Eddie Bond (Part 1)

2018 National Heritage Fellow
Eddie Bond
Photo by Susi Lawson Photography

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Jo Reed: You’re listening to the fiddling of 2018 National Heritage Fellow Eddie Bond. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Eddie Bond is quite simply one of the best old-time fiddlers around. He was raised in the small town of Fries in Grayson County, Virginia, a place known for its extraordinary musical talent. 

But even in that hot bed of music, Eddie’s lineage stands out—he comes from a long line of fine musicians. He was taught by a maternal grandmother who played guitar and sang music handed down for generations. His paternal grandparents played guitar and sang also; two great grandfathers played the banjo; a third played the guitar. Eddie himself plays the guitar, banjo, and autoharp, as well as the instrument he’s best known for: the fiddle. He’s also a terrific clog dancer and a great storyteller. I spoke with Eddie right before the National Heritage Concert—and he’s just so much fun and such a great talker, we’re going to have an extended two-part interview with lots of great music. Next week, we’ll learn about Eddie’s travels as he plays his fiddle around the country and throughout the world, and the work he does back home in Fries. But first, here’s a look at his background, the music he loves and the place he was raised.

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Jo Reed: Eddie, congratulations.

Eddie Bond: Well, thank you so much.

Jo Reed: Listen, my first question is, what do they put in the water in Grayson County?

Eddie Bond: Well, music. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Apparently, they must. You just grow musicians there.

Eddie Bond: We do, and we’re so proud that we have so many young folks, nowadays, that are interested in learning our music. It was not always that way.

Jo Reed: Yeah, when did that switch?

Eddie Bond: It has kind of switched around, I think—do you remember the movie O Brother? You remember that movie?

Jo Reed: Of course I do.

Eddie Bond: Well, I think that got the spark ignited.

Jo Reed: How interesting.

Eddie Bond: And after that, then, of course, Helen White, who has been a longtime partner of Wayne Henderson, you know, she started a program called The JAM program, which was Junior Appalachian Musicians. And I think she just got that thing started at just the right time, and it’s just kept going. I have taught in the JAM program, but the class that I teach now, in Grayson County, is actually just part of the school curriculum. They have a string band class that’s an elective.

Jo Reed: And is the class packed?

Eddie Bond: Oh, always.  I can only take on 25 students, although I sometimes wind up with a few more. I’ll let a few in, if they’re really good pickers, you know? But I think I had 67 to sign up for the class this semester.

Jo Reed: Wow.

Eddie Bond: So, you see, we can never accommodate. And they’re trying to figure out, now, how that I can maybe teach two blocks of the string band. But the problem is, I teach—my other class is a precision machining class. So, I’ve always been a factory worker, and I’m a machinist by trade. I enjoy that, too. I’ve always worked with my hands, and I love to teach young folks how to work and do things, you know, other than play video games. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Bless you. Before we talk about the music, specifically, because the music is so much a part of Grayson County and Fries, I want you to describe Grayson County and Fries.

Eddie Bond: Well, of course, we are on the New River, which is the world’s second-oldest and longest river, and one of the few rivers that flows north. So it’s a very ancient river, and I feel like I can always find some good vibes near that river. And Fries itself is a little cotton-mill town. It was founded around 1903, by “Colonel” Francis Henry Fries. And it’s spelled F-R-I-E-S. And we call it Freeze in the winter, and Fries in the summer.

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Eddie Bond: Although, if you’re from a very hot locale and you came to visit Fries in the summer, you would probably disagree with that. We always have a nice mountain breeze flowing in some fresh, cool air, usually, even on the hottest of days. So I know, when I was in the military, and I would—I was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and I would come home for the weekend, and I’d have to wear a jacket <laughs> on the weekends, because it just felt so nice to me. But it’s a small place, and we have about 600 folks that live in Fries now. The cotton mill shut down in 1987, tragically. Fries—we were kind of sheltered for many, many years, in a way. Especially through hard times like the Depression years, folks who lived in Fries, the cotton mill, Washington Mills, kept going. Even when they weren’t able to sell cloth, they stored it in warehouses, and during the Depression, they kept people working, and they kept people fed, and it was a great place to be at that time. And my family was there, on both sides of my family. And, of course, my family goes back farther than Fries. We were there long before Fries was there. We were there all the way from the Revolutionary War days. So, you know, it works out that if your family has been in one place for that many years—so that’s my family. And let’s say your family’s been there for that many years, we’re probably cousins, you know?

