PORTRAIT OF A BLUEGRASS FIDDLER:
By Howard Wight Marshall, Fulton, Missouri
Delbert Spray fiddling at a jam session in Betty Lindsey’s
garage, Sedalia, ca. 1975, with Bill Monroe playing backup guitar. Monroe
and his band were playing a week’s engagement at the State Fair that year.
(photo courtesy Erma Spray)
Delbert Spray passed away December 16, 2001 at the age of 78 in his home near Kahoka, in northeast Missouri’s Clark County, where Delbert and Erma lived for 53 years. Funeral services were held in Kahoka on December 19, with burial in Ballard Cemetery.
Delbert was born September 28, 1923 in Winigan in Sullivan County into a family of farmers who grew crops and raised livestock in the rolling hills and prairies near North Salem in northern Linn County. It was there that Delbert learned to play fiddle for square dances, following in his father’s footsteps. Delbert grew up around some of the finest of the old style hornpipe fiddlers in north Missouri. His father, Albert Spray, was a well-known left handed fiddler who played by positioning the instrument vertically and resting it on a table top, upright piano lid, or on his knee, and bowing like a cello player.
Delbert joined the Army during World War Two and played fiddle in an army band. In 1946, Delbert played the first bluegrass fiddle music in Japan. Out of the service and back home, later in 1946 Delbert married Erma Brookhart of Clark County in Kirksville, where they were going to college at Truman State University. Delbert and Erma’s first date was a square dance in a barn near Winigan, where Delbert’s father, Albert, was the fiddler.
Delbert attended the college two years, and Erma graduated in 1948 with a teaching degree combining business and English. Erma taught schools ranging from a local one-room school to high school, retiring after twenty-five years at Kahoka High. Erma began playing backup guitar for Delbert in her sixties. They didn’t play the typical rowdy dances, however.
Delbert and Erma moved to a farm near Kahoka, Clark County, and began raising Hereford cattle. They eventually began raising Shorthorn and Angus cross cattle as well. Their cattle enterprise helped forge a close friendship with the bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Kenny Baker, who bought Shorthorn bulls from Delbert and Erma. They had met Delbert and Erma at one of Monroe’s Bean Blossom bluegrass festivals in Indiana in the 1970s. Bill Monroe’s father had raised Shorthorn cattle in Kentucky, and Monroe and Baker took two bulls home from the Spray farm on one of their visits. Monroe, Baker, and Delbert and Erma became good friends.
Like a number of other farmers, Delbert suffered a farm machinery accident. In 1961, he lost the index finger on his left hand. This misfortune affected his ability to note fiddle tunes. Such a mishap would have put an end to many fiddlers’ efforts to make music, but Delbert managed to overcome the problem. Most people did not realize he was missing a finger, because he was such a fine fiddler despite this handicap.
In the mid-1980s, Spray taught fiddle in the Missouri Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program with a young student named Michelle Ogle. In his later years, he was proud of getting his great-granddaughter, Ashley Foti, started on the fiddle. Spray played a number of rare local tunes, some attributed to local fiddlers. “Best Old Coon Dog” was one of his dad’s tunes — a G hoedown offering opportunity to illustrate Delbert’s bowing in all its subtleties and syncopations. “Best Old Coon Dog” is typical of the tunes and style that drew such fiddlers as Tater Tate, Benny Martin, Kenny Baker, and John Hartford, as well as Bill Monroe, to Delbert’s playing. Iowa fiddler and friend Al Murphy recorded the tune on his 1987 LP record Through the Fields (Global Village 305). Among other tunes seldom heard outside north Missouri were Delbert’s father’s tunes, “Mag Brown,” “Crippled Turkey,” and “Muir’s Hornpipe,” which he learned from fiddler Wes Muir. A number of fiddlers learned some of Delbert’s rare tunes, such as Iowa’s Al Murphy, Kirk Brandenberger (with The Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show), and Missouri’s bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent.
Among his best tunes were such technically demanding pieces as “Done Gone,” a tune brought to prominence in the 1920s recordings of fiddlers like the great Eck Robertson and a tune burnished and relished down through the years by many fiddle players. As he grew older, Spray specialized in the kind of subtly accented bluegrass classics made famous by his friends, Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe.
While grounded in the deep traditions around him, Spray was among those who took to bluegrass music in the 1940s with gusto. His fiddling abilities allowed him to render with equal grace the old standbys and elaborate hornpipes of his region right alongside the emergent bluegrass fiddle style he admired so much, a style grounded in the older fiddling styles Delbert knew well.
Spray composed a number of fiddle tunes. Unfortunately, he never got around to producing a recording of his own fiddling. He did, however, make a Fruitland, Iowa guest appearance on a private label LP in 1983, called Hard Times (Triple Tree 83-002, produced by W.E. Stuart and Delbert Spray, recorded at Ozark Opry Records, Lake of the Ozarks MO). The album featured a bluegrass group called Pathfinder. Delbert played his “Harmony Pines Waltz.” The liner notes said, “This lovely melody was created by Delbert while attending Oliver Smith’s Harmony Pines Festival in Gilson, Illinois. Even through hard times and rain, Oliver’s festival brings cheer to the hearts of all who attend.”
One thing that made Delbert so much fun to be around was his exciting renditions of both the older hoedown repertoire right alongside the “newer” stylings popularized by the top bluegrass fiddlers he knew, from Benny Martin to Kenny Baker. One other thing that made Spray enjoyable company was his graciousness toward aspiring young fiddlers who were trying to “get it.” Many a young fiddle player “got it” thanks to the strong if sometimes strict guidance of Spray and equally to his good friend and expert guitar accompanist, the redoubtable and endlessly cheerful Jim Lindsey of rural Newark, Missouri.
