Fiddle Me This
Bluegrass pioneer and five-time national fiddle champion Curtis Lee, a resident of Carolina Shores with his wife, Ruth, is still heating up crowds with his fast fiddling.
Five-time national fiddle champion Curtis Lee hasn’t slowed down his handiwork on the strings – even in his late 80s.
I recently stopped him long enough to talk to him, along with his wife, Ruth, over the phone from their home in Carolina Shores to find out what first sparked the song in his heart and tune from his bow.
Born and raised in Carson, Virginia, Lee first picked up a guitar from a local music store when he was 6 years old.
“Then, when his brother went into the service, he took over his brother’s fiddle and started messing around with it and playing it,” says Ruth, who Lee humbly insisted on answering my questions because she has a “better phone voice.”
Lee’s Uncle Alan, who was in a band at the time, took him under his wing and taught him how to play the guitar and fiddle. He’d go on to also play mandolin, banjo and steel guitar.
Lee entered his first fiddle competition in Richmond, Virginia, at 16 years old, won it over 50 to 100 fiddlers, and just kept playing on. He played on the road with the legendary bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman up and down the East Coast and into Canada. He remembers traveling in a Mercury station wagon in the 1960s with the band inside and the upright bass strapped onto the roof. When he wasn’t on the road, he’d work day jobs and, by night, play a variety of venues.
“He considers his musical talent a gift from God; he does not read music,” Ruth says. “He plays everything by ear. … He’s very versatile, as far as playing music.”
Lee and the band would also play package shows with the likes of Jimmy Dickens and Grandpa Jones and many more — and he shared the stage with country star Patsy Cline, backing her up.
“One of the highlights, he says, is that she sat on his lap,” Ruth says.
Ruth, originally from Decatur, Indiana, came into Lee’s life in the 1980s, she says, ironically (or suitably) at the North Carolina State Fair, where she happened to be one of the judges for the dancers in competition. Turns out he made quite the impression on and off-stage.
“Well, I did tell him that first year that his fiddle squeaked too much,” Ruth says with a laugh.
Lee continues to play at the North Carolina State Fair’s Folk Festival each year. About five years ago, he began awarding the Curtis Lee Trophy to “individual instrumentalists to recognize the talent of up-and-coming musicians.”
He has been honored by the International Bluegrass Association Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky, where his name is on a plaque listing Bluegrass Music’s First Generation. The museum also recognizes Lee as one of the Pioneers of Bluegrass. He is a member of the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, earning the state fiddling competition there four times, and the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Trophy at the North Carolina Folk Festival at the annual state fair. Ruth also took home the same trophy.
The Lees began performing as a duo 25 years ago. Ruth plays the keyboard, while Curtis takes over on the fiddle, but she also has an impressive dance background. She is a former president of the National Clogging and Hoedown Council, and has danced, taught and judged clogging classes and clogging competitions across the United States and England. The two play locally at The Courtyard at Duplin Winery in Rose Hill and North Myrtle Beach, covering a blend of popular songs in a number of genres, from Johnny Cash’s “Orange Blossom Special” (his personal favorite) to “Faded Love,” to classic rock tunes by CCR to gospel songs to “The Fifty Year Ago Waltz” by Hank Thompson.
“That’s a very pretty song,” Ruth says. “He does a beautiful job on it.”
His advice for future fiddlers?
“He says that it’s probably a good idea to start with classical training when you’re young,” says Ruth, “to go through some kind of learning method first, where you learn your violin positions and everything. And then if you become interested in like bluegrass or country, then you can go from there.”
To check on potential upcoming gigs at either Duplin Winery location, where the Lees often play, visit duplinwinery.com.