Fiddlin’ Phenoms: 10 Incredible Fiddle Performances in Bluegrass Music

Fiddle players are often at the center of bluegrass music, taking on the role of the lead instrument. Before Bill Monroe became the so-called Father of Bluegrass, he was influenced by other musicians such as one of his mentors, Arnold Shultz. The son of a former slave, Shultz was an African-American fiddler who toured with his family of musicians. Sadly, there is not a single recording of Shultz’s fiddle playing but below are ten performances inspired by his style and playing techniques.

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1. Art Wooten – “Orange Blossom Special”

Art Wooten was the first fiddle player who joined Bill Monroe in his Bluegrass endeavors. He was playing with Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys when they first performed at the Grand Ole Opry. Wooten left before the band started recording but returned for a short stint in 1941. You can hear him play on Bill Monroe’s rendition of “Orange Blossom Special”.

2. Kenny Baker – “Jerusalem Ridge”

Kenny Baker followed in Art Wooten’s footsteps and played in Bill Monroe’s band for 25 years, starting in 1957. The fiddle was not the only instrument Baker played, but when he was in the US Navy serving in World War II, he was asked to play the fiddle again and again for the soldier’s square dances, according to an article in The Cedartown Standard. When he returned to the US, he still had to pick up shifts in coal mines in Kentucky or Virginia to pay his bills since he didn’t earn enough money playing fiddle at the beginning of his music career.

3. Benny Martin – “Me And My Fiddle”

Benny Martin came from a musical family and started playing fiddle as a child. He moved to Nashville when he was a teenager to pursue a career in music. In the late 40s, he was another fiddle player who met Bill Monroe and briefly played in his band. He eventually hosted his own show at the Grand Ole Opry and was known for his energetic playing style and singing voice.

4. Alison Krauss – “I’ve Got That Old Feeling”

Alison Krauss won the Walnut Valley Festival Fiddle Championship when she was only 13. She was named “Most Promising Fiddler in the Midwest” by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass in America and proved she deserved that title over the years. In 1991, she won her first Grammy award for “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” in the category Best Bluegrass Recording. She has since collected 26 more Grammys for her performances and recordings with her country band Alison Krauss & Union Station.

5. Stuart Duncan – “Wheel Hoss”

Stuart Duncan plays guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. The Grammy winner has been a member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band since 1985 and is a sought-after session player. Duncan has worked with George Strait, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, and Barbara Streisand. He is not afraid to experiment and told the Fretboard Journal magazine that he has played solos with his fiddle plugged into an overdrive pedal.

6. Vassar Clements – “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” 

Vassar Clements taught himself how to play the fiddle at age 7 and was—like many other bluegrass players—a part of Bill Monroe’s band during the 1950s. After struggling with alcoholism in the ’60s, he returned to the music scene in the ’70s. Grammy award winner Clements infused his playing with elements from jazz and swing music and became a versatile player with chops way beyond classical bluegrass techniques. 

7. Bobby Hicks – “Fiddle Patch”

Bobby Hicks started out playing mandolin in his brother’s band. After he was dropped, the fiddle became his main instrument. The Grammy Award winner has played with many bands from Bill Monroe’s group to Porter Wagoner’s band and the Ricky Skaggs Band. In the ’60s, he served as the bandleader for the Judy Lynn show in Las Vegas. In 1997 he released the first album under his own name. The International Bluegrass Music Association named Fiddle Patch Instrumental Album of the Year.

8. Michael Cleveland – “Lee Highway Blues”

Michael Cleveland has been surrounded by bluegrass music since his early childhood. His grandparents hosted regular bluegrass gatherings and at age four, he began playing the fiddle. He attended the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville, where he learned the Suzuki method of violin. While he practiced the violin at school, he played fiddle at home. In 2006, he formed the band Flamekeeper. He has won multiple awards for his fiddle playing and his recording Fiddler’s Dream was nominated in 2018 for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. A year later, he won a Grammy for his album Tall Fiddler.

9. Bronwyn Keith-Hynes – “Open Water”

Bronwyn Keith-Hynes graduated from the Berklee College of Music and co-founded and toured all over the world with the progressive bluegrass band Mile Twelve. Her debut solo album, Fiddler’s Pastime, released in 2020, is a collection of original fiddle tunes and traditional songs. The International Bluegrass Music Association named her Fiddle Player of the Year in 2021 and 2022.

10. Christian Sedelmyer – “Diamond Joe”

Christian Sedelmyer is a Nashville fiddler who balances the bluegrass and old-time traditions with the innovative freedom of his heroes Vassar Clements, John Hartford, and Stuart Duncan. He has played with various bands, including the 10 String Symphony, a duo with Rachel Baiman. Conceived as a side experiment, the project lifted off with two charting albums and bookings in France, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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