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Eddie Bond: So finding somebody to date was sort of a problem. My wife, we went to high school together. As a matter of fact, her mother was a foreigner, you see, so that cut down the odds of us being cousins. And I say “foreigner” because she was from Nebraska, you see.

Jo Reed: Oh, that is foreign.

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Eddie Bond: But it’s a great place to grow up. And, of course, there was just so, so many musicians that came out of Fries, especially in the early days of country music recording. We had Henry Whitter and Pop Stoneman, all worked in the Fries cotton mill, and Kelly Harrell. And you know, you would have to be kind of an old-time music nerd to know some of these names, I guess, but they all recorded. Henry Whitter, of course, we’re so proud of Henry in Fries, because he was actually, we believe, the very first country music recording artist that made a record, and he went to New York City and made his record.

Jo Reed: Can I ask a lame question?

Eddie Bond: Yes.

Jo Reed: And that is, can you tell me the difference between country, bluegrass, and old-time?

Eddie Bond: Well, yeah.  I can sort of answer that question. What we call old-time music today, I would say, is, on the family tree of all that stuff, is the grandfather. That’s kind of where it all started. Our unique American music, all of it, came from other countries, of course. America has always been a melting pot, and the Appalachian Mountains were no different. Folks came from Ireland; they brought the fiddle. They came from Africa, they brought the banjo. They came from Spain, they brought the guitars. And they all met here in the mountains, and they wanted to play music, so they started playing music together. And it sort of meshed into a new sound—you know, the syncopation of the banjo, and the timing of it, and all. You know, Mick Moloney, a dear friend of mine who plays Irish music—and well known, of course in those circles—he’ll tell you that Appalachian music is very, very similar to Irish music; it just has a little swing in it, you’ll say. <laughs> So I think the banjo did that for it. And then, you know, back in the 1940s, Bill Monroe came along, and he sort of took what he had grown up with—the fiddle and the banjo, and all that stuff—and he kind of revamped it into something new. He added Earl Scruggs, and Earl Scruggs was not the first banjo picker to ever use picks. But he did invent a new kind of style—a more driving style of banjo-playing.

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Eddie Bond: It was hard-driving, and it fit so well with what Bill Monroe was wanting to do, and they became the Bluegrass Boys. And that kicked off a whole new era of music, for us hillbillies. <laughs>

 Jo Reed: Tell me about your growing up, and how music factored into your daily life.

Eddie Bond: Well, music has just been a part of our life for so many years that we don’t really think about it a whole lot, because it becomes ingrained in you. It’s like going to church: It’s just something you do, regularly. And it’s a fun part of life, and it’s a joyous part of life, and I compared it to going to church, because so many folks in the mountains, you know, that’s how we get through hard times, is we depend on the things that bring joy to our lives, like going to church and having the spiritual foundations. And music is the same thing. It’s something that keeps our life stable, and it maybe takes your mind off things, sometimes. And music has taken me to so many places, and it’s been my best friend all my life. It’s been there in the good times and the bad times.

Jo Reed: The first instrument you played was the banjo.

