2020 Tom Staley Award

Please note that putting this on WordPress has changed the editing of Deborah B. Gilman’s original post. This is not the fault of Deborah, but the transfer of the document.

Ernie Williams and Jim Strickland, The 2020 FSFA Tom Staley Award Recipients; Friends of Old Time (and Other) Music 

                           By Deborah B. Gilman

Tom Staley was my fiddle teacher and mentor (a term he hated me using). Like many others, I was a long-time friend of Tom’s. Tom was always volunteering advice for me pertaining to my fiddling (and many other things). One day, close to the weekend of the Old Time Music Championship (FOTMC), Tom told me, “There are two guys you need to meet, Ernie Williams and Jim Strickland! Go to the Florida Old Time Music Championship and meet them.” 

So, I went to FOTMC and walked up to the two guys people pointed out to me as being Ernie and Jim. I introduced myself and told them I was new to fiddling. Ernie smiled and welcomed me, shaking my hand. I told the two FOTMC organizers, that Tom told me I needed to meet the two of them. Jim stood there smiling, not saying very much, just smiling in a welcoming smile. Later that afternoon, Jim told me about a group led by Doug Naumann in Crystal Beach, where I could go to learn old time tunes: a small friendly group of musicians, Mr. Ethnic’s Wednesday Night Fiddle Support Group. Jim had initiated this “support group” in 1981 I contacted Doug Naumann and began my adventures with old time music. That was the beginning of a long-standing friendship with these two Florida Folk musicians and long-time supporters of the Florida Folk Festival and other Florida folk community and music events.

Because I have been friends with them for a while, and because of my respect for the two, I agreed to interview them for the Florida State Fiddle Association (FSFA). They are the 2020 FSFA Tom Staley Award recipients, although the presentation will be over the internet as our FSFA convention is online this year and not in-person.

Jim, Ernie and I met at Ernie’s home in San Antonio, Florida to talk about their involvement with the various Florida Folk activities here in Florida. The FSFA Board specifically cited the implementation of the Florida Old Time Championships as the reason they wanted the two musicians to receive this award, but I can’t limit this article only to their creating, organizing, and running that event, because of all the things they have been involved in here in the Florida Folk community, the countless ways they did, and continue to do more than they did during the long 33 year run of the FOTMC, to support old time music and folk performers. 

FOTMC was a favorite of many of Florida’s ‘old time’ musicians. It was also a place where musicians from all parts of Florida came together to make music and memories. While the idea was theirs,’ they were careful to point out that, “dozens of people made it happen, some without our even knowing who they were.” They mentioned Melinda Strickland, Jim’s wife, who “carried much of the load for a number of years, Annie Orlando and Paul Wales, who would show up every year with a new fantastic T-shirt designed just for FOTMC; “We wouldn’t even talk to them about it – they’d just be there.” They also mentioned all the people who worked at the registration table and the judges’ table, including the judges themselves, “who had the hardest job of all.” 

Developing Musicians and Folk Community Members

Ernie was born at home, in Brighton, in central Alabama. He came to Florida in 1965 to attend Florida State University for graduate school. He explained,

“I became interested in music [learning how to play a musical instrument] while listening to Jim Connor and Richard Lockmiller play at a little ‘beatnik’ place in Birmingham. Jim frailed banjo simply, but very fast and clean. I loved it.”

Ernie explained further how he chose the banjo.

“One night I went to a drive-in that would serve beer, with a friend of mine. Two girls came along.  One got in the back seat with him because he played a four-string guitar, and the other, not quite so attractive, girl got in the front seat with me. After they left, I said, ‘Louie, I need to get one of those four-string guitars.’ And he said, ‘No, man. Don’t get a four-string guitar. I’ve got a four-string guitar.’ And I said, ‘Well, what should I get?’ and he said, ‘Get a banjo.’”

Jim and I began laughing. Ernie is a master at story telling. I asked if it was a true story. He raised his eyebrows, looked me straight in the eye, acting surprised that I would question his story. Emphatically he told me it was the truth and that I was interviewing him, and he was answering my questions, so everything was going to be true. One thing Ernie has always been with me, is honest and to the point. He continued with his story, 

“The next day I called a pawn shop in Birmingham, and I went up there and bought a Kay open-back banjo for thirty dollars. I came home and called Louie, and he said, ‘Man, you’re never going to learn to play the banjo!’ and I never saw Louie again.”

