West Plains, Missouri, Fiddler Cliff Bryan, as pictured on the cover of his recent Voyager Records CD. Photo by Rachel Reynolds
Submitted by Dr. E. D. McKinney, Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University, West Plains Campus
“His fingers look like spiders dancing on the strings!” So said Allison (Scheets) Williams, an aspiring young fiddler, when she first closely observed Cliff Bryan’s fiddling about 1999 or 2000.
Cliff Bryan of West Plains, Missouri passed away Sunday, March 12, 2017. He was a renowned fiddler and teacher of fiddle playing, having participated as a teacher of fiddling in the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program first introduced under the direction of Dr. Howard Marshall, who in 1987 was the Director of the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Missouri at Columbia. In addition to his role as a master teacher, Cliff received the honor of being recognized for his fiddling by the National Endowment of the Arts Council of the University of Missouri. He was a life-long musician, having played guitar for dances with Seth Crabtree, a fiddler of the West Plains area in the 1940s and 50s, and during those years Cliff began honing his skills as a master fiddler in his own right.
He taught many younger aspiring fiddlers during the past 25 years. Many of them, such as Rachel (Reynolds) Luster, Jessica Collins, Joel Hinds, and others, became exceptional fiddlers under his tutelage. Cliff was a master of the “short bow” style of playing and had a large repertoire of fiddle tunes, both those common to the area, and compositions he picked up from radio and recordings. As long as his health permitted, he was a regular attendee and performer at various folk music and bluegrass festivals and jam sessions in the West Plains area. He particularly enjoyed playing with other fiddlers in a segment called “The Fiddlers’ Frolic,” held each year in June at the Old Time Music Festival in West Plains.
Recordings of Cliff Bryan’s music are relatively rare. One favorite tune of his was “Black-Eyed Susie,” included in the CD accompanying Dr. Howard Marshall’s first volume concerning Missouri fiddlers, Play Me Something Quick and Devilish: Old Time Fiddlers in Missouri (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2012). Also, Cliff recorded one CD of 32 fiddle tunes in 2014, entitled “Got A Little Home To Go To.” This CD was produced under the direction of Jim Nelson, and is available from Voyager Records. Also, Cliff can be heard on YouTube, under “Cliff Bryan Fiddle at the Fiddlers’ Frolic.” We can now only wish there had been other CDs of Cliff’s fiddling produced—this would have more completely filled a gap in the Ozark’s musical culture. As Illinois Folklorist Matt Meacham said, he was “a walking encyclopedia of traditional fiddle music around Howell County and the Ozarks.” We shall miss him.