“It’s a lost art, some of the ways people used to play,” Jacob Bowen says of old-time fiddle styles. Jacob has spent more than two decades studying the fiddle traditions of Southwest Virginia and Northwest North Carolina. He competes at fiddlers’ conventions around the region, and plays in a band with his mother and father, the Zephyr Lightning Bolts.
Jacob grew up in the Zephyr community of Surry County. His parents both play music, and Jacob started going with his mother to jam sessions and to her music lessons with Emily Spencer of Whitetop, Virginia. “I got interested in the fiddle when I was about ten or eleven,” Jacob says. “Then I got my first fiddle when I was twelve years old.” Emily Spencer was teaching Jacob’s mother to play clawhammer banjo, and Emily’s husband, Thornton Spencer, would record fiddle tunes for Jacob and his mother to take home. Jacob recalls, “Gradually, I started learning tunes.”
He spent a lot of time listening to Thornton’s playing and other fiddlers from the Southwest Virginia area, such as G. B. Grayson and Albert Hash. “I really focused on their styles of bowing,” he says. As a college student, Jacob continued to make frequent visits to the Mount Rodgers School in Grayson County, Virginia, to learn from Thornton. “I have learned a lot of tunes from Thornton,” he says, “and I have met a lot of musicians going up to Whitetop to play.”
When he was about twenty years old, Jacob started playing fiddle with his parents’ old-time band, the Zephyr Lightning Bolts. Jacob also spent time attending fiddlers’ conventions, visiting and playing with musicians from the region, and listening to recordings of older fiddlers from the area. “I learned a lot of tunes from Esker Hutchins and Rafe Brady from Surry County,” Jacob says, “and recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Tal Holbrook from Wilkes County.” Jacob says one unique aspect of the styles he has focused on is that he rarely cross-tunes his fiddle, preferring to play most of his tunes in standard tuning. “It really makes you use all four fingers on your left hand,” he says.
Jacob has made several recordings with the Zephyr Lightning Bolts, and he has won prizes at numerous fiddlers’ conventions, both with the band and individually. He plays some guitar, but “I mostly just stick to the fiddle,” he says. “I just took to it.”
Jacob is available to play dances and give performances with the Zephyr Lightning Bolts. He is also available for demonstrations, lessons, and workshops on old-time fiddling.