Dean Sturgill of Lansing has been playing fiddle for more than sixty years, and he has been a source of inspiration for many musicians of the area. Dean’s father played clawhammer banjo, autoharp, and organ, though Dean only remembers hearing him play a little banjo. He was a farmer and Baptist preacher and had mostly stopped playing music by the time Dean was old enough to remember him.
There were no instruments in Dean’s house until his older brother Breece started visiting Albert Hash, a local fiddler and fiddle maker who lived about a mile away. Breece made two fiddles and brought them home. When he joined the Air Force, Breece left his fiddles, and Dean says, “I got to fooling with them, learning by ear.”
In those days there were not a lot of musicians in the area that Dean knew, so he would listen to the Farm and Fun Time radio program out of Bristol. “It was hard to learn tunes,” Dean says. “I didn’t have any records, and they wouldn’t play the same tune on the radio more than once a month.” Dean made frequent trips to visit Albert Hash and listen to him play. “I would go over there and get him to play fiddle some,” Dean remembers. Albert played tunes such as “Turkey in the Straw,” “Arkansas Traveler,” and “Chicken Reel.” But when Albert played the song “Little Brown Hen,” it was time to put up the fiddle. “That was always his last tune,” Dean says. “I liked Albert’s playing real well, but it flabbergasted me at first.”
After a while, Dean learned to “scratch out” a few tunes. He continued to listen to the radio and listen to any local players he could find. Dean is a fan of Art Wooten‘s fiddling. Wooten lived in neighboring Alleghany County, and he was Bill Monroe’s first fiddler. Later, Dean attended local jam sessions that took place in Ashe and Alleghany counties. He often played music with bluegrass banjo player Larry Pennington, from Ashe County.
Dean played in the Grayson Highlands Band for ten years, from 1990 to 2000. The band played for square dances, fiddlers’ conventions, festivals, private concerts, and other events, and the group made a recording called Just Trotting Along.
In addition to his music, Dean is a writer, poet, and storyteller. He has published three books of his poems about hunting, fiddling, and life in the mountains of Western North Carolina. He is very knowledgeable on the local history of his home area. “Dean is one of the best people I know,” says fiddler and music researcher Kilby Spencer. “It always lifts anyone’s spirits to go visit him.”
Dean still enjoys playing music at home and at the local country store, and he welcomes visitors.