Panhandle Texas Fiddling
Bartow Riley, the son of Granville and Fannie Riley, was born on November 6, 1921, in Dozier, a small community just southwest of Shamrock, Texas. Bartow’s first memories of fiddling came from his father, who had an old fiddle strung with steel strings that he would take down off the wall to play such tunes as “Over the Waves" and “Texas Quick Step.” Granville Riley was also a bass singer who sang with the Copeland Quartet, and he recorded with the group in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1929. During Bartow’s early years, he learned to play rhythm guitar to accompany his dad at singing competitions.
Bartow’s grandfather William Riley ran a grocery store in Dozier from about 1924 through the 1950s, and by being at the store Bartow was able to meet many people who lived in or passed through the community. His other granddad, Tom Waters, lived in McLean, Texas, and owned a hand-cranked Victrola that played 78 rpm records. Bartow has vivid memories of listening to new recordings of the great Eck Robertson on that machine, including Eck’s renditions of “Billy in the Low Ground,” “Ragtime Annie,” and “Sally Goodin’.”
Bartow never forgot the fiddle tunes he heard as a child. He remembers recordings not only of Eck Robertson but also of the Kessinger Brothers, especially “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he also saw performances by Major Franklin, Benny Thomasson, and other fine fiddlers who came through the area when the cotton was picked in the fall around Dozier. Saturday night was the night Jude Sechrist would have get-togethers and playing sessions in Dozier, and those sessions helped instill in Bartow an understanding of how music can bring people together for joy and friendship. One of his first memories of an actual fiddle contest was when as a little boy he saw Major Franklin playing in a contest in McLean.
Bartow left fiddle music behind when he served in the Air Force from 1942 through 1945. And it wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he bought his first fiddle, around 1953 or 1954, after he saw Benny Thomason and Major Franklin play at a 4th of July fiddlers’ contest in Hale Center, Texas. As Bartow renewed his interest in fiddle music, he became friends with such legendary players as Eck Robertson and Benny Thomasson. Bartow and Benny drove to many contests together, and Bartow also traveled countless miles with Pete Osborne and Ollie Miller to fiddle contests all over Texas and beyond. Norman and Betty Solomon became close friends, and he jammed many nights with Judge McClellan. During the mid-1960s, Bartow played on several albums with a variety of legendary Texas fiddlers, and he also recorded a number of his own. In 1995, he was selected to be a judge at the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho. Over the years he has known fiddlers both young and old, and many of them became good friends.
Bartow recorded this collection of fiddle tunes in his home at Olton, Texas, in 1964. The tunes here include a good representation of the music a modern Texas fiddler plays, including breakdowns, reels, hornpipes, and waltzes. He was accompanied on these recordings by three good Texas rhythm guitar players. V. C. “Zipp” Durrett of Lakeview, Texas, was Bartow’s favorite guitarist at the time. When not backing up fiddlers, “Zipp” worked on his farm near Lakeview. Ollie Miller of Rotan, Texas, was one of the best rhythm men of his day on breakdown tunes. He worked in trucking and construction when he didn’t have a guitar in hand. Nolan Price of Shamrock, Texas, was well known for both his lead and rhythm playing. In addition to being an excellent musician, Nolan was a barber by trade.
Bartow Riley was one of the first board members of the Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association. His wife, Lylous, helped keep the minutes of the meetings, wrote some of the early articles for "The Texas Fiddler" newsletter, and did secretarial work for the Association as needed. In 1975, Bartow and Lylous were asked to play parts in the movie McIntosh and T.J. starring Roy Rogers. Bartow played the part of a fiddler, and Lylous played the part of a dancer while Bartow was fiddling. The film was shot at the "6666 Ranch" in Guthrie, Texas, about seventy miles from Childress, where the Rileys lived.
Over the years many have come to know the graciousness and hospitality of Bartow and Lylous Riley. Bartow has always had his door open at all times, day or night, to any fiddler who needed a place to stay or a friend to talk to. He has helped preserve the music of Texas by playing and documenting the unique fiddle styles of the state. He has also been willing to share his knowledge of a song or a lick with any fiddler who might ask for guidance or a suggestion. Bartow and Lylous have been married for thirty-five years and reside in Childress, Texas.
V. C. “Zipp” Durrett (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 16,20)
Ollie Miller (12, 14, 17, 19)
Pete Osborne ( 1, 6, 11, 16, 20)
Nolan Price (5, 15, 18)
Bee Balm 311