Roger Williams, Missouri Bluegrass fiddler, dies at 84

This remembrance of Roger Williams is a contribution from Howard W. Marshall, Professor and Chairman Emeritus in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He has written two books on the old time fiddlers of Missouri.

Roger A. Williams, one of the Midwest’s foremost bluegrass fiddlers, died in West Plains, Missouri, December 15, 2019. He was 84.

Williams was born in 1935 on the family farm between Cureall and Pottersville in the gently rolling landscape of Howell County in southern Missouri. Roger descended from Scottish, English, Irish, and Cherokee Indian people, and there are many musicians in the clan.

Roger Williams began playing violin at age six, inspired by his elders, the older children in the family, and the excitement of house dances and the music of other fiddlers in the neighborhood. Among musicians in the family were his maternal uncle, Clyde Briggs, his father, various older cousins, and his three older brothers, Joe (mandolin), John (guitar), and Paul (bass). Roger’s father, David Noah (D.N.) Williams, played upright bass and guitar. Roger’s younger brother, Clyde (aka Dan O’Day), is a bluegrass fiddler active in The Greater Ozarks Bluegrass Society and performs with banjoist Roger Matthews in the duo, Fiddle and Banjo. Most of the family were singers as well as instrumentalists. A cousin of D.N.’s, Walter (Bert) Williams, was an old-time fiddler, and, with cousin Floyd Williams (old-time five-string banjo) and D.N. on guitar, played square dances in the region.

Roger’s first fiddle tune was Beautiful, Beautiful Brown Eyes, which his grandfather John Williams often sang. Growing up during the Great Depression in the late 1930s, and during World War II, he made do with a borrowed violin from his uncle Emmett Williams. His first experience as a semi-professional musician was on live radio at age 15 in 1945, on KLCN AM, Blytheville, Arkansas, where his two older brothers Joe and John, were performing with Donald Howard and the Smilin’ Hillbillies 

Williams competed in his first fiddle contest in 1948, a two-night affair held at the Armory in West Plains, and won the junior division. “Won twenty dollars!” Contestants played only one tune, and Roger’s was Fire on the Mountain. Rules stated that fiddlers could have one accompanist, and Roger’s brother John played guitar for him. Why did Roger pick Fire on the Mountain as his tune? “Probably because it’s fast, and I like Curly Fox’s fiddling (Fox popularized the tune on Grand Ole Opry broadcasts).” What did the folks at home think when Roger won and came home with twenty dollars? “They was beside themselves.”

In 1954, Roger graduated high school and began performing with “the Collins boys.” They played dances (combinations of square dancing and round dancing) at some of the rough venues typical of the era, such as at Crazy Cabins, a highway junction tavern and dance hall where most Saturday nights saw at least one drunken fist fight break out among the revelers.

“Bluegrass kind of got me hooked” was how Williams described his move from old-time square dance fiddling to bluegrass as a teenager. Some fiddlers, like Roger, gladly vacated the demanding role of square dance fiddler in favor of being a role player in an ensemble. In the 1940s, Williams listened to the Grand Ole Opry and liked Bill Monroe’s music, as well as Flatt and Scruggs after they left Monroe to form their own band. Roger’s list of professional fiddlers he admired includes familiar names – Curly Fox (“He was smooth as silk.”), Benny Martin (“a genius on the fiddle”), Tommy Jackson, Dale Potter (“far ahead of his time”), and Kenny Baker. Williams knew Potter (a fellow Missourian) and sometimes performed with him. Roger’s own fiddle style incorporated elements from all those players, and, like theirs, it emphasizes smooth bowing, and rich, perfect double-stops.

“I tried to incorporate all the different styles. (But) I didn’t follow nobody. I took a little bit here, and a little bit there. Because if I played it just exactly like somebody else, they could listen to the real thing, they wouldn’t have to listen to me. I tried to play it as smooth and as close to the melody as I could get it. And to me, if a fiddle player is playing the lead to a song, if he don’t play the melody, you just got noise.”

In 1962, Roger Williams walked away from playing square dances. “That’s my last square dance! I was playing with a fellow up in Summersville. Street dance. We played and played and played. You know that playin’ for square dances is work. I’d about as soon cut sprouts as play for a square dance. That’s about the hardest work you’ll ever do as a fiddler. Because you play for five, ten, or twenty minutes or however long they want to dance. I don’t know anything about square dancing, because I couldn’t dance, but I know you’re supposed to play until every man comes all the way around and does his part. Now that’s work.”

After that 1962 square dance, Roger got more serious about bluegrass. He concentrated on his “lead work,” and the turn-arounds, kick-offs, riffs, fills, and endings of his “backup work” behind singers — and getting the nod once per set to step to the microphone and play an actual fiddle tune. And he perfected his twin fiddling chops.

In 1965, Williams had a shot at the Big Time — sort of. Country crooner Porter Waggoner had left West Plains and was performing on the Opry and recording in Nashville. Roger was in West Plains, driving a Foremost Dairy ice cream truck. Williams knew Waggoner well. Waggoner phoned Roger and asked him to come to Nashville and audition for The Wagonmasters, and to tape some segments for his weekly TV show. Jack Little, the fiddler, was leaving The Wagonmasters. Speck Rhodes (bassist and comic, another Missourian in Nashville) met Roger at the bus station and they went to the studio. The group was Buck Trent (banjo), Don Warden (guitar), Rhodes, and Waggoner. Porter told Roger he had the job. But when Roger returned to tape more TV segments, Porter said that the Musicians Union was forcing him to hire Mac Magaha, who was already a union member and had just left Reno and Smiley’s band. Porter paid Roger for his time off from the ice cream truck and covered his travel expenses; end of story. Williams noted, with rueful accuracy, that Mac Magaha had more experience as a professional entertainer — and that Magaha jig danced while he fiddled. “But I can’t dance.”

Williams enjoyed playing the old standards as well as the bluegrass repertoire. At sessions I recorded, he chose tunes such as Irish Washerwoman, You Are My Sunshine,Fiddler’s Dream (from Tommy Jackson), Kenny Baker’s Cheyenne (B flat), Cross-Eyed Fiddler, Ashland Breakdown, Kelly Waltz, Sitting in the Chimney Jamb, Julia’s Waltz, The Willies, Roger’s Waltz, Sweet Sunny South, and Over the Waves, Westphalia Waltz, Red Wing, Liberty, Turkey in the Straw, Golden Slippers, Tennessee Waltz, and Old Joe Clark. Roger loved playing harmony (twin) fiddle and was a master at it.

Williams had a knack for waltzes and composed Julia’s Waltz, for his wife in 1962, and The Willies, written in 1963 after his father had a life-threatening heart attack; “It’s high and slow and lonesome. I was kind of down in the dumps, so I wrote this tune. It’s about as sad as you can get.”

Roger’s Waltz, which he began playing in the 1960s, is an example of an untitled tune floating in and out of an area’s repertoire. Williams does not remember a title, or from whom he learned it. “Maybe we ought to call it ‘Waltz in F’.” The tune echoes an untitled waltz played by Ozarks fiddler Dallas Stamper printed in R.P. Christeson’s 1973 book, based on Christeson’s memory of Stamper fiddling at a picnic near Dixon, Missouri, in 1926 where Christeson accompanied Stamper on piano. Dallas Stamper shared Roger’s uncle Bert’s tendency — common among fiddlers — to fiddle tune after tune at dances and sessions without announcing titles.

This fine waltz, and Roger Williams’s life and career, are discussed in the book Fiddler’s Dream, University of Missouri Press, 2017; Roger’s recording is included on the CD with the book, the only known available published recording.