About Benny Thomasson
This man is one of the legends of Texas fiddling, and beyond that a musician of such great power and scope that he is often compared to luminaries such as Charlie Parker for jazz or Isaac Stern for classical music. Meaning that just the sound of his instrument, instantly recognizable from the first few bars he plays, creates an immediate sense of intensity in the music that lesser players would have to take a few moments working up a sweat to create, if they could. His musical reach is as big as the state he came from, extending out in the development of Western swing as well as providing a historical background of traditional fiddling. He is one of the best examples of so-called "fiddlers," who despite technical and musical differences are violinists just like anyone else, playing the violin in a virtuoso manner without the benefit of classical training. Without the standard he set, there would surely be no players of the Mark O'Connor variety. In fact, the white instrument the latter hotshot fiddler plays was given to him by Thomasson himself.
He was one of ten children in a music-loving family. Both his father, Luke Thomasson, and uncle, Ed Thomasson, were well-known area fiddlers, and Benny has often recalled in interviews a memory of his father practicing a new tune, which eventually became the fiddle standard "Midnight on the Water." Local musicians hung around the house jamming and the way Benny tells it, back then a musician didn't have to look around for gigs. Anywhere Luke went, for example, somebody would ask him to play his fiddle. Keeping appointments or sticking to any kind of schedule would be impossible, because one never knew how long one of these spontaneous fiddle fests might last. Benny started playing fiddle at the age of three, but he did need his father's help to hold the instrument at the edge of a bed to lay the neck down on. Still, this early start gave him plenty of time to get ready for the musical career awaiting him. By the age of 19, he was eager to make his mark at a local fiddle contest. Believing he was one of the greatest players alive, he got up and gave it his all. No, this story does not end with him capturing all of the top honors and being acknowledged as one of the great geniuses of music. He was in fact ignored because he had yet to develop his powerful personal sound and concept. But the event was a kick in the rear, the musical wake-up call that often makes a young player decide that five or six hours of each day could be spent practicing instead of whatever else one might have been doing. He went to work on a repertoire of fiddle tunes, developing his own variations in sections without making any too drastic changes. The approach worked for him and he began to finally be noticed by other musicians and the public alike. He went on to win the Texas State Fiddling Championship 15 times, plus three consecutive wins in the worldwide event held in Crockett, TX, and many other competitions. His ability to mow down opponents with a wave of his bow partially came from the superb repertoire he developed, which included two-part pieces he had learned from his dad, Canadian and Irish reels learned by ear, and also from published fiddle collections and the modern Texas breakdown style. The musical philosophy of Texas fiddling also tied in with the sometimes verbose or exaggerated nature of goings-on in that state, since a fiddle tune that might only have two parts to it in Virginia would appear in Texas with five different sections. Again, this was an aspect that might give a fiddler some extra artillery in a showdown. He further enhanced the sound and resonance of his instrument by utilizing a variety of interesting fiddle tunings. But perhaps one of the finest features of his playing was the technique he had learned from relatives, all of whom played in an older style of fiddle in which the bowing hand makes a larger turn than what would come to be considered the proper fiddling technique in later generations. This allows the player to bring in more notes with that hand, although it can limit the amount played with the other. This fiddler's bowing hand was once said to look like a pendulum swinging.
Musicians of Thomasson's generation were helped mightily in their career endeavors by the advent of radio. Thomasson and his brothers were in a variety of groups that played on broadcasts, including an old-time music program sponsored by the Sears Roebuck company, also one of the great sources for mail-order banjos, fiddles, and guitars. This particular show afforded excellent exposure and Thomasson and his brother, guitarist Lewis Thomasson, got the job just because they happened to show up for a random audition one afternoon when the show's producers still had no idea what music they were going to use to start the new show. The popularity of old-time music on the air eventually became understood by various record companies who sent their scouts literally all over the country in the '20s and '30s. Although many great old-time players left recorded documents because of these activities, listeners are not so lucky in the case of Benny Thomasson because the results of a 1929 recording session he did for Okeh with another brother, Jim Thomasson, have disappeared. It could have been the birth of the song "I Fall to Pieces," since apparently somebody with butterfingers dropped the wax master somewhere in the process of it being shipped back off to the big city. Nonetheless, the fiddler made up for the recording debacle later in his career. In the late '60s, he recorded for the County label with great results. His Country Fiddling From the Big State is practically a fiddle contest without the hoopla because within its grooves the fiddler presents a selection of both old-time and western swing numbers such as might be presented in a contest event. In fact, the concept of a fiddler preparing a series of pieces to be performed in competition is credited to Thomasson, and has become the accepted norm for participants in such events.
In the '70s, Thomasson relocated to Washington state, where he struck up musical relationships with many of the young local regional players who were involved in a resurgence of interest in old-time music and various other traditional American styles. A young guitarist named Dudley Hill, who was totally enamored with Thomasson's recordings on the County label, approached the great master in the halls of a high school where a Washington state fiddle contest was being held. "Can I play with you?" Hill asked with probably something of a tremble in his voice. The two went on to form a musical and personal bond, playing on several of each other's records, the results released on Voyager albums such as Thomasson's Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle or Hill's From a Northern Family. The former release contains some marvelous examples of the fiddler's work with backup in informal jam sessions. Being on the West Coast even gave Thomasson access to Hollywood. The younger disciple Byron Berline managed to arrange an on-screen appearance in the early Arnold Schwarzenegger film Stay Hungry, long before the tough guy created an image where he would be more comfortable smashing a banjo over someone's head then picking it. Thomasson and his family reportedly walked out of the screening when they realized there was going to be a nude love scene.
Despite the possibilities of concluding on such an entertaining note, it should be mentioned that recordings and oral legend are not the only means through which the music of this fiddler survives. The Seattle-based Petimer Press has published a book, entitled Benny Thomasson Fiddle Transcriptions for those brave enough to try this at home. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi