The National Fiddler Hall of Fame
Violet Brumley Hensley (b.Oct 21, 1916 - )
Violet Brumley Hensley has always been a showstopper. With a signature move playing her hand-crafted fiddle atop her head while clogging to her dynamic delivery of one-line zingers, she blazed a trail as a legendary performer and highly skilled craftsman and carved her niche in history. Throughout an entertainment career that has spanned more than 50 years; she has won the hearts and admiration of people of all ages and backgrounds and is considered an “Ozark’s Living Legend.”
“Everything Violet does is unique,” acclaimed fiddler Tim Crouch stated in reference to Hensley’s adaptations to “old-time fiddling,” her genuine hillbilly roots, and her one-of-a-kind dance. Crouch also referenced the exceptional skill and craftsmanship Hensley displayed when she selected choice types of wood, cut down trees with a handsaw, carved, and whittled pieces into the fiddles she played on stage.
“When she plays, she doesn’t sound like anyone else.” Crouch added that if there was a label for Violet’s style, it would be “Ozarks Traditional” but asserted that like many musicians, when she heard a tune she could not figure out, she improvised and developed her own style.
Larry Barto, (friend and associate of Hensley’s and a man with a reputation for his knowledge of the fiddle, fiddle repair and restoration), stated that Hensley was from a generation of people who acquired their style based on their location. He elaborated by sharing the story of an old-time fiddler he met who could identify the county of a fiddler’s origin based on their style. He had told Barto that in the days before automobiles, folks could only journey a certain distance, and the music and methods were generally specific to their region.
Betse Ellis, (a founding member of The Wilders, solo performer and instructor) stated of Violet, “We’ve been friends all our lives. We just didn’t know till we met.” Ellis elaborated, “We met in 1999 or 2000. My band, The Wilders, was performing at Silver Dollar City outside Branson, Missouri.” Ellis added that Hensley was always, “welcoming, encouraging, and ready to make music with anyone who showed an interest.”
In relation to Hensley’s style, Ellis stated, “Playing music with Violet has taught me so much about the importance of bowing and the melodic rhythm encompassed in each phrase.” Ellis continued, “An individual playing style is the signature of a true musician. Being aware of the subtle nuances in Violet’s playing has made me a better fiddler. I learned a lot about note pitches as well.”
Hensley’s Early Years
Hensley was welcomed to the world on October 21st, 1916, in the two bedroom log home in Mt. Ida, Arkansas that her grandfather homesteaded and built the birthplace of her father, George Washington Brumley. (1874).
George Washington Brumley, or “Wash” as friends called him, was as Hensley described, a Jack-of-all-trades. “Things came natural to him, “she said of her father. To wind down at the end of a hard day’s work, he would play a tune or two on one of his hand-carved fiddles. Violet would sit by her father’s side and listened and learned. By the age of 13, she had mastered the fiddle well enough to perform community square dances.
In the field and on the farm, Hensley shadowed Wash’s every move and emulated his efforts. At a tender age, Hensley worked beside her father and set fence rows, drove posts, butchered hogs, trapped and skinned out hides, made soap, broke horses, and acquired the skills of a furrier and luthier. In 1888, (at the age of 14), Wash had created his own design to carve a fiddle. At the age of 5, an eager Hensley proclaimed, “Shoot, I can make one of those fiddles.” Several years passed before she proved her words true. Hensley recalled the blueprints from her memory and never found the need for further instructions. She completed her first fiddle at the age of 15. It would be the first of 73, (most of which she would not carve until after the age of 44). She performs most concerts on her no. 4 fiddle that she completed at the age of 17.
Whittling and Fiddling
Known by many in the music industry as the “Whittling Fiddler”, Hensley learned to carve and play the fiddle by watching her dad and listening to old time fiddlers like Jim Pettit.
“I learned tunes from others, but I had my own style,” Hensley stated.
