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Travis Inman - Missouri Fiddler
A fiddle contest is a noisy place. Fiddlers are warming up and tuning, along with backup musicians of all descriptions. There is a popcorn machine popping away, an old tractor being fired up for a wide-eyed bunch of boys (and their fathers), and perhaps the rumble of a fire truck in a parade. Announcements are on the PA, kids are on the loose, and folks in lawn chairs are visiting under the deep shade of the town square.
This is Travis Inman’s native habitat, and his fiddling comes through the noise, clear and bright, and deeply grounded in his own roots in Missouri. The eleven-time Missouri State Fiddle Champ is a pivotal fiddler both stylistically and geographically. His home town of Cole Camp, Missouri, twenty-some miles south of Sedalia, is near the southern edge of the Little Dixie region. To the south and west of Cole Camp, another fiddle-rich territory stretches out, into the great forests of the Missouri Ozarks, full of short-bow dance fiddlers, and toward Oklahoma, the beginnings of the wide plains and a wilder western style. Travis also represents a transitional time period between dance-dominated fiddle traditions of earlier years and more contest- and performance-oriented traditions of today. He has embraced elements of all these influences to create a sound that’s deeply traditional, surprisingly contemporary, and uniquely his own.
Travis was born in 1963 and grew up on his parents’ hog farm, working and playing on 520 acres on Indian Creek in Benton County. For Robert and Hazel Inman, fiddle music was part of everyday life. Robert played fiddle, and Travis’s uncle, Othello Smith, lived and fiddled just down the road. “You could almost see their house from our place, when the leaves were off the trees. He was an old square dance fiddler, ... and he was really a good fiddle player in his earlier years.” Robert’s parents played as well, fiddle and guitar, and Hazel’s family likewise boasted several musicians, so family gatherings were often centered around music.
It wasn’t just live music that reached young Travis’s ears; just as an earlier generation of fiddlers had clustered around the Victrola to hear Doc Roberts, the Inman family had LPs of fiddle music from Canadian greats to the ever-popular Tommy Jackson.
Though his brother and sister both began to play music, the bug didn’t bite Travis till the age of thirteen. When he went to a fiddle contest with his dad and brother, at twelve, “I told Dad, I said, next year, I’m going to go down there and enter this contest. And dad just kinda like, oh, yeah, sure, you know, how you kind of shrug a kid off a little bit? But I had really serious intentions on going and playing! So I did, and the three tunes I played were Boil them Cabbage Down, the Maple Leaf Waltz, and Old Joe Clark ... and I won first place in the junior division. And somewhere, out in the outbuilding down on the farm, I still have my little bitty trophy packed away in a box in this old shed, in the attic of it. That’s been a lot of hot and cold days ago, I’ll guarantee you.”
Playing contests every time he got the chance, Travis met many well-known Little Dixie region fiddlers like Pete McMahan, Jake Hockemeyer and Taylor McBaine and “always tried to steal every lick I could from ‘em.” When still in his teens, Travis got a boost from local celebrity Kelly Jones, whom he calls an “ultimate fiddling machine.” Kelly, many times Missouri state champion, had been touring professionally, and when Travis and his dad dropped in at Kelly’s home in Stover, he welcomed them. Travis played his newest tune, Flop-Eared Mule, for Kelly. Kelly played it back to him, and just “played the fire out of it.” Travis went home with stars in his eyes and a promise of lessons. He says “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have become the fiddler I am. Because he showed me technique.” The two participated in a Missouri Traditional Arts Apprenticeship in 1988-89 and still sit down from time to time to play a few tunes and reminisce. Travis also learned tunes popularized by northwest Missouri hornpipe fiddler Cyril Stinnett.
The young fiddler also found some hidden gems closer to home. “When I was growin’ up down in there, there was a lot of good fiddle players living up in those hills...you know, there was dance fiddlers.” Travis remembers Sac River Jones, so called because he lived down on the Sac River. He says, “Sac was an awful fine fiddle player, an old-time dance fiddler.”
A key early influence was Virgil Burns. “Virgil was a monster fiddle player. ...[His wife] didn’t like him playin’ ... so he didn’t own a fiddle. One time he went to a fiddle contest in Cole Camp years ago, when I was a small boy, and he got up there, and ... he borrowed somebody’s fiddle, and wound up playin’, and won the contest on a borrowed fiddle. That’s what kind of a good player he was. He died when I was in my early 20s, and I never got to spend the time with him that I really wanted to.”
Another fiddler the young Travis knew was Milton Taylor, a local veterinarian. “Milton played a few fiddle tunes on the fiddle, and when I was a little bitty boy, I used to go over and listen to Milton fiddle. And Milton played the Old Blue Mule, and he played it in C. And the only people I ever heard play that was him and my great-uncles, the Swearngins.”
The Swearngins are Travis’s mother’s relatives. Travis’s great-uncle John played fiddle, and John’s nephew Doc played guitar. John’s brother Jim and sister Kate played fiddle as well; Kate, family legend says, was an Oklahoma state champion fiddler back in the 1920s, at a time when it was rare for women to play, much less compete and win. Travis remembers, “The Swearngins, they all played music, played square dances. I remember going down to Uncle John’s and Uncle Doc’s when I was a kid, and listening to them play old fiddle tunes that you never hear anymore.”
