Benton Flippen, a 1990 North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient, was one of the innovators of a distinctive and driving style of old-time string music that has brought national recognition to the area between Mt. Airy, his home, and Galax, Virginia. Born in Surry County in 1920, he started playing the banjo in his early teens and picked up the fiddle when he was about eighteen years old. Benton was celebrated chiefly for his fiddle playing, but he was also admired by those who know him well for his knowledge of the five-string banjo and the guitar.
He learned to play fiddle by listening and watching other musicians, such as a fiddle-playing uncle who came to visit from Thomasville. Benton also listened intently to the late Esker Hutchins, a highly respected local fiddler and banjo picker with whom he played for several years on a radio program and at fiddler’s conventions.
Benton Flippen’s fiddling style was distinguished by his unusual fingering patterns and his effective use of slides and a strong rhythmic bowing technique. “No point to sound just like the other man.” he said. “Don’t even try, ’cause you can’t. You got to sound like yourself, have your own style. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s all creamed ‘taters, just fixed a little different.”
His great creativity enabled him to compose a number of memorable tunes and to render the old standards with noticeable flair. Several of his fiddle tunes have entered the repertoires of some of the best old-time string bands.
Over the years, Benton played with many of the great Surry County old-time musicians, including Glenn McPeak and the Green Valley Boys, Leake Caudill and Esker Hutchins, and the legendary Camp Creek Boys. He was a member of the Smokey Valley Boys since the early 1970s and led the band in capturing countless prizes at fiddler’s contests around the region. In Benton’s later years, the band continued to perform regularly at festivals and community events and produced a number of respected record albums. “I guess I’ll just keep draggin’ the bow until I can’t do it anymore,” Benton said.
Benton Flippen passed away on June 28, 2011.