“Violet plays her tunes her way, and she plays them just exactly right.” Betsy Ellis shared, “Violet plays notes exactly where she intends, and where she hears them. For example, in her “Buffalo Nickel”, in the key of D, the second note is a G on the E string. Violet plays that note a bit higher than my classically-trained ears would have normally placed it. But that is where the note lives in that tune. She is consistent with this, and other tunes that have a G are placed lower. In our early years of playing together, Violet would point out spots like this to me, just telling me I was out of tune. I paid attention and it gave me a much deeper appreciation of musicality that pre-dates the modern era.”
Hensley stated she would spend approximately 240 hours chiseling, carving, and sanding to complete a fiddle. In the video interview for her recognition as the Arkansas Living Treasure by the Arkansas Living Treasure Film Project, Hensley shared, “When you make a five gallon bucket filled with shavings, that was a fiddle.”
When she carved her first fiddle, she wrote her name and the number of the fiddle where it would be visible in the sound hole of the instrument. Hensley maintained a record book with the date of when her 73 fiddles was carved, the types of wood used, the original owner of the fiddle, and any description that defined its design.
Her experiences working with her father and carving various pieces of wood guided her in selecting the appropriate type of wood for the fiddle. She found that the best woods for the back and sides were hardwoods, like local maple or cherry. She preferred soft wood for the front. For each fiddle, she carved the pegs from persimmon, the tailpiece from dogwood, and the fingerboard from walnut.
Hensley and her co-author, Randall Franks, provided a step-by-step guide to her method of fiddle making in her autobiography, The Violet Hensley Story: Whittlin” and Fiddlin” My Own Way.
Part of Violet Hensley’s legacy has been her absolute·denial and defiance to the limitations of age. Hensley was 46 years old when she first set foot on a stage. In 1962, friends convinced her to enter the local Turkey Trot Talent Show in Yellville, Arkansas. Though she won 2nd place, Turkey Trot was a place of good fortune. It was there she met Jimmy Driftwood. The legendary Arkansas folksinger told Hensley she should take her fiddle and play at his theater in Mountain View, Arkansas. Eventually, Hensley caught the attention of Don Richardson from Silver Dollar City and in 1967, (at the age of 50), launched her life-altering career as fiddle-maker and entertainer at Silver Dollar City. Hensley completed her 51st Fall Festival at SDC in 2017.
Silver Dollar City originally hired Hensley for her wood carving, but because of the popularity of her performances and the trueness of her original style and personality, ended up utilizing her more as an entertainer. Hensley’s repertoire of music consisted mostly of old-time fiddle tunes. Many were tunes passed down to her from her father and were not widely circulated. Six of the tunes recorded on the Rounder CD, Traditional Fiddle Music of the Ozarks: Volume One-Along the Eastern Crescent, are unknown to most artists.·She plays in several different tunings on the CD.
In addition to the Rounder CD, accompanied by many of her family members (daughters Sandra Flagg on guitar and Lewonna Nelson on the jawbone of a Shetland Pony, husband Adren Hensley on the guitar, and on the later recording, son Calvin Hensley on guitar and son-in-law Tim Nelson on the bass guitar), Hensley was featured on three albums: Old Time Hoedown-Yellville’s Whittling Fiddler-Violet Hensley and Family (1973). The Whittlin’ Fiddler-The Hensley Family (1974). Old Time Fiddle Tunes: Violet Hensley by Yellville’s Whittling Fiddler and two CD’s: Whittling Fiddler and Family-Music by Violet Hensley (2003), and Family Treasures-Violet Hensley Recipient of Arkansas State Living Treasure Award (2004).
In the National Spotlight
In the late 1960’s-1970’s, Silver Dollar City scheduled Hensley on a series of promotional tours across the United States. Appearing on shows like, The Beverly Hillbillies, (1969), Hensley embraced and celebrated her Ozark’s heritage. Hensley made her mark as the woman fiddler who played the fiddle carved by her own hands, but the staff of Silver Dollar City and the millions that visited with her and watched her perform agreed that her dynamic disposition propelled her on the road to fame.
“Violet is a real gem,” Lisa Rau, Silver Dollar City Public Relations representative stated. “She is part of the mosaic of who we are.”