As he quickly became a monster fiddler himself, Travis began to travel more widely, enjoying (and winning) fiddle contests in several states. Just as his early contest experiences connected him with the great players in the mid-Missouri tradition, these broader experiences hooked him up with some national contest greats, some of whom became influences as well.
Oklahoma’s contests became a big influence. “Oklahoma’s big contest country. Of course today, you know, it’s mostly Texas style fiddling ... but I guess back in the day it was just good old-time fiddle music like they played under the covered wagons.” The Western Hills Resort near Tahlequah holds an annual fiddler’s convention where Travis first met another mentor, Herman Johnson, who contributed many of the mainstays of Travis’s repertoire.
As he branched out, Travis also became involved in swing fiddle. “I love to play good swing fiddle, but you gotta have a good swing band to play it.“
This appreciation for the stylistic elements of different flavors of fiddling leads Travis to his unique sound. Rather than slavishly reproduce any of his mentors’ fine fiddling, he prefers to put his own scald on the pieces he plays. For instance, he says of Eva Anne’s Waltz, “I learned it from [Frankie Kelly], learned the straight melody line from him, and kind of embellished it, changed it a little bit ... He didn’t go down into the high registers with it. That was my doing, there, taking the melody line and going on down into the third position.” He plays old-time fiddle, he says, that borders on swing, contemporary, jazz, gospel, country, and bluegrass.
Travis lives and works in Sedalia, Missouri. He does maintenance at a local plant and plays with a variety of regional bands, from country to swing. Twenty years after being a student himself, Travis now participates as a master in the Missouri Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and Bethel Youth Fiddle Camp, passing on his licks to the next generation of young fiddlers.
These days, he’s as likely to be judging a contest as competing. And after the contest is over, you’re likely to find him under a tree or tucked in a corner with the best musicians around, running through a few tunes just for the fun of it.
1. Angus Campbell. A big tune in Little Dixie and North Missouri, Travis frequently played this hornpipe as his hoedown in fiddlers’ contests in the 1980s and 1990s. Composed by Scottish violinist J. Scott Skinner in 1904, popular in Canada, and popularized in Missouri by Lonnie Robertson and Cyril Stinnett in the late 1960s. Older fiddlers in Missouri recall hearing the tune on Canadian AM radio stations. Travis learned it from Bill Shull of Warrensburg.
2. Rosebuds of Avamore. Originally published as “Rosebud of Allanvale” by Scottish composer-violinist F. Scott Skinner more than a century ago; other titles in Missouri include “Rosebuds of Evermore,” “Rosebuds of Nevermore,” and “Rose of Sharon.” Travis learned this great waltz under the title “Rose of Sharon” from influential contest fiddler J.T. Perkins of Arab, Alabama.
3. Swearngin’s Hornpipe. A fine piece put together by Travis Inman and named in honor of his Swearngin relatives.
4. St. Anne’s Reel. A tune from Canadian fiddler Joseph Allard, popularized in Missouri in the 1940s and 1950s by fiddlers who listened to Canadian radio broadcasts and records. This tune is found in virtually every genre of fiddling. Travis learned it from one of his father’s Tommy Jackson 1950s and 1960s “square dances without calls” fiddle LPs.
5. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight. A country music standard popularized by the 1934 Carter Family 78 rpm record on Bluebird. Travis learned it from his fiddling uncle Othello Smith.
6. Sweet Georgia Brown. Young fiddlers in Missouri began to become enamored of swing music during the rise of Texas-based swing and National Contest style fiddling in the 1980s and 1990s, and tunes such as this are now common as a “tune of choice” in contests. This tune was first recorded in the mid-1920s by jazz pioneers such as Stephane Grappelli, and many fiddlers know it through later recordings by Western swing fiddlers like Johnny Gimble. Travis learned it from Jimmy Gilmore of Jefferson City, “a pretty stout fiddler player.”
7. Lead Out. The tune of a thousand titles. As “Miss Farqharson’s Reel,” it appeared in Bremner’s Scots Reels of 1757, and became better known as “My Love Is But A Lassie” because of the Robert Burns poem composed for it. Well known in Scotland, England, Ireland, and all over North America, it was printed as “Richmond Blues” in George P. Knauff’s Virginia Reels (Baltimore 1839). Over the years it has accumulated many more names, including “Buffalo Nickel,” “Chinky Pin,” “Hair in the Butter,” “I’m My Momma’s Darling,” “Leesil,” “Love Somebody Yes I Do,” “Soapsuds Over the Fence,” “Ten Nights in a Bar Room,” “Too Young to Marry,” “Yellow Eyed Cat,” “Sledge Hammer,” and “Scrap Iron.” Inman uses the title from Tommy Jackson’s iconic 1950s LP.
8. Eva Anne’s Waltz. Learned from the legendary Arkansas swing fiddler, Frankie Kelly, at one of the annual Oklahoma fiddlers’ conventions held near Wagoner.
