Roy Odell “Speedy” Tolliver, a popular and beloved banjo and fiddle player in the greater Washington, DC area, passed away on September 18. He was 99 years of age.
Speedy was born in southwestern Virginia into a large musical family. After suffering a hearing loss in one ear from a severe infection, he spent most of his recuperation period with the other ear tuned to his family’s radio. He developed a fascination for mountain and string band music, and soon learned to play the fiddle and banjo. When the first country music recordings were made in nearby Bristol in 1927, he was only nine years old. But that music found its way into his young ear and hands.
When Speedy was 21, he headed off with his banjo to try and earn a living as a musician in the nation’s capitol. There a commercial music scene existed, and he found work with a number of hillbilly bands. He played fiddle with The Lee Highway Boys, and found himself performing with Hoss Clark. One of his chief claims to fame is having been the banjo instructor for a young Roy Clark, Hoss’ son, who went on to be one of the most visible bluegrass banjo players in the world through his association with the Hee-Haw television program.
He was completely self-taught musician, learning everything he knew by ear, using the skills he developed living near Whitetop Mountain.
By 1950, Tolliver had started to settle down, and left the music business to support his wife and family. He found work with the federal government, though he continued to play old time and bluegrass in and around DC, and on occasional overseas tours. He continued to play well into his nineties and released a fiddle album, Now and Then in 2005. He received a Virginia Heritage Award in 2009 from the Virginia Commission for the Arts.
Folks in the capitol area were very fond of Speedy for his lively performances, and his witty remarks. One that has survived his passing is him saying that, “I’d rather wear out than rust out.”
The family will receive visitors on Friday (9/22) at Murphy’s Funeral Home in Arlington from 5:30-8:00 p.m. The funeral will be held there on Saturday at 10:00 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, they request that a donation be made to the Salvation Army in his name.
R.I.P., Speedy Tolliver.