A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices


Appalachia’s Stradivarius

By Sam Venable
images/voice_uploads/fiddle.gif">The Fabulous Fifties had arrived, and things couldn’t get much better. The Great Depression was ancient history, World War II a fading memory, and Americans were back on their financial feet, striding confidently and blissfully down the road to eternal prosperity.

Most of them, anyway.

Young folks who hailed from the misty ridges and dark hollows of southern Appalachia were not exactly overburdened with homegrown occupational opportunities. For many of them, there still existed only one surefire formula for vocational success, the same one that had presented itself when their parents came of age: go north, young man.

“That’s what almost all my generation did,” remembers Gene Horner. “You got out of school and got yourself a job in an automobile plant. There was good money in it.”

Perhaps. But it also meant leaving paradise, and that’s a step Horner wasn’t ready to take.

Oh, he’d been around. Four years in Uncle Sam’s navy had given the country boy a glimpse outside the confines of Cumberland County, Tennessee. After he was discharged in 1955, Horner even went so far as to visit a buddy near Dayton, Ohio, and flirt with the idea of settling in that foreign land. That notion passed quickly.

“I realized livin’ up north just wasn’t for me,” Horner says with a gentle laugh. “I decided to come back here and starve it out.”

Not surprising. “Back here” in the Westel community has been a refuge for Horners for 200 years. Except the family name was “Harner” then, brought to America from
Austria by Gene’s great-great-grandfather, Christopher. What’s more, the land on which these folks eventually settled was part of Roane County at the time. That didn’t change until 1855, when Cumberland County was formed.

Gene Horner knows his family history. He has no choice in the matter, for history is all around him. He was born in 1933 in a one-room poplar log cabin. It’s the same cabin in which his father, Charles, was born in 1903. The same cabin his grandfather, William, built around 1896.

“The way it was told to me, my great-grandfather, Adam, was born around 1800 while his family was moving to this area from Pennsylvania,” says Horner. “He settled around here and wound up owning a lot of land. About 6,600 acres.”

Ownership of huge tracts was not uncommon in those days. If a man needed a mule, he could always trade 100 acres or so to get one. Or, strapped for cash, he might sell more of the spread for the outlandish price of a dollar an acre. Horner’s forefathers did a masterful job of whittling down their holdings. By the time his grandfather died in 1918, only 37 acres remained.

Right there’s where Horner lives and works today. His home sits roughly 100 yards west of the cabin where he was born. Horner built the house himself, largely from wood salvaged from the Waldensia Hotel, about four miles up the road in the coal mining community of Dayesville.

“The mines up there had gone busted, and the heirs started selling everything off,” says Horner. “I bought that old hotel for $125 and started tearing it apart. Took me 30 days. I had to throw some of the wood away ‘cause the bugs had eaten it up. Sold part of it to get some of my money back, too. I quarried the stone for the foundation and made the windows and the doors. By the time I had the walls up and black felt on the roof, I had $65 in that house. ‘Bout all I had to buy was nails!”

If you’re getting the notion that Gene Horner knows something about (1) working with wood and (2) making do, you’re on the right track. For nearly 15 years after he and Anne Lawson got married in 1957, Horner earned his living as a cabinetmaker. For 18 months during the same period, he also tried “public works,” hiring out as a forklift operator for the Civil Defense office in Rockwood. He quit just in time to come down with a ruptured appendix.

“My wife was about to have a baby, I had a new car to pay for, we had no money, and I couldn’t work for three months,” he sighed. “When you’re up to your neck in alligators like that, you better make friends with the alligators! I drew a little unemployment check for awhile. It wasn’t much, but it kept us going ‘till I could get back on my feet.”

Horner’s fortunes were indeed about to change. Not quickly, for sure. In fact, more years of cabinetmaking would pass before he could devote full time to a different type of woodworking. But the change did come. So did the customers.

“I’d always been intrigued by fiddles,” he said. “When I was about 14 years old, I found my grandfather’s old fiddle in a trunk. It was busted all to pieces. I stuck it back together as best I could. Made a bow with horsehair — not much more than a stick, really — and went to scrubbing on the thing. I didn’t know what I was into. Didn’t have the first idea how to start. Matter of fact, I was nearly 25 years old before I heard a real, live fiddle player.”

As always, it was make do or do without. With little more than a pamphlet and static-filled radio music to guide him, Horner taught himself how to play the fiddle. It was not a classic education.

“I learned a lot of bad habits, like holding my wrist wrong. But there wasn’t anybody to show me any different. Teaching string music in school was unheard of in those days. I still can’t read music. It’s all by ear. It finally dawned on me I wasn’t going to be a virtuoso, so I decided if I was going to stay in this, maybe I ought to learn to make the instrument.”

On his own, of course. By trial and error.

