Former Lawrencian with passion for old-time music co-authors biography of Appalachian fiddler, luthier
photo by: Portrait by Mike Ross/University of New Hampshire Photographic Services, book cover courtesy of publisher McFarland Press
Malcolm Smith’s first exposure to old-time mountain music was at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield. It was dance music, it was “hypnotic” and it ultimately became a lifelong love for Smith.
Smith developed and expressed that love in the 35 years he spent in Lawrence, during which he hosted KANU’s “Flint Hills Special” radio program, helped found the Kansas State Fiddling & Picking Championships and performed as a member of the Scrapwood Old-Time String Band and Cloggers.
Now, the 65-year-old former Lawrencian lives in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Laurel Fork, Va. — just a few miles from everywhere related to old-time music, he says — and he’s just finished a four-year-long project. Last month, publisher McFarland released a biography co-authored by Smith, “Appalachian Fiddler Albert Hash: The Last Leaf on the Tree.”
It was a project pitched to Smith by a minister and fellow musician, Edwin Lacy, who asked if Smith would help him write a biography about Hash, a well-known fiddler and luthier.
“The look in Edwin’s eyes became fiery as he told me about Albert, how he had built his first fiddle as a young boy after dreaming how to do it,” Smith writes in his introduction.
After four years of interviewing those who knew Hash and writing the fiddler’s story, Smith now too has a fiery look in his eyes. He joined the Journal-World for a Zoom interview on Tuesday to discuss his biography, which is part of McFarland’s Appalachian Studies Series.
Smith said old-time musician Paul Brown described Hash by noting that “you could see Albert across a festival grounds and feel his gaze upon you in this loving, gentle way.” In collecting the stories of 50 to 60 people who knew Hash, Smith said he too felt that loving expression.
“I just felt that from everybody we met. When they start talking about Albert, their expression would change. And now I’ve got that bug,” he said.
photo by: Contributed Photo
In the biography, Smith writes about how when Hash first heard the fiddle as a young boy, he was so overcome with the beauty of the music that it is said he ran screaming down the road with excitement. Then, at 9, Hash dreamed the entire process of building a fiddle, and then went out and shaped the instrument out of wood from his mother’s barn the next day. He didn’t have any glue, so he put the instrument together using a railroad spike as a hammer and his mother’s sewing needles as nails. For strings, he took wire off a screen door.
Hash grew up in poverty with a utilitarian mindset. He wanted a fiddle, so he made one, and there began a life devoted to creating instruments and passing along that knowledge to others.
Later in life, Smith said Hash was known to say, “All you have to do is take a piece of wood and take away everything that’s not a fiddle.”
In his lifetime, Hash made around 300 fiddles. The exact number is unknown, because Hash didn’t number his fiddles; instead, he named them. Each reportedly had a uniqueness and beauty — one with a peacock design, another with a parrot design and one with a witch carved into the headstock.
“For so many Appalachians, that was a revelation that Albert gave them — which is you can build something that’s very useful and gives you great joy but you can also make it beautiful,” Smith said.
Several of Hash’s fiddles were showcased at the Smithsonian, Smith said.
photo by: Contributed Photo
Smith’s biography is about Hash, of course, but Smith said it turned out to be a book more about Appalachian values and what it means to be a real hillbilly, “in the truest sense of the word.” In the final chapter of his book, Smith writes about the legacy of Appalachian values, which he says includes a sense of humor, hospitality and the qualities of independence, self-reliance and pride, among others.
As Smith conducted interviews for the biography, he made new friends along the way, expanding the circle of musicians with whom he can participate in old-time music sessions. The network of people he can play with is “the thread that keeps me going,” Smith said.
Copies of “Appalachian Fiddler Albert Hash: The Last Leaf on the Tree,” can be purchased on alberthash.com for $30. For an additional $20, customers can receive two CDs of Albert’s fiddling music along with the book. Smith is currently staying with friends in Lawrence, and said that if Lawrencians want a signed copy of the book, they can receive a signed book through that website.