9. Red Apple Rag. A Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith tune. Travis gets his version from Tommy Jackson.
10. Over the Waves. Written by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas as “Sobre las Olas” in 1891, this tune is in the repertoire of every older fiddler we have known. Travis conflates the two parts of the tune (as usually played) into an extended one-part tune. He absorbed this waltz at one of the many fiddle sessions he attended as a youngster in Warsaw, Missouri.
11. Jumping the Strings. From Herman Johnson, who learned it from Byron Berline.
12. Hooker’s Hornpipe. A standard among central Missouri fiddlers, from Taylor McBaine of Columbia, who Travis recalls as “a good teacher – he’d show you anything.”
13. Peacock Rag. The Arthur Smith ironclad (recognizable in any style or version), nicely mounted and given some nice pep by Patt’s piano. St. Louis fiddle scholar Jim Nelson reports that Arthur Smith’s source was a fiddling cousin named Clay Smith who had learned it by listening to Wade Ray on KMOX radio shows in St. Louis in the late 1930s and 1940s. From a Tommy Jackson LP.
14. Back in Old Arkansas. Travis got this one from Ozark fiddler Fred Stoneking, who played it in fiddlers’ contests. Herman Johnson, one of Inman’s mentors, calls this “Sweet Memories Waltz,” as does Byron Berline, and it appears at today’s fiddlers’ contests by that title.
15. Rachel. A big Missouri tune, played across the state in every traditional style. Travis leans on the iconic 1970s rendition recorded by Pete McMahan.
16. Sugar Tree Stomp. Composed and recorded in 1936 by Arthur Smith and named for a west Tennessee town. Inman learned it from a Tommy Jackson record.
17. White Rose. Usually considered a contest piece in Missouri, Travis learned his version from Pete McMahan in jam sessions at fiddlers’ contests.
18. Grey Eagle. This tune is often used to good effect (with extra sauce and extra parts) in contests. The title comes from the 1839 horse race in which “Grey Eagle,” Kentucky’s finest, lost to Tennessee’s best horse, named “Wagner.” Travis got “the majority of it” from Pete McMahan; the upper register part came from Herman Johnson.
19. Paddy on the Turnpike. Published versions appear in the 19th century in such places as Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (Boston 1883, reprinted in 1940 as Cole’s One Thousand Fiddle Tunes); Irish versions such as “Cronin’s Favorite” appear in Francis O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland, 1907. Travis’s version is from a Tommy Jackson LP.
20. Cowboy Waltz. An old standard given an elegant and striking presentation by Inman. The tune has some resemblance to “Black Velvet Waltz” composed by Ontario fiddler Rossie Mann, one of the original performers on the CKNX Barn Dance; some listeners connect the melody to the cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo.” Travis learned it as a child from his father.
21. Charmaine. A popular tune from the 1920s. Travis credits Kelly Jones with this version. Charlie Walden provides swing style backup on an arch-top guitar, adding the passing chords essential to “sock chord” accompaniment. This style of guitar backup differs from the open chord old-time backup but both styles are traditional and can be heard on commercial recordings of fiddling in the 1920s.
22. Turkey in the Straw. A tune that some consider mundane, here played by a master who, as Charlie would say, “makes ‘er move.” A 19th century minstrel tune related to “Natchez Under the Hill” and “Old Zip Coon,” the melody goes further back, to Scotland and Ireland and tunes such as “The Rose Tree,” “The Bonny Black Eagle,” and “Glasgow Hornpipe.” Travis has this version largely from one of Benny Martin’s fiddle LPs.
23. Wednesday Night Waltz. A universal favorite every seasoned Missouri fiddler is expected to play. Its origins are murky and may trace to the 1920s Mississippi string band The Leake County Revelers, whose fiddler got it in Texas (so saith Charles Wolfe). Many older fiddlers learned it from Curly Fox’s radio performances records in the 1930s and 1940s. Columbia fiddler Ed Tharp called it “Kitty Waltz” in the 1950s and held that to be the original title. Travis’s version comes from the legendary contest champion Texas Shorty (Jim Chancellor).
24. Woodchopper’s Reel. Recorded by the influential Canadian fiddler Ned Landry, Travis learned it from Pete McMahan. In Missouri, the tune is most familiar in the central and northern regions and has been recorded by Cyril Stinnett, Charlie Walden, and others.
25. What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Many fiddle sessions wind up with a gospel song or Protestant hymn, as the hour gets late and folks think about getting on home. This is one of three or four everybody plays, but few play it this well. Charlie Walden joins in to fiddle the lead line, while Travis provides the “twin” harmony.
Accompanists: Charlie Walden, guitar; Patt Plunkett, piano. Recorded by David Cavins in Columbia, Missouri, September 2011. Mixed by Phil Williams. Biographical notes by Amber Gaddy. Tune annotations by Howard Marshall. Cover photo by Howard Marshall. Design & layout by Vivian Williams. Produced by Howard Marshall, Amber Gaddy, and David Cavins.
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