Eddie Bond: No. No, the first instrument I played was the guitar. My granny was a guitar player, the granny that I stayed with most of the time. My grandpa died when I was five years old, and Granny didn’t want to be by herself. So, as often we do in the mountains, one of the kids will go stay with Granny till she gets used to staying by herself, but mine never did. She... <laughs> she wanted somebody there. And so I would stay during the week, and my sister would stay on the weekends. Which was so lucky for me, because my folks—who I love dearly, by the way—were very religious. And when I got into music more, they really did not want me going to fiddlers’ conventions and square dances in these places. They wanted me to play only in church. But my granny didn’t agree with that, <laughs> so she kind of overruled them on that. And the older I got, the more I wanted to stay with her on the weekends, too, because I had access to those places when I was at Granny’s house. And if I was with my mom and dad, I really didn’t. <laughs> Although, sometimes they would give in and let me go, here and there, with different folks. And when I got to be, I don’t know, 14 years old or so, I joined a clogging team. By the way, my granny was a wonderful flatfoot dancer, and she taught me. I don’t ever remember not being able to dance. Some of my earliest memories are my granny playing the guitar and singing, and I was flatfooting, you know? And I— <laughs> so, a funny story that I tell sometimes, I can remember going out one night, with my—my granny’s brother was Uncle Leon, and he played the guitar in the Whitetop Mountain Band, which was a well-known old-time band around home, and they often played for square dances and different events. And they were having a wagon train—what they call a wagon train—and that’s just where all the horse-riders that had been riding the trails, they will gather up in a certain place, and at night, they almost always have music. So they had got Uncle Leon and the band to come out and play for them that night. And we went out there to hear them, and I can remember they had a little stage, about a foot high off the ground, that they were playing on. And Aunt Louise—that was Uncle Leon’s wife—set me up on that stage to dance. And I did, and folks were amazed because I was so small, and they would throw quarters at me. <laughs> So...

Jo Reed: Oh, my.

Eddie Bond: That was my first paying gig, you know. And—yeah, back then, my grandma, in her store, still sold candy for a penny, so a quarter was a lot, you know? So, anyway, folks were amazed that, back then, that somebody that small could dance. And now, when I dance, they’re amazed somebody this large can dance.

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Jo Reed: Now, you went guitar, banjo, fiddle. Is it in that order?

Eddie Bond: That is the order, yeah. My granny started me, when I was about eight years old, on the guitar. I was in—and the reason I was able to start at that age, on the guitar, was that she had a very small guitar. It actually belonged to her sister. It was a little baby Gibson, which I would love to have that guitar, but I don’t know where it’s at, at this point. But... yeah, she got me started on that. And I can remember that there was some of the chords that I couldn’t quite get, and she would show me these cheater chords, you know, so I had to use those till my fingers got bigger. And I took right off on the guitar. Granny mostly played a lot of the Carter Family stuff, and she actually played in that style, what now is—a lot of folks describe it as the Carter scratch, where you use a thumb and index finger, instead of a straight pick. And that’s how I first learned to play guitar. And then my Grandpa Bond, who ran a pawn shop about a half-mile up the road, he always had instruments, you know. And he really wanted me to learn to play the banjo, because his dad was a banjo player. Now, Grandpa played the guitar, and he could thump on a banjo a little bit, but not a lot, but he mostly played guitar; was a great singer and a great flatfoot dancer, also. And him and Grandma would—Grandma Bond, that’s another whole story. She came from Doc Watson country, down in North Carolina, and a lot of the old ballads that I learned, I learned from her. And some of those are, you know, several verses long. <laughs> And I love them dearly. I try to keep them in my head, but I think they’re there to stay, mostly, you know? <laughs> But anyways, that’s where she was from, down near Deep Gap, where Doc Watson grew up. And a lot of the songs that I learned from her are, if not exactly the same, very similar to the Watson Family versions, also. But Grandpa had a banjo, and he wanted me to learn to play the banjo. Now, he never would right out give you nothing. He would say, “I have this banjo, and you could take it on and play it, and just keep it as long as you want it. But, now, when you get tired of playing it, you bring it back.”

