Photo circa 1976, courtesy of Burt Feintuch.
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. Whats that, Uncle Gilbert? Christmas Eve," hed say. Well, by God, cant you play nothing but Christmas Eve? So hed start on the same tune. And she said hed 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. Thats been ninety years ago.
"I guess I was about ten years old. Id always play you have those little sticks of stovewood, you know, and Id 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 wasnt 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 dont guess he ever worked any. And hed come here, and Motherd say, Well, Homer, you been to dinner? Well give you your dinner and you can take some of our pictures. And he had a camera. Its set up on things like tobacco sticks. And hed play them tunes, now. And hed stay here sometimes all night with us. He was an awful good fiddler real smooth."
Jims 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. Ive 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 hed come up here. When I was a young boy, why, he got crippled he took the rheumatiz, something and Id play Cumberland Gap, and I didnt come down on the fine part like he wanted to, and hed 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. Theyd have em at schoolhouses, at high schools, and places like that. Ive played in contests with an old fiddler Cooney Perdue, but boy I couldnt 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 didnt look like he was going to be around much longer. Jim Bowles lived to be ninety years old, and finally passed away in 1993.
Marimac 9060-C "Railroad Through the Rocky Mountains" cassette is available from Elderly Instruments.