“The first few I tried were a terrible mess,” he said. “No matter what somebody might tell you, this is not the best way to learn. It takes so much longer. You can learn more in four years from a master instrument maker than you can learn on your own in 20. I make a pretty good fiddle these days, but it could be a lot better if I’d had some training from the start.”

Pretty good?

The professional musicians who use Horner’s instruments would surely classify that as understatement. From the Grand Ole Opry to Dollywood to county fairs and bluegrass festivals, Horner’s fiddles — as well as his mandolins, guitars, banjos, even a bass or two — send forth the sweet mountain music of America.

Singer-songwriter John (“Gentle On My Mind”) Hartford uses a Horner fiddle. As does Jim Buchanan of the George Jones band, and Paul Justice, who plays for Mel Tillis.
Plus Nashville recording artist Kenny Sears and country comedian-musician Mike Snider. What’s more, Horner fiddles have been displayed at the National Folk Arts
Festival in Washington, D.C.; the Future Homemakers of America Museum in Reston, Virginia; the museum of Appalachia Hall of Fame in Norris, Tn.; the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville and the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga.

“I was sittin’ in the audience at the Grand Ole Opry one night when Kenny Sears opened the show playing ‘Old Joe Clark’ on one of my fiddles,” he recalls. “Man, what a thrill! I may not be a member of the Opry, but my fiddle is!”

All the work, from the first cut of a maple blank to the final coat of varnish, takes place in Horner’s 24-by-40-foot shop that he built himself, with some of that same old Waldensia Hotel wood. The shop sits about 60 yards south of his house, at the end of a row of towering walnut trees his father planted in 1932. Horner gets there early, 4:30 or 5 o’clock some mornings and works until he decides to quit.

On this particular day, the doors at either end of the shop are thrown open to allow passage of a cool breeze blowing off of Waldens Ridge. From one door comes the coarse che-wink of a towhee, from another the bubbling song of a Carolina wren. Interspersed is the monotone rum-rum-rum of a bullfrog in the small pond that sits between the shop and the old log cabin. Horner created the pond in 1970 when he dammed a small spring creek that flows through his property.

Visitors are always welcome in Horner’s shop, just as long as they don’t mind getting a little dust on their clothes. This place is a woodworker’s delight, its floor lined with band saws, drill presses, lathes, shapers, carving machines, planers, jointers, table saws, plus uncountable dozens of hand tools, gouges, knives, and clamps, many of which he made. Not to mention the stacks and stacks of wood, patiently waiting their turn at the workbench.

Horner uses curly maple for the sides and back of his fiddles, and either red or German spruce for the top. For tuning pegs, he selects a variety of woods, including mountain mahogany, ebony, rosewood, and boxwood. He begins each piece by cutting the side, a thin strip approximately 1/16th inch thick, then soaking it in water to make it pliable, shaping it with a heated cast-iron bender, and attaching it to a plywood mold — which, naturally, he made himself.

Using another homemade pattern, Horner saws the top and back from a sheet of maple roughly 5/8ths of an inch thick, then shaves them down with small planes and gouges to thicknesses ranging from 2 1/2 millimeters in the center of the back. The scrollwork on the neck must be carved. Ditto the heart-shaped pegs. The piece might be inlaid with mother of pearl or ebony. And “purfling,” a narrow, ribbonlike inlay that flows along the contour of the instrument, is cut with a small, sharp knife.
Other parts, like the bridge, neck, fingerboard, and tailpiece, are installed. Everything is glued together, then varnished.

“I can make a fiddle, start to finish, in seven or eight days, maybe even less,” said Horner, “but the varnishing takes longer because it has to dry between coats. I usually put on anywhere from seven to 10 coats.”

Is the finished product a fiddle or a violin?

Horner grins at the question: “If I’m sellin’ one to you, it’s a violin. If I’m buying it from you, it’s a fiddle. Violins cost more, you see.

“Actually, there’s not a bit of difference in this world, and anybody who says otherwise is ignorant. The word ‘fiddle’ comes from the English language. ‘Violin’ comes from Italian. Oh, the music you play on them can be different, but there’s all kinds of music — classical, jazz, country, whatever. The instruments themselves are the same.”

And as far as Gene Horner is concerned, they’ll never be improved. He ought to know. He’s made more than 400.

“The fiddle is a perfect instrument,” he says. “You can’t change it. It’s been that way for 300 years, and no bright-eyed kid out of college is going to redesign it. It’s a simple wooden box, and yet it’s complicated. You never know what you’re going to get when you make one. The bottom line is when a musician tucks it under his chin, and he likes the sound it makes.

“Nobody has ever made two fiddles exactly alike. It won’t ever happen, either. Some are goin’ to look and sound better to me than to you and vice versa. All I know is that when it’s finished, it’s goin’ to make a sound the world has never heard before.”

Excerpted from Mountain Hands: A Portrait of Southern Appalachia by Sam Venable, photographs by Paul Efird (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville; 2000.) To purchase the book, visit your local bookseller.

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