowledge of music, Craig has a tremendous work ethic and a keen business sense. He’s made a good living for himself in Nashville on his own terms. I have the highest respect for him in that regard, and am also proud to call him a friend.”

Grammy award-winning producer/engineer, Bil VornDick, praised Duncan for his mass appeal. “We’ve recorded together since the early ’90s. Craig Duncan is the most versatile musician I’ve ever worked with. He plays so many different stringed instruments and there are so many different styles that Craig does: Christmas, summertime, Elvis/John Denver. He has covered every genre of music. He is very creative in his arrangements so everyone will enjoy it. He writes it for the general public. We have produced over 100 albums together.

“We look forward to working and having fun together. We are both classically trained. For each tune, Craig has all the music written out. He has thousands of music charts. He has a data base on all these songs. A lot of musicians have studied his work in Mel Bay books. He taught Andy Leftwich fiddle. He is successful because he is so eclectic.”

Courtney McGee, CEO of Event Logistics, Inc., has worked with Duncan for over 25 years and taps in on Duncan’s talents regularly. “My business’s success is directly related to him. He is the most talented entertainer that I’ve ever worked with. He is extremely reliable, personable, and professional. He can go from a solo act, performing with a single fiddle or guitar, to being part of a full orchestra, to a big band performance with everybody in a tux. He does custom shows and has written custom jingles for the occasion. He is my go-to person. People come in and talk about what they want (musically). Craig will do a guitar riff and they are blown away. It’s a very Nashville kind of thing to do. He is ridiculously talented.”

Duncan remains busy with his music service. “I average 14 gigs per month, with less in the winter and more in the spring and fall. I produce two recordings with about 14 songs each per year, with a total of 101 projects. I also spend quite bit of time arranging music with many of my string arrangements available on as well as in my books written for Mel Bay Publishing.”

Craig Duncan may not be considered a well-known star, but he is extremely successful within the music industry. Expecting his 12th grandchild this year, he has accomplished what he set out to do over 40 years ago: put his family first, sleep in his own bed, attend/perform for his church regularly, and play the music he loves for his livelihood. We should all be so fortunate.

Duncan, a man of strong faith, concluded, “I believe in the Son of God. I’m happy with the blessings that I’ve had.”

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.