Jim and I laughed again. Ernie continued, 

“I took six lessons from a guy named Bill Nailen, who wrote for the Birmingham News, and after that I was on my own. Every lesson he taught me was something different. He taught me to up-pick, then to frail, then some bluegrass rolls.”

Bluegrass rolls? I was surprised. Ernie is now known for his ‘old time’ style of playing banjo. I asked him if his banjo was a bluegrass banjo. I know there is a difference between the two types of banjos, the resonator on the bluegrass banjo, for instance. His reference to learning bluegrass rolls confused me. He described his Kay banjo, 

“It cost thirty dollars and had thirty brackets on it, which I heard was a way to tell it was one of the better cheap banjos. So, I started trying to play like Jim Connor, doing the best I could, and it never once got [me the girl].”

Ernie’s knowing how to do bluegrass rolls should not surprise me. He is loaded with all kinds of musical performance knowledge and skills that go beyond a particular music style. Once he got me to play Bobby Troup’s 1946 hit song, “Route 66.” He was a member of the New Sand Mountain Wildcats who played together for 35 years and first appeared in 1978 at the Florida Folk Festival. 

Jim was born in Tampa at Tampa General Hospital. Smiling, Jim tells us,

“I grew up in Tampa. My dad had a grocery store and ship chandler business down in Port Tampa City, which is ‘not’ the Port of Tampa, between 1940 and 1960. I’m a third generation Florida Cracker. And my granddaddy’s parents came down here from Georgia.”

“Cracker” is a term associated with the cattle drivers of Florida, whose whips made a cracking sound as they drove cattle to the cattle yards. It has come to refer to all native Floridians. Many people who reside in Florida come from other states and countries, so being a native Floridian, or a Florida Cracker, is honored by many multi-generational Floridians. Jim continued telling about his journey to musicianship and being a collector of ‘old time’ music recordings,

“In third grade our music teacher, Mr. Rankin, held an assembly where he played a whole bunch of instruments. I loved the sound of the French horn. I wanted to play the French horn, but it was an expensive instrument. My mother suggested, ‘Why don’t you play a trumpet or a cornet?’ So, I got a cornet. I played the cornet in the orchestra in elementary school and in the band in junior high and high school, except for two years when I played the tuba in junior high. I switched back to cornet in high school.”

Both Ernie and Jim mention the era that Bruce “Utah” Phillips called the “Folk Scare” or the Folk Revival period of the 1960s. Jim says,

“During the Folk Scare, I dabbled in guitar. I bought a Silvertone guitar, which I wish I had never sold. But I never really learned how to play it well. I was at Haslem’s, that famous bookstore in Saint Pete, where I saw Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo. It had a red cover with a drawing of a banjo and cost $2. It was so interesting that I bought it. I would read it over and over again. About two years later, I answered an ad in the St. Pete JC college newspaper. I bought a Silvertone open-back banjo for fifteen dollars. I messed around with it for a bit, but didn’t make very much headway until 1976, when I became really [angry] with the corporations who were trying to co-opt the [country’s] Bicentennial. I said, ‘What can I do to celebrate the Bicentennial and make it personal to me?’ I decided to do two things. I decided to grow a beard and to learn to play the banjo. Coincidentally, I saw an ad in the paper that there was going to be a banjo class down in Sulphur Springs on the Hillsborough River, at this little park and museum. So, I went down there and Ernie was the teacher of the class.”

The friendship between Ernie and Jim began in that little park as Ernie taught a class for people who wanted to learn banjo. Jim continues,

“Every Saturday morning for however many weeks it was, we met on the porch of this little log cabin on the banks of the Hillsborough River. That’s where I learned the banjo.”

I asked Jim what made him decide to become friends with Ernie? He smiled and answered,

“The banjo class ended and I told Ernie I was interested in keeping up with lessons. I took a couple of lessons, and he said, ‘I’ve taught you all I can teach you. Let’s just get together and play music. So, we did.”

Ernie interjected,

         “I felt sorry for him.”

