Rosin up that bow

Fiddler aims to keep music’s special heritage alive

jholleman@thestate.comFebruary 17, 2013 

  • If you would like to listen to more of Carder’s vintage recordings, go to

The jam session in the back room at Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor rolls on into the night, local bluegrass veterans and relative novices alike feeding off the fiddle player with the engaging smile and impeccable playing style.

“Play that waltz that sounds like taaaa-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta,” says Hershel Wise, whose 80-year-old fingers still can play the notes on his mandolin though his mind can’t recall the tune’s title.

Ashley Carder considers the request for a second, then his bow takes off on the staccato notes of “The Westphalia Waltz.” The other musicians — Wise, two more fiddle players, three guitar players and a stand-up bass plucker — follow Carder’s lead even if they don’t know the tune well or at all.

The song ends with the light laughter of a group having a blast exploring music they love.

“I’d forgotten I even played that waltz until you hummed it,” Carder tells Wise.

It’s impossible to estimate the number of fiddle tunes — from obscure old-time music to bluegrass standards — filed away in Carder’s head. He’s been stowing them away for decades as he learned from any old-time fiddle player who would show him the way.

And as those old-timers have passed away, Carder felt a responsibility to preserve their legacy whether in sessions like the Friday night jams at Bill’s, in the multiple bands he plays with or in the recordings he has compiled through the years.

Last year, Carder was honored with a Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award by the S.C. Arts Commission for his efforts to preserve the music of his predecessors. But he’s more of a rewards guy than an awards guy. He loves watching his mentors’ family members tear up when they hear the preserved songs or seeing novice fiddlers light up as they figure out how to play an old tune.

“Some of the recordings of these musicians were recorded by me when I was younger and trying to learn from the old guys, but most of the recordings were either given to me by the musicians themselves or by the family of the musicians after they had passed away,” says Carder, 54.

“I find that people are usually very glad to see the old music preserved and made available to future generations rather than being lost in a closet or attic or thrown out.”

His most recent project chronicles the career of one of his mentors — Pappy Sherrill. A legend in bluegrass/country circles dating back to the 1920s, Sherrill gained fame in South Carolina as the fiddler player in The Hired Hands.

While Sherrill rode the bluegrass/country wave when it hit in the 1950s, he also was adept at old-time fiddling, using bowing and plucking styles stretching back to the Civil War period. Bluegrass typically is faster, with a more rapid-fire banjo style. Carder is comfortable in either style, too, though he has a soft spot for the older music … and the older musicians.

After Sherrill died in 2001, his son Wayne Sherrill heard Carder play some of his dad’s favorite songs. “Wayne had tears running down his face,” Carder says, a note of pride in his voice. “He said, ‘You play those tunes just like my Daddy.’”

A Fiddle Passed Down

Carder grew up in a musical family. His mother, Shirley, played and sang in a classic country band. His father, Taylor “Tick” Carder, played a fiddle passed down from his own grandfather, who played old-time music in West Virginia. Ashley Carder still plays that fiddle, which prompted the name of his 31-song CD of traditional tunes, “Grandpap’s Fiddle.”

“Daddy’s family used to host an old-fashioned barn dance in the country in West Virginia, long before I was born,” he says. “When my grandparents were courting, my grandmother’s parents wouldn’t let her go to those Carder barn dances because fiddling and dancing were not the kinds of things that they wanted their daughter to be doing.”

Carder was only vaguely interested in music while growing up in the Leesville area. His only formal musical training was seventh-grade chorus. He still isn’t proficient at reading music, though he says he knows enough to get by.

His love for music began to take hold in his early 20s. After three years of college at Wofford, he took a break from school and worked for nine months with his father on a painting job in Easley. His dad also hired two local painters. One played banjo, the other played guitar.

“They would play on lunch breaks, and I thought I might like to play,” Carder recalls. “I went to a pawn show and got a banjo.”

Carder eventually finished college and got a non-musical job. His career in the modern world of information technology contrasts with his passion for old music, but it also means he has the perfect background to digitize old recordings.

But the music bug had bitten him. He kept playing every chance he got, gravitating from banjo to fiddle.

During that period, Carder traveled to festivals and any other gathering where old-time fiddlers were playing. One of the traditions of old-time and bluegrass music is the willingness of the leading players to teach newcomers, especially those who show a reverence for the music. Carder took his tape recorder and captured as much of the music as he could.