In 1970, Hensley joined Jimmy Driftwood and dozens of musicians and artisans from little towns and big cities in the U.S. to perform and display her handiwork at a week-long craft and music festival in Washington D.C. In that same year, Hensley appeared on the Art Linkletter Show and was interviewed by Charles Kuralt at her home for the program, On the Road with Charles Kuralt, CBS Sunday Morning News.
From the 70’s through the early 90’s , Hensley was interviewed and featured on PBS, NPR, and in the pages of National Geographic (1970), Mature Living (1987), Country Woman (1991), and numerous state and local newspapers, and magazines. During that period she also made appearances on the Ralph Emery Show and The Ida B. Show. In 1991, a studio audience and panel of judges had to decide if she was a senior citizen prom queen or a fiddle maker on the variety show, To Tell the Truth With Alex Trebek. In 1992, she was welcomed for a guest appearance on Live with Regis and Kathy Lee. Hensley was invited to perform at MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in both 2004 and 2009. At her first appearance there, she performed on three different stages. ·On one of those stages, she and several other performers were asked to demonstrate their style of fiddling. When it was Hensley’s turn, she played her fiddle on top of her head and danced at the same time! ·She turned the workshop upside down as many other entertainers began doing tricks in an attempt to outdo the others.
In 2007, CBS News revisited Hensley in a segment that featured a 30 year follow-up to the Charles Kuralt interview. Also during this decade, she was interviewed for a segment with the Disney Channel and Tokyo 60 Minutes.
In 2016, (at the age of 99), Hensley became the oldest person to perform on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. To commemorate her 100th birthday in 2017, Grand Ole Opry’s Mike Snider invited Hensley to appear a 2nd time in his slot on the show. Tim Crouch was one the performers on the Opry stage accompanying Hensley. He summed up the sentiments of those who attended the performance by stating, “She left Nashville with their jaws on the floor.”
Accolades and Awards
As Hensley merited the music world’s attention, awards and accolades followed. In 1986, Silver Dollar City awarded her the National Craft’s Person Hall of Fame Award. In 1991, she was honored as the SDC National Crafts Festival 30th Anniversary Best Pioneer Demonstration and the SDC Old Timer Award. Silver Dollar City inducted her into their Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2004, the Department of Arkansas Heritage recognized her as an Arkansas Living Treasure. Silver Dollar City awarded her the Craft Achievement Living Treasure Award in 2007. In 2010, she was awarded the Mike Seeger Scholarship by the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro Kentucky. In 2015, she received the Arkansas State Fiddle Championship J. Mullet Kent Award and in 2016, She was the recipient of the Folk Alliance International Spirit of Folk Award and was honored as one of the Harrison Daily Times Women of Distinction. She was the 2017 Folk Festival Queen in Mountain View, Arkansas.
Through her musical skills and craftsmanship, and her passionate and persistent personality, Hensley continues to inspire generation after generation of musicians, artisans, and entertainers, all the while tenderly nurturing a large family of her own. (The last tally was 10 children, 32 grands, 67 Great grands, 17 great greats and 1 great, great, great). Hensley has inspired many to learn to play the fiddle and taught several how to carve one, young and old alike. ·She taught a week long fiddle camp at Port, Townsend, Washington in 1995. She continues to provide fiddle lessons in her home and to book appearances and performances across the U.S.
“Violet’s a fiddler and a singer with drive, charisma, truth, and an undeniable brilliantly unique approach. She’s one in a million and she’s been my friend all my life. I’m so glad we met” –Betsy Ellis
Author: Beverly Cothran, Everton, AR
Hensley, Violet, with Randall Franks.·Whittlin’ and Fiddlin’ My Own Way. Tunnel Hill, GA: Peach Picked Publishing, 2014.
Hensley, V. (2017, February 14) Personal Interview by Phone.
Hensley, V. (2017, February 23) Personal Interview.
Hensley, V. (2017 November 17) Personal Interview by Phone.
Interviews by phone with LeWonna Hensley Nelson, Sandra Flagg, Tim Crouch, Larry Bartow, and in email statements from Betse Ellis.
Violet Hensley was inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame in 2018.
Two divisions of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, The Arkansas Arts Council and Historic Arkansas Museum, honored Hensley, the 2004 Arkansas Living Treasure, in this documentary film.