Berea College Magazine
Young Jake Krack- Old Time Fiddler Keeping the Traditions Alive
By: Jay Buckner
Tucked comfortably under his chin, Jake Krack's homemade
fiddle resonates a melody that seems better suited for a back porch than for an
interview in the college photography studio. As the occasional knocking of steam
pipes overhead subsides, old-time fiddle tunes make their way from the fiddle
Jake's father made for him.
Finding a break from a busy schedule that includes taking a
full load of classes, working in the music archives in special collections, and
practicing with the Berea College Bluegrass Music Ensemble, Jake arrives for our
interview with fiddle in hand. He warms up while I set the studio lights and
camera. The sound of horsehair bow on gut is warm, woody, and bright as his
fingers settle into one of 400 tunes they've come to know. Featured on
television and radio— notably Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion,"
Jake is accustomed to playing in studios. Only 20 years old, he's been playing
traditional Appalachian music for 14 years, and in that time has recorded eight
CD albums. He has already accrued a lifetime of achievements, including winning
top honors in multiple fiddle contests, performing at the Kennedy Center, and
being featured on CNN and in the New York Times. He patiently waits for me to
set the cameras and lights properly. Although an annoying and erratic audio buzz
threatens to ruin our interview, Jake continues playing, seemingly lost in the
"When I play, I go to another place; sometimes I go too far.
I'll be playing at a contest, trying to win first place, and I'll go out, then
come back and think, 'Where am I?'" says Jake. "It's scary when you do that on
At last, we roll tape in the darkened studio, lit only by
soft light that silhouettes Jake against the backdrop. Taking in the distinctive
sounds of a traditional Appalachian melody jumping from his fiddle, I put away
my questions, and just listen. Here is a traditional music that has survived
generations in the same way that old myths are passed intact through the
centuries, though rarely written down.
Traditional Appalachian music, which Jake calls 'old timey'
music, shares common elements with other types of music that also make use of
fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Bluegrass music is not traditional music, but
combines elements of jazz with old time music. In old time music, each band
member plays simultaneously and together. What sets traditional Appalachian
music apart is the way it is played and how it is learned.
His right wrist snaps off his bow as he runs through 'Ida
Red,' a song played in a style he learned from master fiddler Lester McCumbers,
who learned it from Senate Cottrell, 'an old man who lived down the road.' "With
each of these old tunes there's a story and a tradition behind it," Jake
explains. "I associate each tune with the experiences of the older man I learned
The challenge of learning to play traditional Appalachian
music is that it depends on being taught through a mentor apprentice
relationship. When Jake was three his father made him a cardboard box fiddle; at
the age of six, Jake took classical lessons. "I didn't enjoy it then," he says.
"It's hard to enjoy something when you're first learning it. When I was nine, I
started studying old time with Brad Leftwich. That's when it became fun, and I
started to love the music."
From Leftwich, he learned about Melvin Wine and the
Appalachian String-band Festival in West Virginia. "My family and I went there
to meet Melvin for the first time, then we started visiting Melvin several times
in a short period," Jake explains. The trips became expensive, so the Kracks
applied for an Indiana arts commission grant for $5,000 to pay for trips to West
Virginia. In return, Jake brought West Virginia's music back to Indiana.
As he progressed, Jake found himself immersed in a world of
traditional music that few of his peers would understand. Uninterested in rock,
country, or hip-hop, he focused his attention on traditional music. When he was
13, his family moved from their Indiana home to Nicut, West Virginia. By this
time, Jake's father, Reed Krack, was already an accomplished fiddle-maker. On
stage and in the studio, his mother, Dara, often accompanies Jake's fiddle with
her old time guitar.
Although the music brought them to West Virginia, the terrain
and the people made them stay. In the hills of Appalachia, Jake grew closer to
the late, renowned master fiddler Melvin Wine, who became Jake's mentor and
friend. Separated in age by 75 years, Jake and Melvin developed a close
relationship throughout the decade that Jake studied with him. He thrived under
Growing up on the family farm in West Virginia, he also
learned from master fiddlers Lester McCumbers and Bobby Taylor. "When I started
learning, I made a promise to Melvin. I've now made a promise to Lester and
Bobby, that if they teach me—and they've taught me for free—then I will preserve
it, keep it going, and pass it on to somebody else," says Jake.
"Each of my mentors gave me different styles, but what they
gave me that’s most important is their life experiences,” says Jake. “They
taught me fiddle tunes and they taught me a way of life. All the things that
happened during the teens and the twenties and the thirties and the forties, I
didn’t have to learn from a history book. I have gotten firsthand experience of
the history from them.”
"I went there Saturday morning and stayed with Melvin. I even
hugged him for a minute before he passed away at six o'clock on Sunday morning,"
says Jake, obviously still affected by the loss. "It was very hard because,
after ten years, Melvin became like a grandfather to me. We weren't just master
fiddler and student. It was a close relationship. People could see that when we
played together. We were close friends."
At Berea College, Jake continues to absorb the experiences from old-timers. He
chooses to have his hair cut at a small owner-operated barbershop behind the
local drugstore because the barbers there are older men with stories to tell.
"I'd rather go there than someplace cheaper. At the barbershop I get to sit down
there and listen to those three men talk," says Jake.
Jake still feels his late mentor's influence. He grins as he
remembers working in the sound archives in the library, digitizing music onto
CDs as part of his labor assignment. "I'm listening to tape after tape, when my
supervisor comes in and says 'Here are some tunes you might like.' There were 60
tunes from Melvin Wine recorded on an occasion he came to Berea to play. I'd
heard all of these tunes before, but sitting there, as part of my job listening
to my mentor play for three hours. . . Well, that was heaven for me."
Harry Rice, Jake's supervisor in special collections, praises the sophomore for
his workman-like attention to the details of his job. "He brings an uncanny
knowledge and experience with him. He knows which version of a particular tune
is better than another. He helps to identify tunes I may not know. Jake is
contributing a great deal to making our Kentucky traditional music available to
a wider audience." As our interview ends, Jake hops onto his bicycle to ride
across campus to Presser Hall for a rehearsal with the Bluegrass Music Ensemble,
a five-piece bluegrass band directed by Berea College instructor Al White.
I walk back to the studio to turn off the lights, thinking
that old voices may soften
over time, but they have something worthwhile to say, and those 'worthy things'
may best be said by the pull of a bow over strings.