Montgomery County Native Violet Hensley can now add National Fiddler Hall of Fame to her list of accomplishments after being inducted into the 2018 Class Friday.
Hensley joined Michael Cleveland, Jeff Cook, Booby Hicks and Benny Martin as the newest members of the National Fiddler Hall of Fame. Ricky Skaggs was also presented with a special recognition award.
Hensley, who is 101 years old, is known as “The Whittlin’ Fiddler”. The name springs as much from her fiddle creating skills as her ability to play them. She learned to build and play fiddles from her father, George Washington “Wash” Brumley. She shares that when she asked her father for a fiddle at the age of 16 he pointed to a pile of tools and told her to get after it.
And get after it she did. Hensley has constructed 73 fiddles in her lifetime and still plays one of the first fiddles she built in 1934. She has stated that she would spend approximately 240 hours chiseling, carving and sanding on a fiddle before it was completed.
She has kept a record of every fiddle she has built and the type of wood she used for each piece. Such attention to detail reveals her love and care for her craft. She feels that it is best to use hardwood for the back and sides of the fiddle while reserving soft wood for the front. She builds the pegs from persimmon, the tailpiece from dogwood and the fingerboard from walnut.
It was her wood carving skills that brought her to Silver Dollar City in 1967. As impressive as her whittling skills are it was her performance on the fiddle that won the hearts of visitors to the park. Hensley was known for playing her fiddle on her head while dancing a jig, all while singing and entertaining everyone with funny one liners.
Age has affected what she is able to do now. Her eyesight limits her whittling to less intricate work and she may not dance a jig as fast as she used to, but she can still play and sing and she is still full of those funny one liners.
She has performed at Silver Dollar City for over 55 years. During this time she has made appearances on television on shows like the Beverly Hillbillies. She has appeared on programs ranging from Regis and Cathy Lee to CBS News. To celebrate her 100th birthday she was invited to perform at the Grand Old Opry. In doing so she became the oldest performer to grace the stage of the Grand Old Opry.
Prior to the National Fiddlers Hall of Fame Hensley was awarded the National Craft’s Person Hall of Fame Award. In 1991, she was honored as the SDC National Crafts Festival 30th Anniversary Best Pioneer Demonstration and the SDC Old Timer Award. Silver Dollar City inducted her into their Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2004, the Department of Arkansas Heritage recognized her as an Arkansas Living Treasure. Silver Dollar City awarded her the Craft Achievement Living Treasure Award in 2007. In 2010, she was awarded the Mike Seeger Scholarship by the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro Kentucky. In 2015, she received the Arkansas State Fiddle Championship J. Mullet Kent Award and in 2016, She was the recipient of the Folk Alliance International Spirit of Folk Award and was honored as one of the Harrison Daily Times Women of Distinction. She was the 2017 Folk Festival Queen in Mountain View, Arkansas.
Hensley was born October 21, 1916 in Mount Ida, Arkansas in a home built by her grandfather. Her father, known as “Wash”, was an accomplished fiddle player. Hensley learned to play the fiddle while watching her father and by the age of 13 she was playing at community dances.
Her style is unique and it has been said by other fiddle players that She puts every note right where she wants it.
She moved to NorthWest Arkansas with her family. Although she didn’t play professionally until she was 46, she hasn’t let that slow her down. She entered her first competition in 1962. She finished second, but caught the eye of Jimmy Driftwood who invited her to perform at his theater in Mountain View, Arkansas. It was while performing at Driftwood’s theater that she was discovered by someone from Silver Dollar City.
Hensley still performs and is often accompanied by family members. She has played with daughters Sandra Flagg on guitar and Lewonna Nelson on the jawbone of a Shetland Pony, husband Adren Hensley on the guitar, and later with son Calvin Hensley on guitar and son-in-law Tim Nelson on the bass guitar.
Hensley is also an author of her life story, The Violet Hensley Story: Whittlin’ and Fiddlin’ My Own Way.
For more information on Hensley, or to order her book visit her Facebook page at facebook.com/VioletHensleyStory.