Snoderly: Fiddler of the Festivals
never could give up fiddling.
the good times hes had playing with friends. Maybe its the
appeal of the instrument, the stringed science with a sweet soul.Maybe
its not growing up, he says, grinning as he sits in his
living room. A fiddle rests in a chair within arms reach. At 59 years
old, Dr. Robert Mack Snoderly is widely recognized as a
fiddler. Winner of more than 60 fiddle festivals, hes cut a handful
records while playing with several bands. Hes performed throughout
Southeast including Opryland and the 1982 Worlds Fair in Knoxville.
been called a fiddlers fiddler for his attention to
detail and his
willingness to play complicated tunes.
No matter where he goes, he attracts attention to his music, according
Laura Boosinger, an accomplished musician and singer who first met Snoderly
in the 1980s when the two would play at contests. Boosinger later joined
Snoderlys group, The Painless Band (a pun based on Snoderlys
years as a
He was always a real gentleman, Boosinger said, attesting
to his shyness
and dry sense of humor. Hes a fiddler that a lot of young
wanted to emulate.... Hes always the guy to beat.
Snoderlys tastes range from old-time country music to French-Canadian
to fast-paced Texas tunes. Hell tell you how hes out to
find a better
fiddle and reads over the definitive history of the finely crafted
Stradivari violins. Hes comfortable practicing in a wooded clearing
listening to an Itzhak Perlman violin concert. As both a folk artist
refined connoisseur of the violin, he appreciates the complete spectrum
At 6 years old, Snoderly began playing the piano with his Uncle Silas
took up the fiddle as well.
The fiddle was always there on top of the piano, he said.
A lot of people
in my family played. ... And most of the family get-togethers revolved
On a small farm in Maryville, Tenn., the Snoderly family raised tobacco,
cattle, corn, potatoes and other garden vegetables.
Macks mother played piano while his father played guitar and some
though he practiced so little on the fiddle, he didnt bother putting
on the bow. In fact, thats how Mack got started: playing fiddle
In high school, Snoderly stopped taking piano lessons and began praticing
the violin, later playing in recitals with the Maryville College orchestra
as a high school student. While he was well-versed in classical music,
came home to the fiddle.
I liked the fiddle better than anything, he said.
In the 1950s, Snoderly heard Howdy Forrester, a well-known fiddler who
performed at shows where Snoderly played.
He just had a beautiful tone to his playing that was so unusual,
said. I tried to sound like him for a long time.
To learn Forresters style, Snoderly would tape him in 30-minute
Since Mack had no tape player, he would go to the local radio station
he and a friend could make a record from the music on tape (much as
would do today burning a CD). It wasnt until after college that
would have the spare time to listen closely to those records and develop
own sense of style.
At East Tennessee State University, Snoderly met his wife, Becky, an
student. The two had gone to the same high school in Maryville but didnt
get acquainted until college. It wasnt really love at first note,
said, admitting that she didnt find out about Macks interest
in the fiddle
until after they were engaged.
They married in 1961. Mack returned to school, earning his doctorate
University of Tennessees School of Dentistry before moving with
Mars Hill, N.C. Instead of setting up his own dental practice, Snoderly
began working in schools as a public health dentist.
Finding other fiddlers
During dentist school, Snoderly didnt have time to fiddle around,
wasnt until moving to Mars Hill in the spring of 1967 that he
his fiddling skills. On Friday nights in nearby Leicester, the Snoderly
family took part in a local tradition musical jam sessions at
Thelma Parhams house. For years, the Parhams would invite the
to play and enjoy food and family fun. Musicians would play from twilight
midnight, Snoderly said.
For a young musician, it was that long-awaited time of discovery, when
learned there were other people in the world who loved the same music
loved. And by getting to know quality fiddlers in the area, he began
learn more of the subtleties and styles of fiddle playing.
When you start out, you dont hear what youre playing;
you hear what you
imagine you should sound like, he said. You have an inflated
idea of what
But that changed when he bought a tape recorder. Once he could hear
and others on tape, he began to pick up the timing, the tone, the rhythms.
It makes you more aware, he said. And constant practice
day in and day out
makes the best fiddlers, hell say.
He practices constantly, said Jim Trantham, a Haywood County
and instrument maker. He wont play a tune half-done.
After watching a child prodigy play the fiddle, Snoderly went back and
changed all of his songs and even studied himself in the mirror to see
he was playing.
One long, gliding movement of the bow across the fiddle strings can
several different notes, but the sound can slur if played too often.
Snoderly found the trick is to mix up long bow movements with shorter,
quicker notes to create a mixed melody.
With his fiddle tucked under his chin, eyes fixed on his instrument,
pursed in steady concentration, right hand holding the bow, string hand
curled around the fiddle neck, Snoderly coaxes a gentle melody from
Eventually, the practice sessions turned into rehearsed shows, and by
1970s and 80s, Snoderly had established himself as a regular at
festivals and contests throughout Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama,
Georgia and Virginia. He picked up dozens of first-place awards as an
individual performer and band member. The fiddling contests can be very
like figure skating events, Snoderly said. Youve got preliminary
finalist performances, the judges hold up scores and sometimes boos
when the audience disagrees with the judges scoring. With different
categories of musicians, a typical contest might begin in the morning
continue well into the night.
Sometimes the finals would go on until after midnight, Snoderly
Looking back over the years
At his home in Clyde, one wall couldnt contain his growing number
plaques, so only some of them are displayed. A set of purple ribbons
the Fiddlers Grove Festival fills one frame like a bouquet of flowers.
the years, Snoderly has played with The Hornpipers (later the Carroll
Band), The Stoney Creek Boys Band and The Painless String Band. He also
started a group called The Reel Band with guitar player Kirk Randleman
banjo player Flave Hart.
Snoderly could have left his day job as a dentist to tour professionally
Its quite unusual that I have continued to play, he
said, adding that he
knows of relatives who have stopped playing after marriage or other
events in their lives.
But Mack Snoderly keeps on playing, continuing to learn more about fiddles
and complicated tunes, playing with both young and veteran musicians,
playing at festivals, and being honored among the pantheon of mountain