For almost all of his 70 years Roger Howell has resided on Banjo Branch, on the slopes of Bailey Mountain, near Mars Hill in Madison County. 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 across the valley 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.” He later picked up his urge to play string music from several neighborhood families who played guitar, banjo and fiddle, and also from the early TV shows of Flatt & Scruggs, Porter Wagoner, and The Stoneman Family.
At the age of twelve his Dad bought Roger his first instrument, a Kay electric guitar, on which he quickly mastered Travis-style picking, and shortly thereafter began to learn to play the banjo, taught by that same old lady across the valley, “Aunt” Pearl Ball, and neighbors Charles Ball and Lloyd Ray. Soon he took up the fiddle, and was mentored first by Madison County fiddlers Tommy Hunter and Woodrow Boone. In 1967, while attending the 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! ”
In the coming years, Howell became close friends with Ernest Smith, son of legendary Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, who introduced Roger to the many styles and personalities of the early Grand Ol’ Opry. Along the way, Howell became friends with and learned from many legendary fiddlers, such as Fletcher Bright, John Hartford, and Charlie Acuff. He 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 nearly three decades, thus dispersing thousands of copies all around the world. Howell has also produced several of his own recordings, including the best-selling Hills & Heroes in 2003, and is highly sought-after in the studio, appearing on over 30 recordings over the years.
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 award-winning Carolina Old-Timers String Band and Bailey Mountain Ramblers. These days he can be found playing with his many friends at area festivals, and at the popular weekly Bluegrass Jam at Zuma Coffee in Marshall with legendary fiddler and friend Bobby Hicks.
Howell’s skill in the restoration and repair of violins is well-known, and many of the region’s top fiddlers play instruments that have received Howell’s expertise. His “Bailey Mountain Fiddle Shoppe” on Banjo Branch is a popular destination for musicians from all over the country, and has even had visitors from Japan, New Zealand, and the British Isles.
In 2013, Howell finished recording his massive “Memory Collection” of fiddle tunes for Mars Hill University’s Southern Appalachian Archives, totaling over 650 tunes on 25 CDs. 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. The documentary film A Mighty Fine Memory 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.