The Music Man
When It Comes To ‘Old Time’ Louisiana Music, Ron Yule Has Played It, Promoted It, Built The Instruments And Written The Books
Ron Yule’s life has been an homage to old-fashioned country fiddle music. It’s the kind of music Yule is inclined to describe as “old-time” or “old-timey.” He puts it this way: “I love old time music so much, sometimes I think I may have been born 30 years too late.”
The music came into Louisiana by means of immigrants with European roots. In search of work, they came to the state with their fiddles in tow and their memories of the centuries-old fiddle tunes of their ancestors intact.
The music was performed in the houses and on the porches of rural Louisiana. It developed into Cajun, bluegrass — even swing. And in the face of modern changes that weren’t kind to traditional, acoustic music, it’s survived, albeit in a somewhat diminished form.
For decades, Yule has been preserving this music: by performing it, by building fiddles, by teaching others the crafts of performance and instrument-building and by organizing fiddle festivals.
And he’s undertaken one other big task: he’s tried to document the history of the music he loves. To date he’s published five books on Louisiana country fiddle music, bluegrass.
Yule’s whole attitude toward old-time fiddle music has been reverent. But this reverence hasn’t saved him from conflict with religious institutions from time to time, which is perhaps to be expected, given that there was a time when many considered the fiddle the devil’s box. “I got fired from a gospel group because I told the guy I was going to play at honky tonks,” says Yule.
Still, he performed in a bluegrass gospel outfit, the Revelators, from 1978-1995. He’s no stranger to churches, having played the fiddle in church basements in his home state of Texas before he ever made it to his long-time home of DeRidder, La. Today, he hosts jam sessions at the Lutheran church fellowship hall in DeRidder, where the musicians play swing along with the old-time music.
And he jams with Eddie Richard, a priest at Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church in Sulphur, who’s been playing the banjo 25 years and has released his own bluegrass CDs. Yule’s known Richard since the 1970s — the decade when Yule first began playing with fiddler Lum Nichols and Clifford Blackmon and Blackmon’s wife Sue. Today, he still plays with the Blackmons and Richard.
These musicians and others play in a loosely affiliated group of as many as 15 people who usually perform under the name Medicare String Band. Yule says the “members have to be on Medicare or paying Medicare.”
They play most often at nursing homes. That’s a venue Yule has been frequenting since 1971. People at nursing homes “understand the music we play. We fill a void in their lives by coming and picking for them for an hour or so. When you play a nursing home, you may get no response from the patients, but if you can see a foot or big toe tapping to the music, it makes it all worthwhile.
“They like my kind of music — old fiddle tunes … [They relate] to it. When they were younger, that was the traditional rural folk music [they listened to].”
To this day, he likes to play what he’s always liked to play — “old country” music, avowing that “the most modern” country he might perform on stage would be a Merle Haggard song or two. “I like very little country and bluegrass music written after 1970.”
Early Musical History
It was in the coffee shops of Austin, where Yule was a University of Texas microbiology student, that he developed his love for old-time fiddle music in the 1960s. In those days, he listened to Aubrey Lowden, who played at the Broken Spoke and Skyline clubs. Yule spent time playing with such Austin bluegrass musicians as Doc Hamilton and Charlie Taylor.
Yule started off playing the guitar, which he enjoyed well enough. But he wanted to play some other instrument, and in particular, a fiddle or accordion, because each of his grandfathers had played those instruments. Yule went instrument shopping and the fiddle won out because it carried the lower price tag — $19.
He began playing that fiddle in 1968. He kept playing it when he went on to earn his master’s in microbiology from McNeese State University. (After graduation, he became a health inspector for the State of Louisiana — a position he held until 1999.)
After he settled in DeRidder in 1970, he played service clubs and “singles clubs” in that town. He remembers some of them as “pretty rough places.” He learned to be wary of one club goer in particular — a fellow who’d already had one ear ripped off in a fight and who “showed up just to fight.”
Yule played in numerous country and western bands in the 1970s and ‘80s, most often with Roy Burks and the Country Playboys and Buck Tyler and the Musicmasters.
Yule entered his first fiddle contest in 1968 at the Old Settlers Park at Round Rock in Texas. Everybody — all 22 fiddlers — won first place.
A while later, Yule started bringing along a tape recorder to capture whatever musical sounds he could hear at the Beauregard Parish Fair Fiddle Contests.
