Nile Wilson plays fiddle in a darkened room.

Nile Wilson

Bucklin, Missouri

Nile Wilson plays several tunes brought to Missouri by the “tie-hackers” who moved across Missouri with the building of the railroad. Amy Skillman photo.

Nile Wilson (b. August 6, 1912) from Bucklin (Linn County) was a featured fiddler on the Grammy-finalist double LP “Now That’s a Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling” (University of Missouri 1989), Julie Youmans analyzed his playing in the “Fiddling in Missouri” issue of the Missouri Folklore Society Journal in 1991-92, Howard Marshall profiled him in a 1994 issue of The Old-Time Herald, and Charlie Walden wrote about him in the 1995 MSOTFA Quarterly.

Wilson was born in 1912 in the New Boston community of Linn County in the farm and timber country of north central Missouri. His father’s people come from Illinois after the Civil War (echoed in “Spoon River Jig” on his album) and his mother’s family were long-established Missourians with Virginia roots; the two sides were in opposite camps during the Civil War and his mother’s family had a saying that said volumes: “Abraham Lincoln had a big mouth, sent an army to whip out the South.”

Wilson began playing violin at five on the farm where his father Dolf operated a sawmill. Dolf Wilson was a well-known fiddler who won contests of the 1920s and 1930s and played over the legendary live radio programs on WOS in the dome of the Missouri capitol in Jeff City. Dolf taught young Nile his first tunes, “Boatsman,” “Raccoon Tail Is Rings All Around.” Nile learned others from fiddlers like Wes Bailey and Albert Spray. Nile also played guitar and seconded for his father at dances as well as for his father and banjo player Orb Bradley at 1920s radio broadcasts over WOS. Nile won the first fiddle contest he entered, in LaPlata in 1932. He lost parts of fingers on his left hand in a corn shredder on a bitterly cold day in December 1930, and this made certain tunes difficult to play. He has won many contests in the years since, including the grand championship of the Mid-America Old-Time Fiddlers Contest in Bethel in 1993. Wilson operated a road grader building U.S. highways across north Missouri and retired in 1980.

Wilson’s fiddle style is thought of as “north Missouri,” and that will do well enough; he calls it “just old-time square dance fiddling.” He plays several “tie hacker tunes” that his grandfather Wilson learned from groups of itinerant Irish workers who camped near their farm while cutting white oak timber and hewing cross ties for the railroads. While he is a walking archive on these rare railroad camp tunes, Wilson told Howard Marshall on many occasions that his favorite tune is the great “Leather Britches,” a monumental piece savored again and again by every central and north Missouri fiddler. One interesting thing Wilson does is play “song” versions of tunes and then the upbeat version his dad developed when the song got converted into a square dance tune.

Wilson does some violin repair and setup and plays a Stradivarius copy violin bought from a junk man in about 1970. His favorite violin is his father’s, a Strad copy whose label was lost long ago; the instrument came from Byler’s music store in the nearby town of Ethel—his father Dolf bought it from the original owner for $5.50 (a friend who never learned to play), as Wilson figures, in about 1904.

Wilson is an outstanding and respected contest judge but always says he doesn’t want the job.

Nile Wilson passed away Sunday, March 23, 2008. He was 95.

–Howard Marshall