An Interview with Texas Fiddler Marty Elmore
There are Texas fiddlers and there’s Marty Elmore. Marty is a down to earth guy and if you’ve ever heard him play, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I interviewed Marty and we talked about Texas fiddlers, his favorite fiddler who he met and had the good fortune to have a few lessons from, legendary fiddler, Benny Thomasson. And a whole lot more. This is an edited version from the original with better context and punctuation. Check out the interview and watch the video.
Mike: Tell me about… you met Benny Thomasson when you were a kid,
Marty: Yes I would say it was in the summer of ’77. I would have been 14. I met him at a contest in Arlington. Of course, everybody liked to be around Benny, but I got to meet him and talked to him for a while and he gave me his name and address, I mean he wrote his address and everything on paper… his name and phone number and he told me to call him and come to see him. I went over to his house about 3 different times and he showed me a few things on the fiddle. I didn’t get to go very often. My dad took me up there 2 or 3 times.
Mike: Yes so you actually got to watch him play live and in person, that is amazing. So tell me about the Elmore Fiddle Camp. How did all that come about?
Marty: Well Randy, my brother, started it in 2001, so this makes the 18th year. And, he started it at this place in Keene, Texas. A place where camps are held. It stayed there a couple of years then he moved to Cisco Junior College and the numbers were pretty big. Usually, we had about 100 people there every year. We stayed at Cisco from 2003 to 2010 and then he moved it to Glen Rose in 2011 and it has been in Glen Rose since then.
Mike: How many people did you have this year?
Marty: This year we had 70.
Mike: That is not bad at all.
Marty: 71 actually, guitar and fiddle.
Mike: I actually wanted to go to that camp this year but I missed out, I was doing some other stuff.
Marty: We would love to have you. We usually have numbers in the high 50’s. This year was a bigger year. Since we moved to Glen Rose, it has been averaging between 50 and 60 and then this year we had 71.
Mike: That is cool
Marty: I started helping him, I started teaching actually, I didn’t originally teach at the camp. I started helping him in about 2009.But I would go to some of the classes and even if I knew the tunes that someone was teaching I would learn another variation of it, and hang out and jam every night. Then I started teaching classes at the camp. Now I help him and we’ve been doing it, this is our 18th year, so we had a good year so I guess we’ll try it again next year.
Mike: Do you have private students?
Marty: Yes I have a few, I don’t teach a whole lot. There was at one time, 10-15 years ago where I had about 20 students that would come once a week. I would teach Monday through Thursday. I work a regular job so I teach in the evening and it started getting…it was just too many… I have about 5 right now. I don’t teach every week, I just teach every other week.
Mike: …you play a lot of Texas tunes you know I had a teacher several years ago you probably knew him, Wade Stockton?
Mike: Do you remember Wade?
Marty: I have known Wade since we were teenagers.
Marty: We became friends in about in 1975.
Mike: I took lessons from him for about 4 years. I would go out there and I would help him with his computers because I am a computer person. I did that after school you know. I would set up his stuff and he would teach me lessons…We became good friends over the years and he got me to play in a fiddle contest in Corpus Christi and I was really nervous about that kind of thing. I said I don’t want to play in a contest. But anyway it was nerve wrecking but I got the 4th place you know. There was only 4 of us in that division.
Mike: Let me ask you a couple of more questions Marty I know you said in your bio that you started learning to read music when you were about 35 was that hard for you to do that?
Marty: Well, not really hard to learn what note is what and where it was at on the neck. But to be able to sight read very fast, I am not a very fast reader. You know there are people that grow up in a classical world that read music from day 1. They can sit and play and keep tempo by reading. I read slow but I did it so I could start transcribing tunes and teaching them and have them on paper, and also it opens up a few more doors to learning. If you just open a book up you do not have to be able to sight read well to work your way through it and learn a tune. I can read pretty good now, I have been doing it for 20 years now and I have been transcribing a lot of tunes over the years. So, I am still not a real fast reader but I can read okay and I am pretty good at transcribing them nowadays.
Mike: Right, that is good
Marty: So I find that’s the easiest way to learn and it is also the easiest way for me to memorize. It is much harder for me to memorize a tune when I am learning out of a book. Now I can do it, but it doesn’t take off as much as just learning it by ear or just doing it sitting knee to knee with another fiddler.
Marty: Anyway that is the main reason I wanted to learn to read, just to be able to learn from opening a book and play a tune out of it and plus to be able to transcribe tunes.
Mike: What inspired you musically?
Marty: Well I don’t know, just through the years, I got inspired by different things sometimes. I have known most of these old tunes that we play in contests and jams most of my life. Some of them I learned later in life. I learn tunes and people would ask me how long have you known that that tune and I’d say “I don’t know since I was about 15. The tunes are always changing but your fiddling evolves as the years go by, you know the way I played when I was 20 is not exactly the way I play now. I can get inspired by listening to Benny. He has always been my favorite fiddler. I have a lot of jam tapes of the old Texas great fiddlers and I pull Benny out and listen to him and it never gets old. I will go on and off with different fiddlers for a while and then I will listen to other things. I pull out a Norman Solomon tape, jam tape… I have got them all digitized now and I will listen and it inspires me again.