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Eddie Bond: Well, I still have the banjo. <laughs> He died in 1999, and... but anyways, though, that went on, and I picked right up on the banjo, no problem. Took right off, and I’d been playing maybe a year or so when I won a blue ribbon at the Fries Fiddlers Convention, on the banjo. So that was going well. The problem I started having was that, whenever I would try to form a band at the Fiddlers Convention, you were always short a fiddle player. It seemed like there was enough banjo players, guitar players around, but the fiddle players were either getting too old to come out and play, or they were already gone. There was quite a few older fiddle players still around at that time to learn from, but very few that actually got out to the Fiddlers Convention. So I started thinking, “Hmm. You know, maybe I might need to try fiddle, because it looks like there’s going to be a shortage.” <laughs> And I was right, because there... my generation has been called the Lost Generation of old-time music. There were so few of us in my generation that wanted to learn to play from the old guys, and so I did. Well, I went back to Grandpa, you know, and he had a fiddle in his shop. And I asked about the fiddle. I was hinting, you know. And he’s like, “No, no! You don’t want to do that. You’ll mess up your banjo-playing. Leave that thing alone. Don’t you even think about it,” you know. But I kept on and kept on, and he wouldn’t give it to me. He finally said, “You know, I think, if you want it that bad, I’ll let you work it out on the farm.” So I said, “Okay, that’s fine.” And he had about a 75-acre farm, and he had a lot of fence that needed repairing that summer. And I worked for $2 an hour, and I just about had my fiddle paid off. He wouldn’t give it to me till I had it worked out. So, I about had it—I had it within, you know, 30 or 40 dollars of paying it off. And I went to the Galax Fiddlers Convention, and I won second place in the dancing contest that year, and I won enough money to pay my fiddle off. So I got the fiddle, and I had no idea. There was no fiddle players in my family. Well, there was one, but he wasn’t all that great. <laughs> But we had neighbors, two especially, that played, and they got me started on the fiddle. Again, I just kind of took off on it, because the thing is, when you grow up hearing this music from birth, all the tunes were already in my head. So I—it was just a matter of working them out on your fingers. <laughs>

Jo Reed: And did you love the fiddle immediately?

Eddie Bond: Oh, immediately. Yeah.

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Jo Reed: Here’s a question I have for you, because you’re—you’re an excellent banjo player, an excellent fiddler. When do you reach for one instrument, rather than the other? What does the fiddle give you that the banjo doesn’t, and what does the banjo give you that the fiddle doesn’t?

Eddie Bond: Hmm. Well... now, there are some of the old ballads that I learned from Grandma, for example, that... I can play them on the fiddle, but I learned them playing the banjo. And I—it just seems more natural for me to play the banjo when I’m singing those tunes. And the same with the fiddle, of course. Now, I know many, many, many more tunes on the fiddle than I do on the banjo, at this point, because there came a point when I kind of laid the banjo down, and just started solely concentrating on the fiddle. I could fake them on the banjo, but I wouldn’t be doing them justice, you know? <laughs> So there are lots of tunes that I’d much prefer to play on the fiddle. But I enjoy playing all those instruments, still, and I play autoharp, also. My Grandma Bond played—had an autoharp, and played that a little bit, and... of course, I grew up—the Carter Family was sort of idolized by my family on both sides, I think, and... I’ll never forget the first time I got to go to the Carter Family Fold, in Hiltons, Virginia, to play. That was, to me, like going to the Grand Ole Opry, because they had been put up on such a pedestal by my family that it was just a huge, huge event. And Janette and Joe Carter were still alive back then, and it was like meeting the president, to meet those people, <laughs> you know?

Jo Reed: The New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters.

Eddie Bond: <laughs>

Jo Reed: Can you tell me about this band’s lineage, and its name?

