Growing up in Avery County before World War II, Oscar “Red” Wilson learned fiddle and banjo tunes that have their origins in the pioneer musical traditions of Western North Carolina. Many of these came from his close relatives, the Ledfords, who lived in neighboring Mitchell County where Red eventually moved. In the late 1940s he toured and recorded with Wade Mainer, another Western North Carolina musician who led a popular string band.
As times changed and the older music lost its commercial appeal, Red Wilson adapted and expanded his technique to include newer styles such as bluegrass and country music. In the 1950s the Toe River Valley Boys, a band that had a large local following, recruited him to play fiddle. Specializing in regional tunes as well as bluegrass standards, the group played square dances for many years at Geneva Hall in Little Switzerland and at the Penland School of Crafts. While playing fiddle for the band, Red began composing fiddle tunes, adding those to the songs he had written on occasion during his musical career. He also started to repair violins, often free of charge, and eventually he built several instruments.
During retirement he focused on the old-time music that he heard in his youth. He was often asked to perform at festivals and traditional music workshops in the state and beyond. Red and his wife Marie welcomed a steady stream of people to their home outside of Bakersville. Travelers from all across the nation dropped by in hopes of hearing him play a tune.
Red and Marie Wilson greeted visitors with a sincerity and good humor that won them many loyal friends. “I saw I wasn’t going to get rich through music so I just quit doing it for money,” Red laughed. His motives for playing, he said, were simple. “I just love old-time fiddle music. And I love people.” Red Wilson received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 2003.