Roger Howell has always lived in Madison County, and for the past half-century has resided on Banjo Branch. It was on Banjo Branch, in early childhood, that he first grew to love the music of his native county. “An old lady used to live in the house up on the hill from here, and she had this big old loud, obnoxious banjo,” Howell once told an interviewer. “I thought that was the prettiest thing I ever heard.” His grandmother was also a musician, playing the guitar, piano, and the first record player in Mars Hill.
At the age of thirteen Howell began to learn to play the banjo, taught by “Aunt” Pearl Ball and neighbor Lloyd Ray. Some years later he took up the fiddle, and was mentored first by Madison County fiddlers Tommy Hunter and Woodrow Boone, and later learned from John Hartford and Fletcher Bright. While attending his first Lunsford Festival at Mars Hill, Howell has told a writer for the Mountain Xpress, he met Bascom Lamar Lunsford himself. Lunsford had heard Howell play, and he told him, “You keep that up. Now you’re doing something that people want to hear.”
Howell has since won a great many awards, including first place in fiddle (many times) at such festivals as Fiddlers Grove, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, and the North Carolina Mountain State Fair, and first place in banjo at the Georgia Mountain Fair. He appears on many recordings, including Blue Ridge Mountain Music, Volume I, which has been sold in gift shops along the Blue Ridge Parkway for over a decade, thus dispersing thousands of copies all around the world. His playing was also heard by moviegoers worldwide when he played fiddle for Iris Dement’s rendition of “Pretty Saro” in Songcatcher. He also has produced several of his own recordings, including the best-selling Hills & Heroes in 2003.
Howell has played in bands with other great musicians of the North Carolina mountains, as the fiddler for the Carroll Best String Band, and as a founding member of the Carolina Old-Timers String Band, and more recently with the award-winning Bailey Mountain Ramblers. He currently plays with many of his musical friends at area festivals and can be found teaching fiddle and banjo to many students at his Bailey Mountain Fiddle Shoppe on Banjo Branch. His is skilled in the restoration and repair of violins, and many of the region’s top fiddlers play instruments that have received Howell’s expertise.
In 2013, Howell finished recording his massive “Memory Collection” of fiddle tunes for Mars Hill University’s Southern Appalachian Archives, totaling 532 tunes on 20 CDs. This collection has also been accepted at eight other major universities across the country.
In 2015, the North Carolina Folklore Society honored Roger Howell with the prestigious Brown-Hudson Folklore Award for his work in preserving and celebrating regional music traditions. A documentary film about Howell produced by the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill University was premiered at the Bascom Lamar Lunsford “Minstrel of Appalachia” Festival in October, 2015.
Roger Howell is available for concerts, workshops, and festival performances.