For much of his fiddling life, his companion and favorite backup guitarist was Jim Lindsey. Delbert and Jim traveled many times to Nashville, Tennessee, where they were treated to hospitality and non-stop jam sessions by their friends Bill Monroe, Tater Tate, Kenny Baker, Josh Graves, and Benny Martin. Delbert played a sophisticated, subtle fiddle style that was much appreciated by these peers. (On several occasions Mr. Monroe tried to coax Lindsey into becoming a Bluegrass Boy, and more recently, Jim has played “rhythm” for Kenny Baker and Josh Graves at bluegrass festivals in the area.)
Likewise, these famous musicians visited often in the Spray and Lindsey homes in northeast Missouri. (But those are stories for another occasion.) Through his lifelong devotion to fiddling and music, and through his advocacy of performance venues for musicians and bands, Delbert met many good people.
On one of Bill Monroe’s appearances in the area, at a 1988 festival in Iowa City, Iowa, Monroe composed a fiddle tune in Delbert’s honor, “Delbert’s Breakdown” (a modal tune in the key of A). Bill brought Delbert to the stage and said, in typically Monroe style,
Monroe: Now I want you to listen close. (audience laughter) You know, I’m not
bragging or anything. But sometimes I can put a mandolin number or a fiddle
number or some banjo numbers together in a half a minute. And we’s backstage
and I just put this number together and I titled it “Delbert’s Breakdown.” …
(brings Erma forward too) That’s his wife, she kind of guides him and tells him
what to do and everything. (audience laughter) (Bill and the band play the tune.)
There you have it, boys.
Spray: Thanks, Bill, I really love that, it’s a good one.
Monroe: Well, I think it’s fine.
Spray: Yes, sir.
Monroe: Thank you. And I just want you to do that and that’s the first title I
Spray: Good! It’s got a good title, you bet. I love that title. Now if I could just
learn it, I’ll be right in shape, won’t I.
Monroe: I’ll put it on a tape for you, and so you can just…. I want you to play the
old time, you know, let your old time fiddle ring out, everything. Like this right:
(Monroe picks a few notes of the melody) Really be pretty there with the fiddling
coming in there. …
Spray: I like the bass part, too. That’s a great song, thanks a million.
Monroe: Delbert thank you so much.
Spray: Thank you a million.
Monroe, who died in 1996, assigned part of the royalties to his old friend. Delbert “gave” the tune to Karl Shiflett’s band in 1998, and the tune was eventually recorded by The Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show classic bluegrass band on their 1999 Rebel CD. The fiddler in the band is Kirk Brandenberger, from Keokuk, Iowa, and an old friend of Delbert’s. Much to Delbert and Erma’s surprise, a royalty check soon arrived from B.M.I.
Bill Monroe often called Delbert and Erma to visit about cattle and the old days. His favorite topics were always the same, how the times have changed, cattle, and fox hounds. Around Christmas time Monroe would phone and just sing into the phone, “Christmas time’s a-comin’…,” and they knew it was Bill on the phone.
A lasting monument to Delbert Spray’s vigorous life in fiddling and bluegrass music is the series of regional bluegrass festivals that he, his hard-working wife Erma, and a group of friends along with Delbert and Erma’s children, John Spray and Patricia Davidson, developed. In the 1970s, they formed The Tri-State Bluegrass Associationand began promoting festivals in Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. The principal events became the annual November and February “indoor festivals” in a large motel in Hannibal, Missouri, along with their annual August bluegrass festival in the Kahoka town park. The Kahoka festival, founded in August 1972 and held at the county fairgrounds, became the largest bluegrass festival in the area. For a number of years, they hosted a Land of Mark Twain Fiddle Championship in Hannibal, which attracted top contest fiddlers from many states and as far away as Alabama (Jack Weeks) and Minnesota (Tom Weisgerber).
At these festivals, which Delbert enjoyed so thoroughly, he was a fixture. Always impeccably dressed, Delbert with his Stetson and well-trimmed mustache looked the part of the benevolent country squire, festival spokesman, and master fiddle player. Late at night, when most of the festival goers had retired and most of the other musicians had given out, we could find Delbert in a knot of musicians playing away at his favorite fiddle tunes. In those wonderful moments of free-wheeling jam sessions, Delbert was not only unwinding from a long day of helping run a festival, he was offering up his own fine fiddling for the enjoyment of others, and just perhaps playing a tune for you that was handed down from his dad many decades ago.
As several people said, “Delbert would have really enjoyed his funeral.” It was a beautiful service. As mourners arrived, several fiddlers and musicians played and sang in the lobby, including Al Murphy, Johnny and Rhonda Vincent, Kirk Brandenberger, and Steve Head and Pat Sharman, Bob and Barbara Lewis, and Bob Black. Johnny Vincent sang “Uncle Pen” and “Footprints in the Snow,” the Lewises sang “Go Rest High on the Mountain,” and Delbert and Erma’s nine-year-old great-granddaughter Ashley fiddled “Faded Love” on Delbert’s violin with the group.
As the funeral card said, “His favorite possessions were his family and many friends.” Delbert Spray of Kahoka, Missouri, a fiddler’s fiddler, will be missed. May he rest in peace.
Delbert Spray and fiddle student Michelle Ogle, with guitarist
Jim Lindsey at fiddlers contest in Chillicothe, Missouri 1985. (photo by
Howard W. Marshall)
The author extends sincere thanks to Erma Spray and Jim Lindsey for their help with this essay.
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