Marty: The way one person plays versus another person. When I go to learn a tune, I usually, if I don’t know the tune, will dig through my Benny collection and I will usually learn it from Benny first. Then I will look through my other fiddlers and maybe I will find Norman or Vernon Solomon, or Louis or Major Franklin, or somebody else playing and I will listen to all their versions also and I will learn from them, but initially I usually learn the tune from Benny just because he has always been my favorite fiddler. I will listen to every one of them playing a tune, steal a little bit from everybody and then just play it the way it suits me. It does not sound like a carbon copy of anyone it just sounds like me. My major influence when I was growing up was my brother, Randy. He was 8 years older than me and was already a good fiddler when I started. Through most of my teenage years, he taught me most of my tunes and the most about fiddling. I’d go see another fiddler that lived in Milsap, Texas about 50 miles away named Bill Gilbert. He was a left-handed fiddler but he was a good fiddler and was a good teacher. He taught a lot of people how to play and how to bow tunes and he knew tons of tunes. I also started trying to learn off of record and tapes.
Mike: Yes, hey what kind of fiddles do you have, do you have a lot of different fiddles?
Marty: Yes I have a few, the main fiddle that I play mostly and probably the best fiddle I have is a French-made fiddle, the maker is Jean Charles. Then I have an old German fiddle that I found in a pawn shop and the maker is Franz Anton Stoss, and it is a pretty good fiddle. I have an American made fiddle that I played for about 12 years and it is a John J. Daesen. I have an old Maggini copy that Bill Gilbert gave me when I was about 17. I played it till I was about 35. I came across an old fiddle with no name in it about a year ago, it needed a little work and I have done some work to it. It is really dark and black and I have been playing it, it is a pretty good fiddle too. But I guess the main fiddle that I play most of the time is the French fiddle.
Mike: What kind of strings do you use?
Marty: Well when I was a young kid I used the Super Sensitive because they were cheap and we did not have any money so we bought what we could afford. Tommy Burger was a guitar player that sold them and I could pick them up for about $5 a set. Then I went to Benny and he told me that he used Prim. He showed me the package and that is what he used and if they get a little dead sounding just wash them off with rubbing alcohol and they come right back to life. The last 3-4 month I’ve been using John Pearse ‘Artiste’ strings.
Mike: Do you still do bow rehairing?
Marty: Yes I still rehair bows. I don’t do a whole lot, I don’t advertise and try and get business. I do rehair bows for people and my own, and I tinker and work on bows. I’ve made one and I have got another one in the making but I haven’t finished it. I started doing that in 1998 so I have been doing it for
20 years and I thought back then that it would be a good thing to do on the side but I do not push it or try to get business but I get a little bit here and there.
Mike: What do you look for when you judge a contest, what do you look for in the contestants?
Marty: Well I listen to the tune. It doesn’t necessarily have to be smooth and perfect. It doesn’t matter if they are a little bit rough and it doesn’t always matter to me if the intonation is dead on perfect. If I feel like it’s their interpretation of the tune and, if they present it with some drive, so much the better. A lot of people will play tunes that they just memorized and they will play the same tune every time they play you know. I know that I will hear someone and they will play the exact same version of the tune but you know, if it is good, solid, their timing is good, they stay right on the beat, they have a good groove, if I hear a little bobble here or there, it can be overlooked. It all depends on the competition. I don’t think they have to be perfect. If you listen to the old players that invented our style, the pioneers of our style of playing like Major Franklin he did not play perfectly. He was really powerful, he played with a lot of drive, but he wouldn’t be perfect and smooth. Benny would be a lot smoother and he was more of a technician but his intonation wouldn’t be spot on either.
Mike: What about the future of fiddling?
Marty: When Norman and Vernon and Louis and those guys were in their 20’s and 30’s it was in 1940’s and 50’s and they had people like Benny, Major, Eck Robertson, Red Steeley and those guys, that’s who was ahead of them, and then they built on that. Then our generation we had all of them plus Texas Shorty, Dale Morris and everybody else who came along. Each generation has another generation to build upon and more ways to play a tune. It just keeps evolving.
Mike: Yes, that is right it sure does and that is cool that is a good thing. I am seeing how all these tunes evolved over the years and it is amazing.
Marty: Yes now a lot of the kids you hear, the really good ones they will play and you will hear them doing Major Franklin and Benny and their teachers may or may not be telling them where it actually comes from.
Mike: Hopefully they are telling them where it is from. Thank you, Marty, for talking with me and good luck in everything you do.
Marty: You’re welcome.