A fiddle is another name for the bowed instrument that is more often called a violin. Even though many joke in saying a violin is just a fiddle that went to college, the difference between the two is in the style of playing. A fiddler enjoys old-timey bluegrass like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, whereas a violinist is moved by the stylings of Mozart and Vivaldi. For Parkersburg resident, Ray Fought, his success in the music world has come from the fiddle.
Ray has been active in making and repairing the stringed instrument since 1980. The first fiddle he built was for local musician, Jim Newberry, and Ray never stopped until he built 73 unique bodies, all with a different story. What is interesting about most of his fiddles, are the scrolls.
The scroll is located at the very top of the fiddle; right above the pegbox. It is usually carved in the shape of a volute, or a rolled up spiral. However, Ray sometimes adorns his with carved heads of animals, humans and other objects like basketballs and footballs. Also, whittling the scroll cuts down on the weight of the instrument. One of Ray’s carved animal heads features a ram.
“On the ram’s head, if I would have cut the horns out of wood, they would have snap off. Instead, for the horns, I used a clothes hanger, cut it, bent it, built it up with saw dust and glue and sanded it. Heck, you couldn’t knock those horns off with a hammer!” Ray said.
It is hard to say how long it takes to make one fiddle. It depends on how much time and the pace at which Ray works at to get the job done. Every fiddle is taken from three quarters of an inch wood and then gutted out until it is down to one quarter of an inch. Many of Ray’s instruments have a double maple back and a single spruce top. Even though he has used walnut in his endeavors, it is a porous wood that absorbs the sound.
“I think I’ve got some outstanding fiddles. At least, that’s what everyone tells me anyways,” Ray said.
Ray even received this compliment from W.Va. Senator, Robert Byrd. Not only did Senator Byrd travel to Ray’s home and play about every one of his fiddles, but Ray also built Byrd two fiddles, one of which the senator played on national television. The other was a bedroom fiddle. A bedroom fiddle can be played late at night while everyone is in bed, and they will never hear you. It is basically a stick with stings and a bridge, and it is great for beginners to bow on. Ray would go on to play for Byrd when he was running for office.
“After playing a show, Senator Byrd would make a speech and then say, ‘Ray, go down there and get me that brown fiddle.’ He always liked one of my brown fiddles that I got down in Nashville. Its nickname is Ole Hoss,” Ray said.
Ray started playing about the time he started carving and constructing. As men and women would come to his house and try out his fiddles, he got to watching them and learning a few licks and tunes. In the end, Ray taught himself and is still learning. His method of learning involves listening to recordings of musicians like Merle “Red” Taylor and Jake Crack. After getting a song in his head and being able to hum it for a few days, Ray sits down and puts his fingers to the board.
When you are making music that is as good as Ray’s, it deserves to be shared. Many musicians have been welcomed into the Fought home over the years. More so, they have become acquainted with Ray’s “cellar” or music room that is set up outside in a red and white shanty.
“Fellas like Jack Miller and Glenn Smith would come over to the cellar, and my wife would fix a big apple cobbler or donuts with coffee to bring to us. Everyone had a good ole time just pickin’ and playin’ into the night,” Ray said.
One time, Smith gave Ray a piece of wild cherry and asked him to make a fiddle out of it. According to Ray, it was probably the best one he ever made, and he hated to give it up after it was finished. Well, after Smith passed away, he made a call asking to buy the beautiful, dark fiddle back. Unfortunately, the instrument had made its way to the Appalachian Mountains of N.C.
“I forgot about it until I was sitting here one evening and the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it thinking it was a telemarketer. The lady on the other end of the line told me she had one of my fiddles and called it a masterpiece!” Ray said.
She told him she would like to put the Smith fiddle back in his collection. For $50, the fiddle was in the mail the next morning. It made its long journey home wrapped in a pillow case and carpet.
Even though Ray has spent many nights playing in the cellar, his favorite place to take the stage has been Renfro Valley. Located in the “Bluegrass State,” Renfro Valley has seen the likes of Opry Stars Hank Cochran, Willie Nelson and Ray Price. Speaking of Price, Ray Fought used his carving skills to make Price a walking cane.
“It gives you a special feeling when you walk out there and you look at 1,500 people. The first time I ever went out onstage, I said to myself, ‘Well, I’m just gonna go out there and play that thing like I do at the High Rise.’ That is what I put in my mind, and that is what I had done. I did pretty good, and that crowd just gave me a big ole hand,” Ray said.
Nowadays, Ray still plays every Thursday night at the High Rise in Parkersburg. He takes out Ole Hoss and makes rosin fly off his bow when he takes off on tunes like Soldier’s Joy and Angeline the Baker. Ray may be 88-years-old, but he can still play like the young man that was starting his career in 1980.
“I can feel the rhythm when I play, and that is what keeps me going through each song. More importantly music keeps me going through each day – it is what picks you up when you are down,” Ray said.