The tunes on this album were recorded by Jake and Lena Hughes on a home reel-to-reel tape machine in the 1960s. The recordings captured Cyril at the height of his fiddling powers. With two-finger picking on the banjo by Lena Hughes it is hard to imagine a better example of Midwestern style fiddle playing.
Cyril Stinnett was born near Savannah, in northwest Missouri, on January 27, 1912. His dad was a farmer and a fiddler. The family moved to the southwest Missouri for a while, but Cyril eventually returned to the Filmore area where he spent the rest of his life.
Cyril began playing fiddle around age eight, practicing secretly in the basement on his dad’s fiddle for months before surprising his dad with his new ability. Within a couple of years he was playing for dances. He competed at his first fiddle contest at a church house ice cream social when he was eighteen and won it.
Owing to an early childhood accident to his right hand, Cyril favored his left hand and so learned to play left-handed. He used a conventionally strung fiddle, however, playing it “over the bass”. This enable him to exercise considerable command over the bass strings and to achieve unisons on the A-string and other noting combinations normally denied a right-handed fiddler. Nonetheless, Cyril lacked nothing in terms of intonation, clarity, and tone on the E-string and was in comfortable in the upper positions there.
One of Cyril’s hallmarks was an extensive repertoire of tunes (well over three hundred by objective accounts) many of which he had learned from Bob Walters of Nebraska and Casey Jones of Missouri. Just as remarkable was the immediacy with which he could render any tune suggested. Two or three quick, jerky saws and the tune would be launched at full dance tempo, with only a rare halt or mistake.
In his last few years Cyril owned no playable fiddle and he played and competed in contests on borrowed instruments. However, he could pick up a fiddle he had never touched before and within minutes make it sound like he had been playing it all his life. He could keep both the tune and time going no matter what the accompanists was doing (wrong chords, wrong key, missed beats and so on). He could also compensate for fro a poorly tuned instrument by minute fingering adjustments. In short, he was a “natural”, i. e., he had the rare quality of true musicianship. His tremendous memory for tunes and precision in playing led some folks to refer to him as “fiddling computer”, but his playing was far from being mechanical.
Although Cyril’s renditions were melodically complex, they were in a sense, quite simple. There were no bow effects (double shuffles, etc.) other than the occasional use of 32nd notes, and little double string playing, even in the waltzes. Most of his tunes were two-part reels and hornpipes; melodic variation was limited and chromatic passages rarely employed. The brilliance of Cyril’s playing came from two sources. First, his structuring of the tunes was impeccable. That is, in each instance he strived for a version of the tune that was melodically complete and satisfying and seemed to capture the tune’s essence. Second, his phrasing was superb and was, perhaps, the key to his excellence. Tunes came alive under Cyril’s hand in a way other fiddlers could only dream about.
This ability led him to the National Fiddling Championship in Weiser, Idaho, in 1966 and and innumerable other first place wins. He also represented the United States at the World’s Fair Expo in Montreal in 1976.
Cyril died alone at his home in Braymer, Missouri, on July 27, 1986.
This recording was originally issued on cassette in 1992.
released April 23, 2015
Original Recordings: Jake Hughes; Cover Photo by Charlie Walden; Biography by Bill Shull. Special Thanks to Lena Hughes.