Obituary: Curly Fox

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The Independent Online
Scholars tend to divide country music fiddle-playing into two broadly geographical camps: the first, now dominant Texas style, is characterised by long smooth bow strokes that allow for improvisational embellishment. The second, more traditional style emerged from the Appalachian foothills in the 19th century and with its saw-stroke bowing, is typically faster and more rhythmic. Arnim LeRoy "Curly" Fox was among its finest exponents.

The fiddle has been a dominant feature of the country music landscape since the champion fiddlers Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland arrived, wearing Confederate Army uniforms, at the Victor studio in New York City in June 1922 and demanded that they be allowed to cut what are usually acknowledged as the first commercial country recordings.

A one-time star of the WSM Grand Ole Opry, the longest-running country music radio programme, broadcast live from Nashville, Fox routinely stopped the show with his trick fiddling: numbers such as "Johnson's Old Gray Mule" and "Black Mountain Rag" proving ideal vehicles for his hillbilly pyrotechnics.

Fortunately, he committed some of these performances to wax. His 1935 version of Septimus Winner's "Listen to the Mockingbird", cut for Decca, with Joe Attlesey on guitar, with its imitative trills and whoops, and despite an occasionally harsh tone, remains a classic of the genre.

As was so often the case, Fox had been taught to play by his father. At the age of 13 he joined a travelling medicine show, and made his first records with the now-forgotten Roane County Ramblers in 1929. By 1932 he was leading his own string band, the Atlanta-based Tennessee Firecrackers.

In 1937, and by that time an Opry regular, Fox teamed with his future wife Ruby Owens, known on stage as Texas Ruby. The sister of Tex Owens, the writer of Cattle Call, the deep-voiced Texas Ruby had arrived in Nashville with Zeke Clements' Broncho Busters in 1934. She and Curly Fox married in 1939 and for over two decades were amongst the most popular husband- and-wife teams in the business.

In the years immediately following the end of the Second World War they made a series of classic recordings for Columbia Records, with Ruby's throaty vocals fronting a tight band that boasts some extraordinary twin- guitar work from Grady Martin and Jabbo Arrington. Among the highlights was Fred Rose's "Don't Let That Man Get You Down".

During the Fifties they relocated to Houston for seven years before returning to Nashville at the end of the decade and recording an album for Starday.

On the evening of 29 March 1963, Curly returned from an Opry performance to discover that the house trailer that he and Ruby shared had been engulfed in flames and that his wife had perished. Nashville must have seemed fated that month, four of its most popular stars having also recently died in tragic circumstances: Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hasking in a plane crash, and Jack Anglin in an automobile accident en route to their memorial service.

After that Curly Fox went into semi-retirement in rural Illinois, appearing only sporadically at Bluegrass and Old-Timey festivals, where he continued to delight audiences.

Paul Wadey

Arnim LeRoy "Curly" Fox, fiddler: born Graysville, Tennessee 9 November 1910; married 1939 Ruby Owens (died 1963); died 10 November 1995.

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