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Wednesday, April 07, 2004
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Legend continues to make beautiful sounds

By STEPHEN THOMAS, Staff Writer

SHEPHERDSVILLE - The fiddle that once belonged to Grandpa Thomas remains silent in its case.

Fortunately, there are 15 other fiddles in Bullitt County still thriving upon the sound of fingers with Appalachian roots.

Their owner is Art Stamper, long-time Shepherdsville resident and member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

The life of "The Lost Fiddler" began along Troublesome Creek, near Hindman, Ky., located in Knott County.

An old-time fiddler, Hiram Stamper, a famous square dance caller throughout the southeast Kentucky region, raised one of seven children, Stamper. Hiram's father was a drummer during the Civil War.

Stamper's current home lies on farmland along the outskirts of Shepherdsville. The area is similar, in a small fraction, to the world Stamper was raised in.

As a cow stared and chewed hay in a nearby field, and a dog howled on the front porch, Stamper offered a warm greeting with a firm handshake. His other hand grasped the fiddle bow as if he were born with the attachment.

The first thing Stamper did was display his favorite fiddle of the moment, a custom-made Ferguson 1985 five-string. He explained with five strings one could make both a viola and a violin sound from the same instrument.

Sitting nearby Stamper was longtime friend and banjo picker Harry Bickel. The two have played music together for 40 years. Bickel mentioned he learned the most about music from Stamper and Bluegrass artist J.D. Crowe.

With Bickel's 1922 Vega open-back five-string banjo tuned to compliment Stamper's fiddle, the duet soon exploded musically.

Poised as stern as a statue, yet with the ease of a floating feather, Stamper created what he does best. His bow sparked the strings until notes could be envisioned flying from the instrument.

As the song progressed, the thump of Stamper's foot kept time and reverberated through the walls. His fingers seemed to leave his left hand and dance along the fiddle's neck.

All the while, Stamper stared straight ahead, concentrated and content, gazing through the front door and toward the field, as if looking back in time to his Knott County days.

Although Stamper is an accomplished Bluegrass fiddler, his current style is known as Old Timey, a slight variation from today's more widely known Bluegrass.

Old Timey, according to Stamper, is an attempt to play songs the way they were intended to be played when first established. The instruments work together throughout the tune, and there are no grand solos like in Bluegrass songs. Stamper said the pace of an Old Timey song is slower as well.

"I like Ricky Skaggs but he plays too fast," said Stamper. "A fiddler doesn't have much time to think what he's doing."

Stamper moved to the area in 1956 when he first attended cosmetology school.

"In Knott County you either worked in the coal mines or you left to pursue something else," Stamper mentioned. He decided he wanted to cut hair for a living.

The fact that a Bluegrass Hall of Famer chose hairdressing over a musical career was not an insane one for its time. Lots of musicians came from Stamper's area, and what he was doing didn't seem special to him then.

The hairdressing decision came four years after Stamper's first musical recording, on Rich-R-Tone Records in the winter of 1952. Rich-R-Tone was known as the "World's oldest Bluegrass label" at one time.

By 1952 Stamper was already touring with Ralph and Carter Stanley, famous as the Stanley Brothers, one of the biggest Bluegrass acts in music history.

The Stanley Brothers had also recorded with Rich-R-Tone, and Stamper joined them on their first of many legendary recordings with Mercury Records in August 1953. Among songs from that session were, This Weary Heart You Stole Away (Wake Up, Sweetheart) and (Say) Won't You Be Mine, two of the first nationally popular Bluegrass tunes.

"Back then we were Hillbillies," said Stamper. "There was no Bluegrass reference yet."

In 1956 Stamper played on the first recording of the Osborne Brothers, another famous Bluegrass band most noted for their song, "Rocky Top."

Songs from the first Osborne Brothers session included, My Aichin' Heart, Whodunit, Ruby, Are You Mad? and Teardrops In My Eyes."

Stamper's fiddle work has been featured on some of the greatest early Bluegrass recordings, but he still stepped away from the music business to pursue hairdressing in 1956.

"Back then you didn't know if you'd make any money (in music)," said Stamper. "Now there's the realization on looking back on the history of the music. I was really making history playing and didn't even know it."

Stamper began cosmetology school in Louisville in 1956. He moved to Bullitt County in 1968 to get out of the city.

After a talk with his barber in Hindman, Stamper decided on hair styling. It was better financially and the job also protected his hands.

"People that play are more picky about their hands," he mentioned.

"The Way Of Art" was Stamper's hair salon in Louisville. He was owner/manager as well as stylist. He won a few hairdresser awards over the 20 years he maintained the business.

Over that time Stamper still played fiddle frequently, sometimes for customers in the salon.

Stamper finally returned full-time to music in 1978, playing with different musicians and appearing at various Bluegrass festivals.

His nickname, "The Lost Fiddler," was popularized following his return. He recorded a song by that title with J.D. Crowe in 1982. He also released a solo album by that name in 1995.

Stamper's playing was rewarded three consecutive years, 1986-88, when he received the Best Old Time Fiddler award presented by the Society of the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association (SPGMA) in Nashville, Tenn.

Later into the 1980s and throughout the 90s Stamper turned his talents to the younger generation of fiddlers. He began teaching at clinics and colleges and anywhere a student was willing to learn a trick or two from the old pro.

Stamper's latest solo album, "Goodbye Girls, I'm Going to Boston," was released in 2000, earning as much acclaim as any other recordings in his career. Part of the album appeared as background music on a television episode of National Geographic.

It was also in 2000 when Stamper was diagnosed with throat cancer. The following year he survived throat surgery and a tracheotomy.

Stamper still has his good and bad moments. He is still able to perform on occasion, including a recent appearance with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys at the Shepherdsville Country Music Show.

Through all the years, the many careers, musical changes, and physical challenges, Stamper still plays the fiddle like ringing a bell.

In fact, he is prepared to record a new album with Bickel, covering many Old Timey songs.

Stamper still enjoys each day with Kay, his wife of the past 20 years. Kay is originally from Japan, where Bluegrass is surprisingly popular. The couple met at a Bluegrass festival. Kay admitted she originally attended to meet Grandpa Jones.

Stamper's family consists of three children and four grandchildren. His son, Blake, is currently touring and promoting his own album, which features Hickabilly music.

Through memories, recordings, and family life, Stamper's days remain full and enjoyable. Although he has countless precious moments to choose from, he is quick to tell which is his favorite.

"My most exciting moment is when I learn a new tune," he said. "When you get to a point where you can't learn anything, it's time to quit."

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