We began to laugh. This is the banter I expect from the two friends. Ernie tells about their friendship,

“We met when I moved back from a commune in Tennessee. I’d given up my teaching job at Hillsborough Community College, so I tried making a living any way I could. There was a banjo class down at the little museum on the river [like Jim said]. I broke the class into two sessions, bluegrass and frailing. Jim showed up and was one of my students and we became fast buddies.”

Jim continued telling about his banjo adventures, and what he discovered along the way,

“In learning more about the banjo I started buying recordings of [musicians playing the] banjo. I was surprised to find that there was a lot of fiddling on the recordings, that went along with the banjo music. I had the fiddle that my granddaddy bought for my dad in 1914 from a blind music teacher in Tarpon Springs for fifteen dollars – but Dad never learned how to play it.”

Jim says his dad had placed the fiddle in the hall closet and that he took it down, set it up and began “sawing” on it. He continues to play it today.

I asked Ernie and Jim to tell me what other musical instruments they learned to play. Jim already touched on those instruments he played, the fiddle, the banjo, and the guitar, but I know he plays autoharp, too.         Ernie replied to the question with,

“I used to fool around with a bunch of stuff, but I sold pretty much everything so I could become a much better banjo player. Now I can’t play anything but banjo, and I don’t think I’m any better than I would have been had I kept fooling around with the other stuff. I just picked up guitar again, and I’ve been struggling to make a D chord.”

Participators in the Initiation of Florida Folk Community Organizations

The last part of our discussion was about the period of time when the Florida State Fiddlers Association, Friends of Florida Folk, the newer Florida Folklore Society, and Florida Old Time Music Championships were begun. Ernie said it like this, and Jim agreed,

“Everything started at about the same time, a twelve-month period in ‘81 and ‘82. I got an NEH grant to go to study at Berkeley for the summer, and on the way back to Florida I stopped at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Music Championships in Athens, Alabama. I took second place in the banjo contest. I thought, ‘Man, we could do that here in Florida!’ So I said to Jim, ‘Let’s start a contest’ and he said, ‘That’s a good idea!’ That same year Tom Staley, Wayne Martin and others started the Florida State Fiddlers Association, and Jim and I became charter members of Friends of Florida Folk and the resurrected Florida Folklore Society.”

Jim remarked,

“Yeah. As I remember, someone said that there was a Florida Folklore Society before that year, but it had fallen apart and that we were part the new one. We initiated the first FOTMC in 1982.”

FOTMC was an on-going event for 33 years.

Jim’s WMNF Radio Program  

Jim has a huge collection of old time music recordings. He began collecting them when he became interested in playing the banjo. Jim explains how he came to have a radio show on WMNF,

“As I was buying these records, along the way, WMNF started up (in fall of 1979). I went to Rob Lorei about my record collection. I said, ‘I’ve got this record collection, what do you think about me doing an ‘old time’ music show?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ I went to Jeannie Holton who was a long-time friend. I said, ‘Hey, Jeannie, Guess what? I’m going to be doing an ‘old time’ music show on WMNF!’ She said, ‘I am, too! I’m going to be doing a bluegrass music show!’ So, we ended up doing a show together. She would play a set of bluegrass music, then I would play a set of ‘old time’ music. That went on for a while until we got separate shows. I can’t remember how long we worked together until we finally got separate shows.” 

Jim’s show, Mr. Ethnic’s Old Time Music Show, was on WMNF for 39 years, from early 1980 until the fall of 2019.

From my perspective, Jim and Ernie have had a huge impact on the Florida folk community. From 1995 to 2001, Ernie served on the Florida Folklife Council, a citizen’s group appointed by the Florida Secretary of State to advise the Florida Folklife Bureau. Ernie remembers that group as “some of the finest folks I have ever been around,” including Johnny Bullard, Wayne Martin, and Howard Pardue.

Ernie and Jim’s most recent contribution to the Florida Folk Festival and the Will McLean Festival, are the ‘old time’ music workshops, organized around what they call the “Banjo Seed.” These are workshops where advanced banjo musicians give less experienced banjo musicians individual mentoring and where workshops for groups of musicians are given. As the former president of the FSFA, Carol Whisler came up with the idea of including other instruments in the workshop. This joint effort is called the, “Old Time Gathering,” where ‘old time’ music jams and people playing the other musical instruments are given the same workshop and lesson experiences as those who play banjo. It has been my observation that most of the participants participating in the Old Time Gathering activities, find them engaging and enjoyable.

