Most musicians have strong memories about the turning points in their careers, and that’s certainly true for octogenarian Fletcher Bright, who says his came in the late 1980s after he’d been performing professionally for more than 40 years with his band, the Dismembered Tennesseans.
It came when his son George convinced Bright to attend Byron Berline’s fiddle workshop in Cannon Beach, Oregon, in July of 1988. It would be Bright’s first workshop attendance after decades of performing.
“We’d been playing since the 1940s and I wasn’t getting any better,” Bright joked.
A dedicated student of all things fiddle, Fletcher made that trip with one purpose in mind: to learn Berline’s renowned bowing techniques.
“I considered Byron Berline to have the best bowing arm in the business — still do — and I wanted to learn how he did it,” Bright said. “I had a video camera and I soaked it up as hard as I could. I took that video back home and I listened and watched and I studied and I worked on it.”
It is Berline’s recollection that Bright picked it up a bit quicker.
“He had it down in about the first 10 minutes,” Berline said. “We played for about an hour and I asked him to help teach my class.”
Bright went back to Cannon Beach the next year, and then the next. It was on that third trip to Berline’s workshop that he met Laurie Lewis.
“Fletcher was such a superior player that it made me very nervous to have him in my class at first,” Lewis remembers. “But I guess he must have learned something because when I was teaching at Augusta the next year, he was there and in my class.”
Bright assisted Lewis for several years and then took on the full teaching role himself.
“I get a gold star on my forehead because I’m the first one that hired Fletcher Bright to teach,” Lewis said.
It’s not that he needed the fiddle teacher’s workshop paycheck. All the while he was playing bluegrass, it was a part-time gig. His day job was operating the growing real estate development business started in 1927 by his father, Gardner Bright.
The success of the full-serve real estate company — which develops shopping centers throughout the Southeast and Midwest and has been one of Wal-Mart’s primary builders — has allowed Bright to indulge himself in acquiring and trading great fiddles. Among the many was Bennie Martin’s fiddle, which Bright played at performances before donating it to the International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Then there is the perhaps enviable dilemma that comes with having a musical “war room” with walls covered in noteworthy fiddles.
“I’ve got so many of them that I can’t remember which is which,” Bright said. “I’ve always had a favorite along the way, but it would change. Then I’d loop back and pick up an old one and say, ‘Why did I ever quit playing this fiddle?’ ‘’
Another benefit of heading a successful real estate development company is that Bright and The Dismembered Tennesseans, despite being a part-time band, are among the few bluegrass performers who go to gigs in a corporate jet. In this case, it’s a Cessna Citation CJ2 that was piloted, until a few years ago, by Bright.
“It’s a great way to get there,” he said, “but I eventually had to bring in someone else to pilot.”
“My eyes are not as good as they once were and so now I ride in the back with the band,” he said.
The band was formed during high school in 1945. Bright estimates they’ve played 3,500 gigs over the past 70 years. Bright and banjoist Dr. Ed Cullis, a now-retired orthodontist, are the remaining original members.
Bright’s business background also gave him a head start on becoming a fiddle teacher. Long before he taught fiddle, Bright taught college classes in real estate, fundamentals of real estate law, and real estate appraisal.
His business acumen has benefitted the community as well. A philanthropist, Bright co-sponsors many events and programs in the Chattanooga area and is the sole sponsor of the free 3 Sisters Bluegrass Music Festival on the riverfront each fall. 3 Sisters was named by Great American Country as one of the top five bluegrass festivals in the country.
If not for Berline and Lewis, said Bright, “I don’t think I would ever have gotten into teaching fiddle, and that’s been a rich and rewarding part of my life.”
Over the past 25 years, he has taught fiddle all across the country and in Canada and England. He is a walking, bowing encyclopedia of old-time and bluegrass songs. In 2005 he received the Tennessee Governor’s Folk Heritage Award.
Lewis called Bright “the happiest fiddler scholar you’ll ever meet.”
“The thing that stands out the most is the obvious love of the subject of teaching fiddle,” she said. “He is so enthusiastic and invigorating that you cannot help but get caught up.
“He’s got a methodical bent to his teaching and he manages to include players of all levels. Even those who don’t get it all during the workshop leave excited about the tools they’ve received.”
Among the more tangible of those tools is a collection of fiddle tune transcriptions Bright has been adding to over the years and gives to his students free of charge. In years past, it was in the form of a large 3-ring binder. More recently, he distributes his book on CDs with PDFs of the notation and plenty of MP3 files of Bright playing the songs.
“It’s organic,” Bright said. “Every time I learn a new tune, if I like then it qualifies for the book.”
He uses his computer, an electronic keyboard, and the software program Finale.
That book will make its appearance in August when Berline and Bright teach at the first-ever Fletcher Bright Fiddle Workshop hosted by Cindy Sinclair’s NashCamp. She has been hosting week-long bluegrass camps and weekend banjo retreats in the hills just outside Nashville for almost 20 years.
In 1997, Sinclair and fiddler Barbara Lamb started NashCamp Bluegrass Camps and invited Bright to attend the first camp to hang out.
“I knew immediately that I wanted Fletcher to be a permanent part of NashCamp and he has taught every year since,” Sinclair said. “Scores of NashCampers have been through Fletcher’s fiddle course. He goes way above and beyond his duties as teacher. He’s up early every morning, offering hot coffee and free private lessons to all his students.”
Bright won’t be teaching a full NashCamp Bluegrass Week this summer.
“I’m throttling back on my teaching,” he said. “I’m well into my 80’s.”
His decision prompted Sinclair to put together the Fletcher Bright Fiddle Camp for the weekend of August 28-30, where Bright will teach workshops on his collection of fiddle tunes.
“I felt there needed to be an event created so Fletcher’s students and friends could gather, learn, and celebrate his contribution to fiddling,” said Sinclair.
In addition to Bright and Berline, fiddlers teaching at the workshop will include Matt Combs, Brian Wicklund, Jim VanCleve, Gretchen Priest-May, and Clancey Ferguson. Noted banjoist Bill Evans will be on hand as well, performing with Bright and teaching bluegrass harmony singing and workshops on banjo/fiddle tunes. Bright and Evans are sure to lead some jam sessions, an activity they’ve done many times together over the years. They recently released a CD of fiddle/banjo duets called Fine Times at Fletcher’s House.
Bright’s motto: “I love to fiddle and love to teach. I will play with anyone who asks and am always good for another jam session.”