Eddie Bond: Yes. So, the original Bogtrotters were the Galax Bogtrotters, back in the 1920s and 30s. That was Uncle Eck Dunford. His name was Alexander, but they called him Eck for short. And of course, the Ward Brothers, and Doctor Davis, that was the original Bogtrotters. And they won the very first Galax Fiddlers Convention in 1935.  Now Uncle Eck Dunford is sort of the connection to the old Bogtrotters and the new Bogtrotters. So, Dennis Hall is the band leader for our band, the New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters. Uncle Eck, his wife died, and he never remarried, so he had no children and no family. So the Hall family kind of took him in and took care of him. So in 1986, when Dennis wanted to form a new band, Uncle Eck lived on a little creek called Ballards Branch. And Dennis also lives on that same little creek. So Uncle Dennis wanted to revive the name, in honor of Uncle Eck, so he decided it was going to be the New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters. And, now, do you know what a bogtrotter is?

Jo Reed: I was going to ask, “What is a bogtrotter?”

Eddie Bond: <laughs> So, a bogtrotter is a term that’s still used today in Northern Ireland and Southwestern Scotland, and it’s a derogatory name. It was used, at the time, for Ulster Scots, who had moved into Ireland and taken over the land, you know, and they didn’t want them there. So, see, they had hopped across the bog and took over, and that was a nasty name. They called them the bogtrotters. You know, they were sort of invading their space. And so, of course, a lot of the folks in Appalachia were Ulster Scots. So that’s a name that came over with them, when they left there and came to America.

Jo Reed: That they embraced.

Eddie Bond: And Uncle Eck was Ulster Scot, and he spoke and read Gaelic. And there’s still some of those old books that are written in Gaelic, in his cabin today.

Jo Reed: And there we are.

Eddie Bond: And there we are.

Jo Reed: And how long have you been playing with them?

Eddie Bond: Oh, I started playing in 2001, I believe.

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Eddie Bond: Before me was—my distant cousin, Greg Hooven, was the fiddler. He was the original fiddler with Uncle Dennis. And I say “Uncle Dennis” because that’s an honorary title. I’m actually not any kin to Dennis Hall at all, that I know of, but he is my uncle. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Well, you’ve won so many awards at fiddle conventions, but you won two Best All-Around at Galax, which is big.

Eddie Bond: It’s huge, yeah. I don’t know, it’s like winning a Grammy, if you play old-time music, you know?

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Eddie Bond: So, yeah, that was huge, and... those things are great, and it’s—I think I told somebody this yesterday: They asked me what I thought about contest-playing, and I said, “Well, they’re good and they’re bad.” I think when I was young, I took them so seriously. You live for the fiddle contest. It’s all—it’s like it consumes you. You want that blue ribbon. So it makes you practice more, and it makes you strive to be better. It’s kind of the driving force. You know, it’s the carrot on a stick, so to speak. But then I’ve also, you know, I’ve seen it break up friendships. There are some people who take it too far, and they take it too seriously. And I tell all my students, if you’re going to play old-time music—especially old-time—then make sure that you’re really enjoying it, that you’re having a good time, because that’s the biggest thing that you get out of this music. You’re not going to get rich. You’re probably not going to be able to make a living at it. Make sure that you’re enjoying it. Make sure that you’re taking good care of your friends. And if you can’t do that, then quit. <laughs>

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Jo Reed: That was 2018 National Heritage Fellow old-time fiddler Eddie Bond.  Next week, we’ll hear about Eddie’s time in the army—playing the fiddle while he was deployed during the gulf war, his time in Ireland, and his crossing the country as part of the “Crooked Road” tours. Be sure to listen! This has been Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcast and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Old-time fiddler Eddie Bond was born and bred in Grayson County, Virginia, which many consider the musical heart of Appalachian old-time music. Eddie himself comes from a rich musical heritage: he learned the guitar and flat-foot dancing from his grandmother, the banjo from his grandfather, and the fiddle from neighbors. He’s a stunning musical talent picking up all three instruments very quickly and excelling at each. But Eddie gave his heart to the fiddle—winning competitions and playing across the country and throughout the world. Because old-time music is so deeply rooted in place and because Eddie Bond is a great storyteller, this is a two-part podcast. In part 1, we’ll learn about Eddie’s upbringing, the place music had in his family’s life, his own playing, and talk about the roots of old-time music.