Among the old-timers who taught Carder were Sherrill, Bo Norris of Ward and Vernon Riddle of Spartanburg. Riddle himself learned the long-bow fiddling technique from Texas fiddler Eck Robertson, one of the first fiddlers to be recorded commercially.

One song in particular traces the mentor-to-mentor trail of old-time fiddlers. A Civil War soldier created a song entitled “General Lee.” Years later, he taught Robertson how to play the song. Robertson passed it on to Riddle, who passed it on to Carder.

That makes Carder a tradition-bearer. He has taught, and will continue to teach, “General Lee” to anyone with the proper desire to learn it. He especially enjoys playing beside a new generation of fiddlers that includes youngsters such as Millie Davis of Batesburg-Leesville, Kristen Harris of Columbia and Jim Graddick of Blythewood.

“I hand off music to them that other people handed off to me,” Carder says.

Surely someone has written down the notes for “General Lee,” but that’s not the same as showing someone the nuances of playing the tune.

Playing the local circuit

Carder took a bit of a hiatus from music when he got married and began raising a family. But as his son and stepson grew older, Carder dived back into his musical passion. He now plays routinely or regularly substitutes with multiple bands – Willie Wells and the Blueridge Mountain Grass, High Lonesome, Carolina Rebels and Blue Iguanas are the main ones. Other than Blue Iguanas, which plays more progressive acoustic music, they are standard bluegrass and old-time fiddle bands.

“They all play the same collection of tunes,” Carder says. “If you’ve been around awhile, you can play with anybody.”

For example, he once was scheduled to play at a local festival in a night time slot. During the afternoon, he was out mowing the lawn when he got a call from the festival organizer. Another band wanted to know if he would come play fiddle with them. “I said ‘I’ll be sweaty, but I’ll come over. I got there and played in my flip flops,’ ” he said.

You never know where Carder might pop up. He especially enjoys the y’all-come, everybody-plays pickin’ events on Friday nights at Bill’s in West Columbia, the concert and jam session held every fourth Saturday at the Haynes Auditorium in Batesburg-Leesville and the Old-Time Thursdays, held twice a month at Cool Beans Coffee Shop in Columbia.

During the stage performances on a Friday night in early January at Bill’s, nearly every performer asks Carder to come up and play with them. This is a revelation to his mother, who is in the audience. She knew her son loved music and was an accomplished fiddle player but wasn’t aware of his lofty place in local fiddling circles.

“He was playing all over the place, and I didn’t even know about it,” says Shirley Carder, who later picks up her own guitar and belts out the old Kitty Wells tune “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”

Carder isn’t the type to brag; a lack of ego that endears him to other musicians.

“He’s easy to talk to and easy to play with,” says Pat Ahrens, a local bluegrass legend herself and former winner of the heritage award. “He’s always willing to work with people. He taught me a lot of music.”

Ahrens, the master of ceremonies for the stage part of Bill’s Friday night events, usually doesn’t take the stage herself. But this Friday she can’t resist because she has a chance to play guitar beside Carder.

Tom Coolidge also asks Carder to join him on stage.

“He’s one of the best fiddle players in South Carolina,” Coolidge said. “We all owe him for preserving our musical heritage and basically doing it by himself. He has preserved the essence of the music.”

Carder later is up on the stage again, filling in for the usual fiddle player with Willie Wells and the Blue Ridge Mountain Grass.

“He’s always the most personable, down-to-earth guy, and he loves what he does,” says David Prosser, banjo player for Mountain Grass. “In his playing you can hear a lot of the old players. All of the old players had their own style, and you can hear those styles in his playing, especially on the slow waltzes.”

When he’s around fiddlers he admires, Carder sometimes picks up a guitar to accompany them. That way, he can meld into the background of the music and concentrate on learning from the fiddling style of the masters.

But on this night, he’s the one the others are watching. During one song, five other players pick up fiddles to follow his lead. Playing an instrument built in England in 1750 and once owned by the last fiddler in bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s band, Carder takes the back room jam session through a music history lesson until the clock nears midnight.

Tapping his foot to the beat while he works the bow across the strings feverishly, he’s in his happy place, and he’s taking the others there with him.

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