Tal Holbrook’s home and workshop are in the Traphill community of Wilkes County, near where he grew up. He spends most of his time in his workshop making fiddles and mandolins. Though he refers to instrument building as a “hobby,” Tal says, “All I would do is eat and sleep if I wasn’t doing it.” He also plays fiddle.
Tal’s great uncle was a fiddle maker and player, and he remembers hearing him play. When Tal had the chance, he would pick up his great uncle’s fiddle to “scrape and saw” on it. By the time he was twelve years old, he had figured out how to play on his own. His mother loved to sing, and he would back her up on the mandolin. He also plays guitar, but he considers fiddle his main instrument. One of his first professional jobs was playing fiddle with Larry Richardson, a banjo player from Galax, Virginia. Tal went to the Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana, one year to play with Birch Monroe, Bill Monroe’s older brother. Over the years, Tal also played with many local groups, providing bluegrass or country fiddle for whoever needed him.
Military service brought other opportunities to perform. In 1957, while stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, he was part of a television program called The Speck and Doyle Show. The band included Speck and Doyle Wright and Hubert Davis, and the program was aired by station WRBL in Columbus, Georgia. A 13-month tour of duty took him to Korea, but he joined the show again when he returned and continued playing until 1961, when he was sent to Germany. After he took discharge, he lived in Germany for several years working as a salesman in a music shop. When American country stars traveled to Germany on tour, they would occasionally hire back-up band members locally, and Tal had the chance to play with Red Sovine, Dan Gibson, Melba Montgomery, Bobby Lord, Ray Pillow, and Barbara Mandrell.
Tal returned to Wilkes County in 1973. He decided to build a mandolin when he found he could not afford to buy one of the quality he wanted. In 1985, he modeled his first mandolin on the Gibson Lloyd Loar F5 model. A year later, a friend gave him some blueprints to build a fiddle, which peaked his interest. With information and a good book about building fiddles, he started the work. “When I tried to make one, I found out then how little I knew about the instrument I had been carrying under my arm for all those years,” he says.
Tal Holbrook passed away on February 21, 2020 at the age of eighty-four.