UALR student receives grant for Billy Mathews transcriptions

Emily Phillips is a third year at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, pursuing a degree in Anthropology. She is also an accomplished old-time fiddler, and a student of the music of noted Ozark fiddle and banjo player, Billy Mathews.

Thanks to a grant from the Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship in the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, Emily is embarked on a major project, to transcribe all of the tunes presented on Billy’s landmark CD set, 500 Fiddle Tunes: Old-Time Archive.

You read that right… She is transcribing all 500 tunes Mathews performs in this 5 volume, multi-CD archive, a veritable history of the Ozark fiddle tradition. That’s a big job, which will serve as her senior project, something UALR requires for graduation, and as a valuable resource for future students of the old time music of the middle US.

Once the transcriptions are finished, they will be compiled in a book which will be offered for sale to the general public. Phillips has more than 200 completed and proofed, and hopes to see the book available to the market later this year.

For Emily, this is also a labor of love. As a girl, just starting to learn old time fiddle, she encountered Billy and his distinctive style. Over repeated opportunities she not only became quite familiar with his approach, but also friendly with the master musician himself.

Banjo Billy Mathews

She grew up in Mountain View, AR, and Billy would come do a workshop there each winter. For ten years or so, Phillips would be there for every one. When the many volumes of the 500 Fiddle Tunes CDs were coming out, she asked him if he had thought about having them transcribed. Her plan to become involved was hatched when he replied that he had not only thought about it, but had a transcriber engaged, but that the effort had come to naught.

Now about 200 tunes into the process, Emily discussed how it is going.

“Billy has a unique style, including lots of open string notes between melody notes. So I try to come up with a sum of an entire track to best represent the melody of each tune. Once I get a batch transcribed, I go meet with Billy and play him my transcriptions. Usually I’ll have it mostly right, but he will quickly point out any sections where he hears it differently.

Transcribing all these tunes is imposing. I’ve played this music for 11 years, and I know an awful lot of tunes, but I wasn’t much of a reader. At first it was taking me ten minutes to write out each tune, but I’m down to about two minutes now.”

In addition to the basic tune, the finished book will also contain a blurb from Mathews for each inclusion, with his memories of where he first heard each one, who he may have learned it from, and any other details he might recall. Emily says that there are many tunes that had never been recorded until Billy’s 500 Tunes CDs, so his recollections of their origins will be a welcome addition to the history of Ozark fiddle music.

She will notate each tune simply, without bow directions or complex slurs, referring the reader to the recordings for those sorts of flourishes. Her goal is to document the names, melodies, and origins of the tunes themselves.

Billy Mathews is equally well known in Arkansas as a banjo player, earning him the nickname “Banjo Billy.” Emily Phillips has the cataloging of his fiddle music well in hand. Now someone else will have to document his banjo playing for posterity.

Keep an eye on Billy’s web site for an announcement about the book’s availability.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.