Kentucky’s Roger Cooper: Big Sandy River and Beyond

Posted by | March 28, 2011

The following article by L. Scott Miller appears in the Spring 2011 issue of Fiddler magazine. Miller is a freelance musician, writer and educator. He is the 2010 Grand Master’s Traditional Fiddle Champion and is passionate about the fiddling from his native Ohio River Valley.


Roger Cooper is a link to the past for what he calls Big Sandy River style fiddling. He says, “I’ve never heard anybody else call it that. But to me, the fiddling and tunes through this area of eastern Kentucky, southern Ohio and southwest West Virginia have a common style and sound.” Roger learned from his old friends and mentors who comprise a list of who’s who of the area’s old time fiddlers. His relationships with Buddy Thomas, Bob Prater, Morris Allen, Jimmy Wheeler, and George Hawkins make him a primary resource for the region’s rich fiddle tradition.

roger cooper, fiddlerRoger’s musical life and fiddling have been well-documented on his recordings: Going Back to Old Kentucky and Essence of Old Kentucky on Rounder Records. It is apparent, after reading the liner notes, he is more comfortable shifting attention from himself to the old fiddlers who were his friends and mentors. Joe Dobbs, retired radio host of Music from the Mountains, comments, “Roger truly loved Buddy Thomas and those old people. He didn’t necessarily have an interest in the cultural significance because they were his friends and neighbors. He loved being around them and playing those old tunes they had kept alive in spite of the growth of commercial music.”

One of the defining characteristics of Roger’s fiddling is the rhythmic pulse of his bowing. Flatpicking guitar champion Robin Kessinger agrees. “I’ve played guitar a lot behind Roger over the years. His fiddling is precise and clear and his timing is impeccable. But the thing I’ve learned most from playing with him is rhythm. I don’t mean timing, but the pulsating rhythm he puts in a tune.”

Roger considers this hard-driving dance rhythm and pulse the most important element in old time fiddling. He likens the strong beat to a fly wheel on an engine which must have enough initial spin to set itself in motion, which he regulates with bow speed. Though he considers himself a down bow fiddler, his frequent use of shuffle bowing is often disguised by his equal emphasis on the up bow. He developed this by backward bowing (leading with an up bow) tunes like “Martha Campbell,” stating that many old-timers, like George Hawkins, took pride they could bow either way.

Roger also notes he puts a lot of pressure on the bow. “I like to get everything out of a fiddle I can. I remember J. P. Fraley had bought a Hayslett fiddle [Harold Hayslett is a renowned violin maker from Charleston, West Virginia]. We were jamming and I kept eyeing that fiddle, thinking, ‘I wonder what that fiddle’s really got?’ because J.P. played pretty light, never very hard. So I said, ‘J.P., let me play that fiddle.’

Then I really tore into it. I tried to get everything I could out of it. Finally J.P. squawked, ‘Give me that fiddle back. You’re goin’ to play the guts out of it!’ J.P. was real mild mannered and easy going but he really got excited.” [laughs]

Another ingredient to Roger’s fiddling is his ease at improvising and creating melodic variations. “I think of the basic tune as the skeleton. After you learn the basic skeleton there are a lot of different ways you can approach it. The good fiddlers around here put their twist on it.”

He comments that though there was some isolation (geographically), the river trade and travel brought musical influences from a lot of different places, making old time fiddling along the Ohio River Valley different from the coal fields or isolated mountain areas.

Although Roger’s hard-driving style and melodic variations were influenced by his mentors, his fiddling is distinctly Roger Cooper. To Roger, individual style is one of the ingredients that make old time fiddling a living tradition. “It’s fine to learn to play a tune just like Buddy Thomas or someone else, but as you become a better fiddler your personality needs to come out. That’s your individual style. Otherwise you’re just copycattin’.” 
…

Roger is also active in teaching the tunes and fiddle style he learned from his mentors to a new generation of interested fiddlers. He is a master artist teaching through the Kentucky Arts Councils’ Folk Arts Apprenticeship program and teaches each summer at the Cowen Creek Mountain Music School in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

He has also produced a learning DVD, entitled Splitting Hairs. “The only way to keep these tunes and style alive is to teach it to young people,” he says. “They’re the future of this music.”…

Roger’s recordings, Going Back to Old Kentucky and Essence of Old Kentucky, are available from Rounder Records as downloads; a physical CD of Essence of Old Kentucky is now available from Musical Traditions Records. The liner notes go into detail about his mentors, the regional style and tune backgrounds. His learning DVD, Splitting Hairs, is available from the Jesse Stuart Foundation in Ashland, Kentucky along with free downloadable transcriptions to six of his local tunes.

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