- Associated Press - Sunday, July 6, 2014

YELLVILLE, Ark. (AP) - It’s Wednesday morning, a bright, sunny day, and much of what’s important in Violet Hensley’s life is in her kitchen.

Family — daughters Lewonna Nelson and Sandy Flagg, and Flagg’s 14-year-old daughter, Kaylee; friends and students — Carla Bates Nichols of Ozark, Missouri, and Everett and Bernita Stewart of Springdale; memories — including a photo of Glen Campbell and Violet taken 20 years ago; a luthier’s tools — curved knives, pocketknives, rim presses.

That’s Violet Hensley. A luthier, from the French, luth, or lute. She makes — or more accurately made, because at 97 her eyes aren’t what they used to be — violins.

No, not violins. Folks around this Formica kitchen table mostly call them fiddles.

Violet made her first fiddle at age 15. Today, in her kitchen, she plays the fourth fiddle she made, in 1934. Says so on the back. The sides and back are maple; the top is pine.

“People says it’s the best fiddle they ever played,” Violet told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/1mbXhzf).

Violet has made 73 fiddles. She flexes her remarkable memory — “God helps me with that” — and rattles off where some of them are.

The first one was made at the suggestion of her father, George Washington Brumley, who also made fiddles. In fact, Violet says, her father wanted a fiddle, and the only way to get one was to make one.

“He guessed at how to make it,” she says.

Her first fiddle, she says, “got stumped up.” But she still has the rim press and the saw with which it was made. She also has a curved knife her father made from a file and a piece of walnut.

Three of her granddaughters have made fiddles, as has one grandson. Son-in-law Tim Nelson has made two. Son-in-law George Flagg has made 12.

Violet started to play at 12, but can’t quite remember the month. “By 13 I was playing for square dances.”

Fiddles 11 and 13 are in a university in Illinois. Number 14 was given to the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. A photo hangs on the living room wall. It shows Byrd taking the fiddle from Arkansas folklorist Jimmy Driftwood.

Number 63 went to the Arkansas Arts Council, which named her an Arkansas Living Treasure in 2004. She’s still living, and a strong case can be made that she’s still a treasure.

Number 73 belongs, Violet says, to a woman in New Mexico.

Most have been sold over the years, except for those that remain in the family, for $200 to $2,500, Flagg says.

It takes 240 to 260 hours to make a fiddle.

As good as her memory is, Violet has some help: a book “of where all 73 went to and what wood they were made of.”

Many woods, in fact, and much of it cut down by Violet herself. To recite their names is to take a walk in the woods.

Cherry. Sassafras. Dogwood. Persimmon. Walnut. Oak. Pine.

Everett Stewart adds the maples. Big leaf maple. Curly maple. Bird’s eye maple. Quilted maple. For the top, almost always spruce.

Even at 97, there’s no stopping Violet Hensley.

“Last year I was 6 by 16 years old. I’ve passed that now.”

She will perform at Silver Dollar City in Branson from Sept. 11 through Oct. 25. She has played there since 1967. On Aug. 16 she’ll play at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View.

She’s had 10 children, eight of whom are still living. Nelson lives in Yellville; Flagg in Bull Shoals.

From that passel of children Violet has 32 grandchildren, 58 great-grandchildren — with 59, 60 and 61 on the way — and 12 great-great-grandchildren.

Her county of birth is Montgomery, near Mount Ida. In 1935 she married Adren Hensley. They were married by a justice of the peace.

“By evening we were planting potatoes.”

So continued a life of hard work. Violet is happy to demonstrate her strong grip. Nelson says she was so strong she could lift Arden over her head.

One summer, Nelson says, they canned 1,500 quarts of produce. Much of it was packed into a school bus for a cross-country journey to Oregon the family took in 1955 to work in the farm fields. They took the food because they needed the food.

Nelson and Flagg remembered how somewhere along the way a bathroom stop was made at a gas station. When it was time to leave, the question was asked: “Everybody here?”

Gary, 9, nicknamed Frog, wasn’t on the bus to say, no, he wasn’t there. Off went the bus. Some miles later a policeman caught up to reunite Frog with the clan.

Violet remembers that Feb. 9, 1959 was “when I landed in Yellville.”

She teaches others how to make fiddles, and carves wooden spoons.

“I’m too busy to be organized,” she jokes. In her spare time, such as it is, “I talk.”

The talk around the table has turned to fiddle making and fiddle playing and Charles Kuralt.

“I have to feel what I’m doing anymore,” Violet says, but she can tell what’s being carved “by the sound of the knife.”

Pocketknives are what Violet has used to make her fiddles. She’s got a pocket full of them, including one lost by one of her sons and found years later when a pond was being dug out. Another is a wirejack, all metal with a wire frame.

Violet spreads out her hands — no scars after all these years of carving.

Nichols is working on an unfinished back and neck, both made of cherry. The wood, she says, is 70 years old and hard. She wets it, “to make it puffier and easier to carve. One thing about hard wood is you can’t make a mistake very easily.”

A fiddle back has to be thin, a thickness of 1.8 to 2.2 millimeters in the center to 4 millimeters on the edges.

“Thin enough to see light through it,” Everett Stewart says. Violet demonstrates with a flashlight and another fiddle back. The light gleams warmly through.

Nichols’ cherry fiddle back has an intricate carving. It’s the second. The first had to be sanded off, she says, when Violet told her to take off “another 16th of an inch all over.” Nichols hopes to have the fiddle done by the end of the year. Her next fiddle will have a dogwood pattern on the back, the dogwood being the state tree of Missouri.

Everett Stewart has made seven fiddles, and is working on his eighth. He met Violet at Silver Dollar City, watched her, talked with her. A wood carver, he took up the making of fiddles.

“She’s one of a kind,” he says. “Every time I talk to her I learn something different about fiddle making and life and what she has done.”

Stewart calls Violet “phenomenal.”

“I feel blessed to know her and have her as a friend.”

When Stewart became Violet’s student she had a request.

“‘Promise me something,’ she said to me. ‘I get to play the first song on every one you make.’ And she has.”

Violet has been somewhat famous for a long time. When Kuralt was roaming the country for CBS News he made a stop in Yellville to see her in 1970. Yellville wasn’t quite as paved then as it is now. Adren “had to hook up to his Winnebago and pull him up the dirt road.”

Back in the 1960s an academic from Boston wrote a letter to ask for a visit, and wondered if he could drive a car or if he’d have to walk in, Arkansas being such a wild place and all.

“We should have asked him to visit,” Flagg says.

“We do have chiggers, though,” Nelson laughs.

Now it’s time for some music. A little bit of “Amazing Grace,” ”Black-Eyed Susie,” and “One-Eyed Gopher.”

“Sit here,” Violet says, “pull that chair.”

She plays and swings her bow over to whack her visitor. Once, twice, three times with a grin. “The lesson is don’t sit too close to a fiddler.”

Violet is joined by Flagg on guitar, Nichols on fiddle and Nelson on the jawbone of a Shetland pony, used as a percussion instrument like spoons.

At the end of one song, Violet sings. “I forgot as many tunes as I play,” she says when the tune is done.

“It’s almost impossible to play a fiddle and sing at the same time,” Nichols says. “You’re using both sides of the brain.”

“I guess you don’t tell Mama what’s impossible,” Nelson responds. “Just don’t tell her she can’t.”

Time to leave. Obligations can’t wait. But first, one fast fiddle lesson with the instrument from 1934.

Nichols watches and smiles. “You never know when you put a fiddle under your neck. You might start a fire.”

Take the bow and make this sound, Violet says, three notes.

The sound is honey on a fiddle string, magnolia in the air.


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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