By Howard Marshall
Raymond F. Curbow (1936-2016) grew up in the farming community of Ridgedale in Taney County, Missouri, near the Arkansas line. He later settled in Blue Eye, Missouri, in next-door Stone County, a village straddling the border with Arkansas. He was employed in his working life as a mechanic and school bus driver. Curbow was from a long line of fiddlers and musicians.
South and west of Springfield and Branson, this is a section of the Ozarks famous for old-time fiddling, ballad singing, and other folk traditions long connected to the legacy of Scotch-Irish migrants from the Southern Appalachians, in modern conjunction and intermingling with the musical tastes and styles added by other groups of people that make today’s “old-time fiddling.”
Ray Curbow carried on the old traditions, and many younger fiddlers learned some of his tunes. He was a skilled accompanist on guitar, mandolin, and five-string banjo. An ear musician, Curbow played violin in a general Ozarks short-bow style and favored a moderate, smooth, steady tempo for most of his tunes. Like many other traditional fiddlers, Ray’s repertoire was surprisingly wide-ranging and eclectic, from the expected archaic breakdowns to 20th century rags and foxtrots popularized by western swing and bluegrass musicians, and tunes in the flat keys of F and B-flat.
Some of Curbow’s favorite and unusual tunes included, “Rabbit Foot Blues” (learned from an unnamed African American fiddler via Johnny Boyd of Ozark, MO), “Oklahoma Quick Step” (from Leonard McFarland of Hollister, MO), “Pig Ankle Blues” (from Glenn Bilyeu, aka “Pig Ankle Rag”), and, again from Johnny Boyd, “Minnie Put the Kettle On” (“Polly…”), “F Hornpipe” (akin to “Satisfied” and Pete McMahan’s “Fiddler’s Shuffle”), “Dry Branch,” “Going Down to Memphis,” and “Around the World on a Dime.” Mark Wilson and Gordon McCann included several of those titles in Volume 2 of their celebrated CD series, Traditional Fiddle Music of the Ozarks (Rounder, 2000; www.rounder.com). Curbow is also featured in McCann and Drew Beisswenger’s book, Ozarks Fiddle Music (Mel Bay, 2008, 178-179), and Curbow is among fiddlers documented in a valuable master’s thesis by Arkansas fiddler and fiddle scholar Judy Warner, “Ozark Old-Time Fiddling” (University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2010).
Old friends called Curbow “Barefoot,” due to Mr. Curbow’s proclivity to play his violin without wearing shoes and socks. While Ray played in some fiddlers’ contests (I met him at a contest in Yankton, South Dakota, in 2003 and in 2010 we both played in the senior division at a contest in Branson), he did not consider himself a “contest fiddler;” he had no interest in changing his fiddle style to please judges favoring today’s “contest style.”
Many will remember Ray Curbow from his many appearances as a dance fiddler and in countless house parties as well as in jam sessions at the annual Arkansas Fiddlers Convention in Harrison, and he will be missed.