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Mack Snoderly: Fiddler of the Festivals
By Michael Beadle

Mack Snoderly never could give up fiddling.

Maybe it’s the good times he’s had playing with friends. Maybe it’s the appeal of the instrument, the stringed science with a sweet soul.“Maybe it’s 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 master
fiddler. Winner of more than 60 fiddle festivals, he’s cut a handful of
records while playing with several bands. He’s performed throughout the
Southeast including Opryland and the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. He’s
been called “a fiddler’s 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 to
Laura Boosinger, an accomplished musician and singer who first met Snoderly
in the 1980s when the two would play at contests. Boosinger later joined
Snoderly’s group, The Painless Band (a pun based on Snoderly’s years as a
dentist).
“He was always a real gentleman,” Boosinger said, attesting to his shyness
and dry sense of humor. “He’s a fiddler that a lot of young people have
wanted to emulate.... He’s always the guy to beat.”
Snoderly’s tastes range from old-time country music to French-Canadian songs
to fast-paced Texas tunes. He’ll tell you how he’s out to find a better
fiddle and reads over the definitive history of the finely crafted
Stradivari violins. He’s comfortable practicing in a wooded clearing or
listening to an Itzhak Perlman violin concert. As both a folk artist and a
refined connoisseur of the violin, he appreciates the complete spectrum of
his field.
Growing up
At 6 years old, Snoderly began playing the piano with his Uncle Silas and
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
around music.”
On a small farm in Maryville, Tenn., the Snoderly family raised tobacco,
cattle, corn, potatoes and other garden vegetables.
Mack’s mother played piano while his father played guitar and some fiddle —
though he practiced so little on the fiddle, he didn’t bother putting hair
on the bow. In fact, that’s how Mack got started: playing fiddle with a
hairless bow.
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, he
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,” Snoderly
said. “I tried to sound like him for a long time.”
To learn Forrester’s style, Snoderly would tape him in 30-minute sessions.
Since Mack had no tape player, he would go to the local radio station where
he and a friend could make a record from the music on tape (much as one
would do today burning a CD). It wasn’t until after college that Snoderly
would have the spare time to listen closely to those records and develop his
own sense of style.
At East Tennessee State University, Snoderly met his wife, Becky, an art
student. The two had gone to the same high school in Maryville but didn’t
get acquainted until college. It wasn’t really love at first note, Becky
said, admitting that she didn’t find out about Mack’s interest in the fiddle
until after they were engaged.
They married in 1961. Mack returned to school, earning his doctorate at the
University of Tennessee’s School of Dentistry before moving with Becky to
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 didn’t have time to fiddle around, so it
wasn’t until moving to Mars Hill in the spring of 1967 that he began honing
his fiddling skills. On Friday nights in nearby Leicester, the Snoderly
family took part in a local tradition — musical jam sessions at Chub and
Thelma Parham’s house. For years, the Parhams would invite the local talents
to play and enjoy food and family fun. Musicians would play from twilight to
midnight, Snoderly said.
For a young musician, it was that long-awaited time of discovery, when he
learned there were other people in the world who loved the same music he
loved. And by getting to know quality fiddlers in the area, he began to
learn more of the subtleties and styles of fiddle playing.
“When you start out, you don’t hear what you’re playing; you hear what you
imagine you should sound like,” he said. “You have an inflated idea of what
you’re doing.”
But that changed when he bought a tape recorder. Once he could hear himself
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, he’ll say.
“He practices constantly,” said Jim Trantham, a Haywood County ballad singer
and instrument maker. “He won’t 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 how
he was playing.
One long, gliding movement of the bow across the fiddle strings can make
several different notes, but the sound can slur if played too often. So
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, lips
pursed in steady concentration, right hand holding the bow, string hand
curled around the fiddle neck, Snoderly coaxes a gentle melody from wood and
string.
Eventually, the practice sessions turned into rehearsed shows, and by the
1970s and ‘80s, Snoderly had established himself as a regular at fiddling
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 much
like figure skating events, Snoderly said. You’ve got preliminary and
finalist performances, the judges hold up scores and sometimes boos come
when the audience disagrees with the judge’s scoring. With different
categories of musicians, a typical contest might begin in the morning and
continue well into the night.
“Sometimes the finals would go on until after midnight,” Snoderly said.
Looking back over the years
At his home in Clyde, one wall couldn’t contain his growing number of
plaques, so only some of them are displayed. A set of purple ribbons from
the Fiddlers Grove Festival fills one frame like a bouquet of flowers. Over
the years, Snoderly has played with The Hornpipers (later the Carroll Best
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 and
banjo player Flave Hart.
Snoderly could have left his day job as a dentist to tour professionally as
a fiddler.
“It’s quite unusual that I have continued to play,” he said, adding that he
knows of relatives who have stopped playing after marriage or other major
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
music’s best.

 

Mack Snodderly

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