Published May 31, 2023

Women & Old-Time Fiddling

Betty Vornbrock says music fans around her Carroll County home are unique: They are not necessarily accustomed to being performed to. Instead, with the preponderance of jams, music conventions, and dances, people in her part of Southwest Virginia tend to pick up an instrument, join in, and learn some tunes instead of sitting and listening in the dark.  

“You can walk the aisles at a fiddlers’ convention, and if you get drawn in somewhere, somebody will say, ‘Do you play? Have a seat!” explained Betty, sitting in her home music room, surrounded by instruments and mementos from a lifetime of playing. “The spirit has always been: We are here for music.” 

And Betty has been with music since the beginning. She grew up in a musical home in Iowa and took up violin after learning a little piano. She remembers catching the spark for traditional music once she heard Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez. In her early adult years, she found herself in West Virginia, taking part in the 1970s “back to the land” movement, and making music for evening entertainment with the people she lived with. 

After seeing the old-time musicians (and brothers) John and David Morris in Clay County, Betty dove into the West Virginia traditional music scene, studying old tunes and seeking out teachers around her. She calls this her “hippie oral tradition.”  

“Looking back on it, I was doing what the elders had done in their younger days to find the music,” Betty said. “People would gather, bring instruments, and play together. It wasn’t about being a star or creating stars, it wasn’t about being on a ladder to some kind of success, it was just sharing the music with each other.” 

Betty remembers visiting some of these elders in their homes to learn tunes. These renowned fiddlers were men, and sometimes it was awkward as their wives might be uncomfortable with a young woman in the house. Betty’s male peers did not have this issue, but it did curb her opportunities to meet or learn from as many as she might have. 

The Reed Island Rounders, from left Billy Cornette, Betty Vornbrock and Diane Jones, circa 2003. Image courtesy of Betty Vornbrock.

In what can sometimes feel like a male-dominated tradition, Betty and her apprentice Sharon Andreucci set out to focus their apprenticeship on learning repertoire from the women fiddlers of Appalachia. They also made a point to learn from one of the greatest women in the tradition—early on in their apprenticeship they visited Alice Gerrard at her home in Durham, North Carolina.  

Alice, a 2017 inductee into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, “looms as a towering female figure in a world that was once the domain of male musicians and business leaders,” according to the museum. She was known for picking with the likes of Bill Monroe, Hazel Dickens, and Mike Seeger around the region, including at the legendary Watermelon Park.

“I’m happy that we’re both women who do that. Because it does mean something more to us than it would to an average couple of people sitting around and playing tunes,” said Betty about her visit to Alice with apprentice Sharon Andreucci last year.  

Sharon lives blocks from Felt’s Park in Galax, home of the annual Old Fiddlers’ Convention. She and Betty have been jamming together for years. They are regulars and hosts for the ‘Round the Buffalo jam, a gathering started by scholar Malcolm L. Smith as an off-season jam series. The jam is named for Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County—anyone around the mountain is welcome to join.  

Sharon fell in love with old time music after attending The Wildflower Festival in New Mexico with her husband Eric Andreucci. He was a bluegrass fan, but she wasn’t that interested in playing bluegrass. She was so taken by the music of Gerry Milnes and Melvin Wine that she agreed to take lessons, on the condition that they play old-time music. Sharon and her daughter Gina Dilg both learned from Jeanie McLeary. At the ‘Round The Buffalo jam in December all three were jamming together. 

Betty and her husband Billy Cornette perform as a trio or dance band with various members, as the Reed Island Rounders. Most currently with Kirk Sutphin, James Ruchala, and Hilary Dirlam, all of North Carolina. They have made five recordings, have toured internationally, and love to join festivals and teaching camps around the US. The band presents tunes that “weave archaic with sophisticated, soulful with foot-stomping, romantic with down-to-earth,” according to their biography. 

Yet it is the informal jams that are most important to this community, where songs are still shared person-to-person, the way Betty learned in West Virginia. “That’s still the more important thing to me—how people can come together, play together, and share. Once I did get to spend time with the older fiddlers of that region, it became what they passed on to us,” Betty said.  

Now she is in the role of teacher—for Sharon, and for anyone she plays with that shows an interest. All she asks is that the music keeps moving forward: “I am happy to share, happy to show you what I know. I am happy to give you the music, but please pass it on.” 

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