In 1973, he began producing fiddle contests and promoting bluegrass shows throughout Louisiana and Southeast Texas. From 1974 to 1976, he and his wife Georgia founded the Southwest Louisiana Fiddler and Bluegrass Club. As Yule relates in his book Louisiana Bluegrass, the group’s major events were the annual Longville Lake festivals and the VFW #3619 fiddle contests.
Yule continues to promote shows, including the Beauregard Parish Fair contests, which have been going on since 1925. Yule’s run the contest since 1975. “I always seem to be able to bring them out of the woodwork,” he says. “This is [the result of] years of experience.”
Yule says that often, fiddle contests can have “a beauty pageant mentality.” As a result, “when it comes time to play, they’re nervous.” He likes to get contestants to the point that they’re “cold as ice” when they take the stage. A young student who went on to play French horn as an adult told Yule “I could do that because you got me up in front of people so I wasn’t nervous.”
Yule says the requirements for a good fiddle contest are good judges, a good PA system and one other thing — “You must make sure the losers show up.” You do this by offering small prizes for every performer, regardless of the quality of the performance.
Yule won the 2000 state fiddling championship. But he says that on a few occasions he’s never even made it to the stage. “I just enjoy playing. I don’t worry about winning.”
Yule has always been primarily concerned with “rural country fiddlers.”
“Playing the fiddle is all about listening,” he says. “You learn by ear.” The occasional fiddler who learned to read music would have been “violinin’” rather than “fiddlin’.”
“I used to ask all my students when they asked me to teach them the fiddle, ‘Can you dance? And sing in tune?’ If you can’t keep rhythm and have good intonation, you’ll never make a fiddler.”
“Playin’ the fiddle is playin’ dance music — even if it’s gospel. It has to have rhythm.”
In his book When the Fiddle Was King, Yule writes that the fiddler was “basically a player of dance music … When fiddle music gets beyond toe-tapping, rhythmic, danceable music, it becomes violinin’, or at least something else. Modern day fiddlers … must make the music danceable or it gets away from its country roots.”
Many of the musicians who shaped the music Yule loves were from families of Acadians who migrated from Nova Scotia in the 1700s. They brought the fiddle along because it was small and easily stowed away for migrations. Migrating families would readily have remembered the fiddle music of their French or British homelands. Rhythm was provided by country people who played with spoons, broom handles, tubs.
Yule believes Louisiana fiddlers are playing tunes that have been played since at least the 1700s. He cites such traditional tunes as “Soldier’s Joy” and
“Old Spinning Wheel.”
He says the fiddle developed from a bowed instrument the Europeans used in the 8th or 9th century, which eventually became the viol. The modern violin began around the 1500s. Yule can name early Italian violin makers right down to Stradivarius.
In 1973, Yule began repairing fiddles. Through the 1990s, he constructed and repaired not just fiddles, but also dulcimers, banjos and basses. “Nothing is any more exciting than stringing up an old fiddle that has laid dormant for years and listening to it take on a voice — a life of its own. Sorta waking it up,” says Yule. “I help anybody learn how to work on violins. Pass it on.”
Yule had been taking on a fiddle student here and there since the 1970s. But in the mid-1990s, he “began teaching fiddle on a large scale.” From his new, large group of pupils, he formed the popular Fiddlin’ Gals ensemble. Twelve of his students wound up being divisional champions at the state fiddle contest. One, Emily Young, won the Grand Championship in 2006.
In the popular imagination, it’s the musician’s prerogative to bellyache. Yule prefers a more stoic sort of fiddler. “When I play, I forget about any illness I have; any problems I have. When you’re playing, you’re not thinking about the ills of living or how much you hurt.” For some time now, Yule has dealt with the challenges of arthritis as he’s played.
Fiddlin’, says Yule, is “all about music … It’s all about getting together and having a good time. I never want this to be work.”
By the 1960s, writes Yule in his book Louisiana Fiddlers, “old-time and Louisiana country fiddlers … found a haven in … bluegrass music and the popular fiddle contests” in Louisiana. (We’ll discuss below the developments in 20th century technology and entertainment that were drawing bluegrass away from its roots.) This development inspired Yule to undertake an odyssey in pursuit of the performance of bluegrass music in Louisiana.
He drove around in pickups, seeing as many bluegrass bands as he could. “I hardly slept at all. I picked with every obscure band.”
He remembers talking with Eddie Richard “about how bluegrass is dying.” Yule conjectured, “Maybe bluegrass has returned to the living room and the front porch, which is where it should have stayed.”