Blaine Sprouse’s fiddle has weathered a Tennessee tornado and much, much more in the past 150 years
He also has performed with such other first-generation bluegrass artists as Bill Monroe, Charlie Louvin, Jim and Jesse, and the Osborne Brothers. As an A-list Nashville session player, you can hear Sprouse on the hit Alabama single “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band).” He now resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Instrument “The label in my fiddle denotes Gasparo Duiffopruggar as the maker, dated 1852,” says Sprouse. “Of course, my fiddle was not made by Duiffopruggar, as no existing violins have ever been authenticated by this historic 16th-century luthier,” Sprouse says. “Moreover, the date on the label is about 300 years after Duiffopruggar’s productive time period as a luthier.
There are, however, other fiddles with this distinctively carved ‘Old Man’ head on the scroll carrying such labels. Several experienced luthiers whom I hold in high regard tell me my Old Man is of French descent from Paris. Most concur it was made for Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume’s shop by Honoré Derazey (1794–1883).
“The top is of a dark brown color, the back of a lighter brown. There is a crest on the back, and fleur de lys on the bouts. There is a Latin inscription printed around its sides which, to paraphrase, translates to: ‘In the Forest I Silently Stood Living, Now in Death I Sweetly Sing.’”
Bow “I am currently using a Coda bow, circa 2005,” he explains. “I have others that I use close to home, but this is my ‘on the road’ bow these days.”
Strings “I use Thomastik Infeld Vienna Super Flexible, rope-core, medium-gauge strings on this fiddle,” he says. “After trying other strings from time to time, many more expensive, I always come back to these for their playability, their ability to stay in tune, and, most of all, for the warm, sweet tone I get from them on this fiddle, even the E string.”
Is this your primary fiddle?
Yes. I suppose you could say I “own” the fiddle, as much as anyone can own an instrument. Actually, I am only its custodian and guardian until I pass it on to another lucky fiddler. As for the value of this fiddle, it is not worth that much as rare violins go. It has been cracked, broken, and then repaired many times during its lifetime. Therefore, relatively speaking, it is not really that valuable monetarily. The true value is in its beautiful voice.
What drew you to this instrument?
Its warm, dark tone, balance, and responsive power of projection. If you really dig in, it won’t give up on you. It can roar and growl.
How does it compare to your previous primary fiddle and what was that instrument?
It has a much darker, warmer, evenly balanced tone. It is more responsive and projects much better than my former primary instrument, another French violin, a J. Didelot of Mirecourt, France. I also once had a Nicolas Lupot as my primary instrument, so I must favor French violins of the Parisian School!
What gift does this fiddle bring to your playing that cannot be found in any other instrument?
Its sweet, warm, deep, “woody,” balanced tone, with a wonderful, responsive power and projection of sound.
Have you ever done anything that might have robbed your instrument of its “mojo” such as a repair or changing the strings? What was the result?
The only thing I have done that has really detrimentally impacted my fiddle is put the wrong strings on it. Every now and then, I will experiment trying a different brand of strings, but I always end up going back to the Thomastik Infeld Vienna Super Flexible strings. Others just do not bring out the balanced, warm tone I love.
Have you given your instrument a name?
No, although I do tend of late to call my fiddle the Old Man. Many times people ask me about the carved likeness of an old man with a full beard, specifically “Who is that?” I honestly do not know whose likeness it’s meant to be, but perhaps it is Voltaire’s, given its French origin. Some luthiers have opined it may be a likeness of what the maker conceived of as one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, perhaps Saint Peter.
How does it inspire you as a performer?
It is most inspiring. The power it has and the depth of warm tone, even on the E string played in the higher octaves, inspires me to explore and experiment, at times venturing into higher positions than I had previously.
What is its history?
I do not know any of its previous owners. I am afraid I do not know a history beyond that I found it hanging on a nail on the wall in 1981 at the vintage musical instrument store, Gruhn Guitars on Broadway in Nashville, where I lived for 34 years. We have been together ever since. The fiddle survived a horribly destructive tornado in the spring of 1998. The tornado’s path took it directly through downtown Nashville, Tennessee. The house in which I was living in East Nashville at the time was utterly destroyed. The powerful tornado drove a huge hackberry tree into and through the house, smashing in the roof and caving in the walls on one whole side. Torrential rain poured into my bedroom all day before I could reach my home. It literally looked like a war zone that had just been bombed for miles around my home that day. Luckily, the Old Man was tucked away in his case snugly waiting under my bed—he came through the disaster untouched and unscathed.
This fiddle has never been stolen, at least not from me. I trust it never will be stolen, as I regard it as my musical partner.
Have you thought about the people who have handled it before you?
Yes, I most certainly have tried to imagine who has played the Old Man and what they would have been like. Of course, I am sure that anyone, particularly musicians and especially fiddlers, who have seen the wonderful film The Red Violin, must ponder the history of such musical instruments. This fiddle is marked and blemished in such a way that it appears to have been played by a left-hand fiddler for quite some time. The back has a slight concave shape where it appears to have been held tightly against someone’s shoulder for so long that it actually slightly warped the wood in its back to form this slight indentation.
Do they resonate in your instrument? In your performance?
Well, that’s hard to say, but one would like to think so, anyway! Perhaps the spirits of fiddlers past are drawn to their old companion, lingering nearby when he sings.
What is your fiddle’s personality?
It is a moody fiddle, depending on the climate, weather, and the kind of musical day I am having. It tends to favor a more moist area in which to live. I have taken it to the desert for several extended performances, and it is not as healthy sounding there. It does not seem to have the same power and depth that it carries in more humid climes. This fiddle can have a very violent roar when one bears down on it, which is nice for some musical pieces. However, it is as peaceful and sweet as it is violent when played with tenderness, and as sassy and nasty as you would ever want when playing the blues. I suppose one could say it is simply a very responsive instrument—it gives me the mood I am seeking in a particular piece or passage of music.
What are your instrument’s strengths and limitations?
Its strengths are its dark, warm, balanced tone and responsiveness. Limitations, I guess its sensitivity to the climate and how it responds when I’m having a bad performance. It is an unforgiving mistress—if you are not on your game then it is not going to help you out.
What are your fiddle’s likes and dislikes?
It likes a warm, cozy kitchen setting much more than a sterile recording studio. It dislikes the cold, the dry desert heat, and many times performing out-of-doors.
When and how did you truly learn who your instrument is, the soul of the instrument?
I don’t think I have yet truly and thoroughly learned “who” my instrument is, although I know so much more now than I did in 1981 when I acquired the Old Man. An instrument such as this one is much like a lovely woman whom you have fallen for—the longer you know her, the more mysterious she may be and, in turn, the more you desire to experience and learn about her. Every night I perform, I hear and learn something new about this old fiddle. No two performances are the same and the fiddle is sensitive to each new performance and its environment. It is an extremely sensitive instrument, responsive to each minute touch to its strings.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
“Shouldn’t we be spending more time together?”