Ernest Johnson has been playing bluegrass and old-time fiddle for more than 60 years, and today he is one of the most senior fiddlers in Wilkes County. “I was raised up on this music,” he says, “and I just love it.” Ernest grew up in the Millers Creek community. His mother played clawhammer banjo, his father played French harp (harmonica) and some banjo, and his brothers played mandolin and banjo in a two-finger picking style.
Ernest learned to play fiddle when he was 12 years old. “I was the only one who played fiddle,” he says. He remembers listening to his mother play tunes such as “Sourwood Mountain” and “Cripple Creek” on the banjo. He picked out the melodies on the fiddle. “We would play around the house and on the porch,” Ernest recalls. “It was just a lot of fun.”
Ernest made his living building furniture, but he made time for music. “I’d work through the week and play music on the weekends,” he says. “We might get together and practice some during the week, but we were out playing every weekend.” He played music with local and regional musicians, including Tal Holbrook, Drake Walsh, and Jim Shumate. In addition to bluegrass and old-time music, Ernest also played country and western swing. “I really just love playing all kinds of music,” he says.
Ernest Johnson has performed at every MerleFest since the event began more than 20 years ago. In recent years, he has conducted fiddling workshops at the festival. He has played at the last 10 ChickenFest festivals, held annually in Wilkes County. Ernest has also participated in several studio recording sessions, including an album with the King City Boys and one track with Wendy Lewis, on which Ernest twin fiddles with bluegrass fiddler Ricky Simpson.
Ernest enjoys performing with both old-time and bluegrass groups. “If I’m playing a dance, I’ll get my old-time band,” he says. “And if I’m playing a show somewhere, I like to get my bluegrass group with all that good harmony singing.” Whether he is playing bluegrass or old-time music, Ernest’s attitude is the same. “I just love it,” he says.
Ernest Johnson is available for performances with old-time or bluegrass bands. He is available to play for dances, and he can lead workshops on fiddling.