By Charlotte Underwood
LAFOLLETTE, TN (WLAF) – Two local musicians are getting the opportunity of a lifetime to apprentice under a master fiddle luthier as part of a Traditional Arts grant through the Tennessee Arts Commission. Postmark Jamboree host Tony Branam and area musician Joseph Hensley are the grant recipients who are apprenticing under Keith Williams, who is a master fiddle luthier (a maker of stringed instruments).
Williams is from Chuckey, Tennessee, which is where Branam and Hensley have been traveling to his shop for luthier lessons. The pair has already had three or four lessons and the apprenticeship ends in July. By the end of it, Hensley and Branam will have built a fiddle under Williams guidance.
Williams is regarded as one of the state’s finest luthiers and has been making instruments since 2004. He has played the fiddle since he was 13- years- old and has played alongside some of the state’s best players. He does the fiddle exhibits for Dollywood as well.
“As the traditional masters of this art are aging and disappearing, this art form is becoming rare in East Tennessee …I believe it is important to pass along this art form to others who are interested in keeping the tradition alive,” Williams said.
According to both Branam and Hensley, Williams has been a great teacher. Branam and Hensley said they felt honored to be able to participate in the program and learn more of these traditional skills. Both Branam and Hensely said they had always had an interest in instrument playing, building and repair work.
Branam lives in Jacksboro and Hensley is from Speedwell. They play often together for Postmark Jamboree and Hensley often plays on Friday nights in downtown LaFollette at Katie’s restaurant.
Both had some instrument building and repair work experience prior to the program. Hensley has instrument making in his blood as his uncle Ben was a fiddle maker in the 1970s. Hensley also previously worked with Luthier Junior Branscomb to build his first guitar, which he did over the summer of 2018.
“Music and instrument building have always been a part of our local culture, but currently there are not a lot of luthiers doing work in this area,” Hensley said, explaining that was one of the reasons he felt so strongly about continuing the traditional art of building instruments. He also said that he felt instruments should be built by hand and not in a factory.
“If they are built in a factory it takes away their character; instruments just sound better when built by hand. It’s also to preserve instruments, especially old instruments,” Hensley said. Once through with his apprenticeship, Hensley said he hopes to get into instrument repair and perhaps one day pass the tradition along.
Branam has worked for years repairing and building instruments, but this is his first opportunity to work with a master luthier. Both Branam and Hensely said they planned to continue the tradition of passing these skills down so they are not lost to time.
“These skills are disappearing; that’s why programs like this are so important. It’s a good way to keep the traditional arts alive and pass that knowledge from one generation to the next,” Branam said.
Branam and Hensley’s grant was funded through a special partnership with the South Arts initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachia Folk Art and Culture. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 02/25/2021-6AM-PHOTOS COURTESY OF TONY BRANAM, JOSEPH HENSLEY & CHARLOTTE UNDERWOOD)