Ernie and Jim continue to support the music of our folk community and the Florida festivals. I am grateful to Tom for telling me to seek them out and I am grateful for the friendship of Ernie and Jim. They have helped so many people become better musicians, more knowledgeable of the people they have studied with or known throughout their adventures into the world of fiddles, banjos, guitars, autoharps, mandolins, hammered dulcimers, and the various musical genre and styles in making our music. 

I suggest you follow Tom’s advice to me and that you, “Go meet these two guys!”  Attend their workshops or step up and meet them where you and they happen to be. I know I have two very dear friends in Ernie and Jim. I promise that your experience with them will be just as friendly and probably as good a musical adventure as any you might find.

Post Note: Ernie wanted me to clear up a long-standing confusion, “Remember, Ernie is the tall one.” And Jim wanted you to know that he “is the handsome one.”  I end this article shaking my head and smiling. 

Spotlight on Florida Fiddlers: Tyler Nall

Interview by Mark Braxton, FSFA Newsletter Editor, with Tyler Nall of Sarasota, Florida:

MB:     When did you start playing old time music? Was fiddle your first instrument?

TN:      I started getting into old time when I was 18. I had always been a fan of bluegrass, but when I started discovering old time, I loved it immediately. My first instrument was the bass guitar, then I started learning guitar, mandolin, banjo, and then fiddle.

MB:     What was it about old time that grabbed you?

TN:      It’s pure authenticity was what struck me first. Fiddle has also always been one of my favorite instruments, so the fact that it was predominantly fiddle led was also something I really loved.

The old songs really spoke to me too. All the talk of hardship, and hoboing, it was just pure America sounds like to me. Also, what’s not to love about a hard driving fiddle tune.

MB:      Speaking of hard driving fiddle music, your band, The Stillhouse Shakers, is a local favorite in the Tampa Bay area? How did everyone meet?

TN:       We met throughout the years. I met Holly when I was 18, we travelled together playing in a different band for quite a few years. While we were in that band, we stayed in Nashville for an extended period of time. We got a gig hosting a “bluegrass” jam in White House, TN, just north of Nashville and that’s where we met Camden, who was at that jam. We would meet up and hang out at Leroy Troy’s house up there, and always pick together. It wasn’t until a few years later, after our previous band had dissolved that me and Holly had gig opportunities down in Sarasota, FL. That was when we brought Camden on board and formed The Stillhouse Shakers.

MB:      Must’ve been fun hanging out with Leroy Troy. Did Leroy share any musical advice to you or teach you anything?

TN:      I love Leroy. I learned alot just from playing with him. He was a huge influence on my banjo playing. When I started picking up fiddle he’d also give me pointers on that. Usually I’d play a fiddle tune very poorly, and he would take the fiddle from and shake his head, and say “Nope, more like this.” 

MB:     That is funny. From some videos I watched of Leroy, he seems like a jovial, fun-loving guy. Were there any other folks pivotal to your development as a fiddler in your travels?

TN:      Leroy is one of the nicest folks I’ve ever met.

My friend Ryan Beard from Lavinia, Tennessee, really helped me out with the fiddle when I was first getting started. He showed me alot of the old chestnuts that fiddlers should know. Tunes like Shortening Bread, Soldiers Joy, and Sail Away Ladies. My biggest influence and guiding light on the fiddle however, has been Evan Kinney from Atlanta, Georgia. Ever since I first got into old time music, Georgia fiddling has always been my favorite regional style. It’s hard driving, and I like to describe it as greasy or slippery. So becoming friends and playing music with Evan has helped me progressed immensely. He is a master Georgia fiddler, and I have learned so much from him.

MB:     You are extremely lucky to have Evan Kinney as a friend and mentor. What are some of things Evan have shared with that improved your fiddling?

TN:      I feel lucky to have him as a friend and mentor! He has shown me alot of tunes and helped me figure out alot of tunes over the years, which by default, has helped me improve my ear and basic technique as well. He’s an excellent teacher.

Evan also shown me a bunch of licks that are common in tunes, double stops, different bowing techniques. He’s been an immense influence on my playing.

And he’s just been a great friend outside of music too. I love that guy!

