Biography:Jim Bowles

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JIM BOWLES (1903-1993). Born in 1903, Rockbridge, Monroe County, native James H. "Jim" Bowles started playing fiddle at age ten. His uncle Wash Carter taught him technique and songs. Growing up near the Carver family, Jim learned from watching and listening to them as well. In 1937 Bowles accompanied brothers Finley "Red" and Levy Belcher to Tuscola, Illinois to appear on WDZ radio under the name Kentucky Coon Skinners. Homesick, Jim returned to Kentucky after about a month to farm, play fiddle and occasionally make whiskey. Red Belcher went on to front several bands and play at various radio stations in the south. Although most famous for his fiddling, Bowles was also a singer who played the banjo to accompany his songs, playing both a trailing (knocking) and thumb-and-index-finger styles.

The following is excerpted from Bruce Greene's article "The Romance of the Kentucky Fiddler" [1]:

Jim Bowles was born in 1903 in Monroe County, Kentucky. He grew up in a very musical area, and he was influenced by a number of local fiddlers. His mother told him of the musicians from the past, such as Gilbert Maxey:

"He was an old colored man, and they had him playing for those old dances. ‘What’s that, Uncle Gilbert?’ ‘Christmas Eve," he’d say. ‘Well, by God, can’t you play nothing but ‘Christmas Eve’?’ So he’d start on the same tune. And she said he’d play the same tune every time. It was the only one he knew. ‘Christmas Eve’ was the best dancing tune in the world, and he could play it, she said. That’s been ninety years ago.''

"I guess I was about ten years old. I’d always play –– you have those little sticks of stovewood, you know, and I’d get ’em up and saw on ’em, like I was a-fiddling –– when I was a little bitty feller. And my father, times was hard and he had to go to Indiana and make money. Back in them days, there wasn’t no money to be got hardly. And he came through Louisville, and he came to a pawn shop. He bought me a fiddle. And of course I learnt several tunes."

One of the first fiddlers Jim learned from was a traveling photographer named Homer Botts:

"He used to come here. He made pictures. Just run around over the country. I don’t guess he ever worked any. And he’d come here, and Mother’d say, ‘Well, Homer, you been to dinner? We’ll give you your dinner and you can take some of our pictures.’ And he had a camera. It’s set up on things like tobacco sticks. And he’d play them tunes, now. And he’d stay here sometimes all night with us. He was an awful good fiddler –– real smooth."

Jim’s main teacher, however, was his uncle Wash Carter:

"He had a good education, Uncle Wash did. He taught school, was a lawyer. And he learnt me a lot about fiddling. I’ve heard my mother say she used to hear him fiddle when she was a young girl. See, we was raised right here by him, and he’d come up here. When I was a young boy, why, he got crippled –– he took the rheumatiz, something –– and I’d play ‘Cumberland Gap,’ and I didn’t come down on the fine part like he wanted to, and he’d just quarrel at me, and he says, ‘I know you can do that.’

"I got to going to contests. I guess I was twenty years old. They used to have them at Tompkinsville. They’d have ’em at schoolhouses, at high schools, and places like that. I’ve played in contests with an old fiddler Cooney Perdue, but boy I couldn’t do nothing with him. Henry Ford took him way up there, you know, years ago, and played in a contest. He like to have won it."

Jim played semi-professionally in his younger years. In the early days of radio, he played fiddle for Finley "Red" Belcher, who went on to become a well-known performer around Kentucky before his death in an automobile accident.

Around 1972, when Jim was in his late sixties, a neighbor of his told me that he was not looking too good, and didn’t look like he was going to be around much longer. Jim Bowles lived to be ninety years old, and finally passed away in 1993.

  1. Bruce Greene, "The Romance of the Kentucky Fiddler", Fiddler Magazine June, 1997.