By Jim Wood | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
When I met Grammy Award–winner Jim VanCleve this past fall in my studio, I already knew that his body of work speaks for itself and that he has a serious command of the fiddle. I was also absolutely delighted to make a new friend who clearly shares a passion for music and commitment to excellence. The same effervescence and child-like exuberance that is on full display when he plays is how he speaks about his mentors, his music, and his desire to reach others through his art. Our conversation about his fiddle upbringing and most recent album with Appalachian Road Show, Jubilation, was a pure joy, and I am happy to share some of the highlights of that afternoon.
Tell me how you got started with fiddling.
I was born in Sarasota, Florida, and around the age of five or six, I met Ralph Blizard, the legendary fiddler from East Tennessee, who spent winters in Florida. My grandpa and my aunt and uncle and my dad would all get together and play with Ralph at a Golden Corral in Englewood on Monday nights. Ralph was great player, and when he would play “Orange Blossom Special,” the crowd would absolutely love it. He would stand me up on a chair to blow on a train whistle while he played, and the joy of that whole experience was infectious and just drew me to the music. He smiled the whole time he played—everybody smiled when he played—and in my six-year-old brain, the joy of the whole experience and this music were woven together. They were the same thing. It made a huge impression on me.
I learned some tunes on the fiddle, but things didn’t really take off until after we moved to Waynesville, North Carolina, when I was eight, and I found myself in the heart of the Appalachians. Around the age of 11, things really started to kick in gear when I discovered Strength in Numbers [the progressive supergroup with Mark O’Connor on fiddle] on an episode of Austin City Limits; I was floored, eaten up with their whole approach. At about the same time that summer, my dad and grandpa and I went over to Merlefest to see Ralph Blizard, and from that point on, I never let up. Things were sometimes tumultuous at home with my mom, and music became my escape and my passion and my joy. It was everything to me. At this time now I know that it was God’s hand reaching into my life.
How did you make the transition into being a professional musician?
I was a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and through connections I had made with [bluegrass bandleader] Lou Reid and [banjoist] Scott Vestal, among others, Doyle Lawson called my dorm room and offered me a job [with Quicksilver]. I turned him down several times, but when I was driving home from my grandpa’s funeral in Florida, I accepted the realization that I really didn’t want to be in school. I was so torn because we are so conditioned to think that we are supposed to go to college, but my dad told me that it was obvious that I was made to play music and that he thought that I should go for it. I called Doyle back and stayed with him for about a year until [banjoist] Barry Abernathy decided to leave Doyle and form Mountain Heart with [mandolinist] Adam Steffey and [guitarist/singer] Steve Gulley. When the offer came from Barry to join Mountain Heart, that became the best risk that I ever took, and we were together for 17 years. We pushed a lot of envelopes and really did some stuff. It was a great ride.
I moved to Nashville in 2000 and started to do some session work and learn about production and how to make records. Working with [musician and producer] Ricky Skaggs in the studio at age 22 was a great experience that exposed me to his approach to production, which I always loved. I always wanted to know how to make big-sounding records that could compete with what is out there.
Your most recent project, Jubilation, certainly sounds tight and punchy without being squashed.
I feel that I finally got there after all these years and that it is my best work. It is all about recording the acoustic instruments as well as possible initially and then adding light, gentle compression, but you always do it in stages. You have to be careful not to overdo it and keep the limiting and compression transparent with no artifacts. You want to have it in your face and be organic at the same time.
After pushing a lot of boundaries for all those years with Mountain Heart, your new band, Appalachian Road Show, seems like a return to your roots as you reunited with Barry Abernathy.
We are going for the Appalachian aesthetic, something that is personal to who we are. This music is like my native tongue. We want Appalachian Road Show to be more than just some songs. We want to present a cultural experience with a narrative element and thematic progression about the spirit of the Appalachian people. Our goal is to create an immersive experience rather than having the audience just hearing the songs from the outside. We want to use the narrative elements to draw people to the heart of the songs. Our motto is that authenticity never goes out of style. The Appalachian experience is fundamental to the American experience, and we are all tied to it on some level. There is a kind of universal timelessness to this, and when you are in the Appalachians, you can look at them and stand there and feel that they have been there forever. Appalachian music, in all its eclectic forms, has that gravity that pulls you toward it.
It is a difficult thing to balance, that connection to the past and being true to yourself as an individual.
The band is set up to be as authentic as it can possibly be, but that doesn’t mean just copying a blueprint that has already been defined. What it means for us is to be authentically who we are through this lens. There are millions of rocks that can be turned over, and we will never run out of material. Jubilation is about how to rise up out of the trials and tribulations of life and move toward the light.
All this comes full circle to your initial experiences with music as a child, where joy and jubilation were really the essence of what life was about.
Absolutely. This album is about celebrating the human spirit, and it has always been about joy in music for me. Being onstage playing for people is when I feel most perfectly who I am, and I feel like it’s a gift from God meant to be shared.
Jim Wood is one of the most decorated contest fiddlers in history. He has years of recording experience in Nashville studios and now owns and operates Tennessee Studios. His latest endeavor is the Jim Wood Online Acoustic Music Academy.