MB:     I want to go back to your experiences travelling parts of the south. I believe your band and your fiddling is as authentic to the early stringband recordings. Do you think immersing yourself in the music tradition while in Tennessee and travelling playing with different people help create your style? If so, could you elaborate more on that time in your life?

TN: Oh absolutely. I started travelling when I was 18, And when I say travelling I’m referring to hitchhiking and riding around in Vans and vehicles that were constantly breaking down or in need of repair. I never rode any freight trains, but alot of my friends who I travelled with had and did. So, I started travelling the same year I really started to get into old time. Alot of other travelling folks are into traditional music styles as well, from ragtime, hokum blues to old time. So every since then I’ve always consorted with folks who also are into traditional music styles. And it makes sense that alot of folks “on the road” are into traditional music. There is a litany of old time songs that talk about hoboing, trains, poverty, etc. It’s very relatable music when you’re standing on the side of a highway, waiting for a ride. I’ve also always liked to maintain the mindset that I could learn something from anyone, as far as music is concerned, regardless of skill level or what have you. So I’ve always tried to be open to learn and progress. And the more I got into traditional music as a whole, the more I was able to narrow down what really got me going, which for the most part, is Deep South old time fiddle music. And throughout my travels I found a litany of people who shared my passion for old time music from the deep south, which absolutely has shaped my playing. 

MB: What are some of bands or musicians you get inspiration from?

TN: Well, like I’ve mentioned before I’m really into Georgia fiddle music. Gid Tanner and The Skillet Lickers, Earl Johnson, all the North Georgia fellas. John Carson is probably my favorite fiddler though. I play alot of tunes that he recorded back in the 20s and 30s. He had that greasy North Georgia sound, but also sounded a little more archaic than some of the others from the area, like Clayton McMichen or Lowe Stokes, who I feel had a cleaner and tighter sound. I’m also a huge fan of early western swing. Bands like The Prairie Ramblers, Bill Boyd, The Tune Wranglers, The East Texas Serenaders. I love that stuff!

MB:What are you most proud of in career as a fiddle player?

TN: The highlight of my alleged “career as a fiddler” has probably been getting paid a kumquat pie to show my friend some tunes. Hahaha. It’s a really hard thing to narrow down though. As a performer, I’m ecstatic whenever I can play tunes for folks who are genuinely interested in this old music. I dont think I could pick just one thing…

MB:What do you think the essential elements are needed to be a great old time musician?

TN: I think the most important part is actually listening to the music that was recorded back in the 20s and 30s. And then really listening to the subtle and often not so subtle nuances of what all the instruments are doing, and how they are doing it together. Full immersion into the music is what I believe to be the most important.

MB: ou stated that you are into deep south fiddling. You cant get more deep south than Florida. Are there any fiddles from our state that you draw inspiration from and are there any Florida tunes in your repertoire?

TN: Chubby Wise is one of my favorite fiddlers. Hes from up in Lake City. He made some recordings with Library of Congress is 36 I believe. Cush Holston is another good one, I like him a lot. In all of my research I’ve only come across a handful of what could be called “Florida Tunes”. I do play ‘Shear Em’, which was a pretty common deep south tune. Chubby played it, Cush played it. My version comes from (I’m pretty sure..) The Heart H Ranch Boys, they were a cowboy string band from Kenansville who cut a few recordings with Library of Congress in the early 40s. I believe ‘Shear Em’ could definitely be recognized as a Florida tune, it’s one of my favorites.

MB: What about old time music inspired you take up the fiddle?

TN:  Definitely the money. Haha. No, I’ve always loved the sound of a fiddle. Even before I got into old time. Hearing the fiddle breaks in bluegrass and country just always hit me hard. It’s the coolest instrument. So that’s why I started playing old time fiddle, for the money and to be cool, 

MB: What is your favorite fiddle tune to play?

TN: That is tough. Probably Kennesaw Mountain Rag. The Georgia version of Cumberland Gap, in G. Followed by Shear Em. 

Special thanks to Tyler for inviting me over to his house in Sarasota and sharing great tunes! You can find more information about Tyler and The Stillhouse Shakers on Facebook.

Florida State Fiddlers' Association – Promoting traditional fiddle music in Florida and beyond.