Dirty Linen Issue #98

“Kracking the core of Old-Time music”

By: Dan Willging

As has been said again and again, some things are just meant to be.
This statement certainly holds true for West Virginia old-time fiddler Jake Krack. At the age of 17, the prodigious Krack has already notched a lifetime of achievements: five critically acclaimed CDs, a CNN profile for the network’s “CNN & Time” show, a New York Times feature, and winning places in numerous fiddle contests around the Mountain State. That’s just a partial list; there have also been appearances on “Prairie Home Companion” as part of the “Talent From Towns Under 2000” contest, the syndicated radio program “Mountain Stage,” and Washington D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center.
Interestingly, for someone who has been hailed the future of West Virginian old-time music, Krack, along with his family, has resided in the state for only three-and-half years. But the immersion began long before that, while the family was living in rural Indiana.
    Krack’s fascination with the fiddle was sparked at four years of age when he became intrigued by the playing of his father Reed, who was learning the instrument. To satisfy the younger Krack’s curiosity, the elder Krack constructed a cardboard version and substituted a balloon stick for a bow. Two years later, pops Krack acquired his son’s first fiddle by trading a hand-carved limestone birdbath. After that, Jake just went to town, right?
    Wrong, “It wasn’t that easy,” he said. Initially there were Suzuki lessons, but the family’s interests lay in the earthy sounds of old-time music. Scouring high and low for a venerable Brad Leftwich, a nationally known old-time fiddler who lived just 18 miles away.
Indeed, Leftwich, was a monumental force in Krack’s development. Not only did he learn old-time fiddle music - specifically the West Virginia variety - but also the tunes from the noted fiddlers such as Melvin Wine. Yet the Kracks’ investment in their son didn’t stop at making sure he was prepared for his next lesson. To assist in keeping time, Leftwich urged Krack’s mother Dara to learn guitar to accompany her son.
    “Well it wasn’t my idea,” Dara said jokingly.
“Yeah, we just all ganed up on her,” the elder Krack laughed. “But it has really thrown them together. What a nice relationship for the two of them to have.” To this very day, “Driving-beat” Dara still accompanies her son an hour a day in her usual relentless style. Also around this time, Reed began his transition into his career as a fiddle luthier by studying fiddle making at Indiana University.
Recognizing the family’s budding interest, Leftwich suggested the Kracks see Wine perform at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia. There, Krack not only met his idol, the jovial 86-year-old fiddler, but also obtained his autograph and played a couple Wine’s tunes. Duly impressed, Wine invited the Kracks to come visit, but at the time the logistics seemed prohibitive.
    Another year passed and Krack learned more of Wine’s tunes from Leftwich. That year at Clifftop, Wine again made the same invitation and this time, the Kracks acquiesced, opting for a September reunion. “We went down to Melvin’s and had a real good time,” Krack said. “We all cried when we left. It was a real touching time.”
    This time they wouldn’t let another year go by before they got together. The next month, October 1995, the 10-year-old Krack took a class with Leftwich and Wine at Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia, courtesy of an Augusta scholarship. Another trip followed in November to attend Wine’s wedding. By now the friendship was firmly cemented.
    In 1996, the Indiana Arts Commission awarded Krack a $5,000 grant to travel and study with Wine. “By the end of that grant, we were getting pretty attached to West Virginia,” said Krack. “We were making a lot of friends and were enjoying the terrain. So we started talking about trying to move here.”
So, for the sake of their son’s continued progress, in 1009, Reed and Dara Krack demonstrated their derring-do by pulling up stakes in their native Hoosier State and headed eastward to West Virginia. Not an easy decision to make, but the Kracks felt this was best for Jake’s development, and it sure beat the grueling 400-mile hauls. Reed made his career transition y establishing Krack’s Fiddle Shop, where he repairs and makes handcrafted fiddles, two of which Jake plays today. “He’s certainly flourished since we’ve been here,” said Reed. “Just like I thought he would.”
    Others would agree. Through the course of their visits, Krack became enamored with the fiddling of Lester McCumbers, another stalwart of West Virginia fiddling. At this pint, Krack was already a familiar presence in West Virginia’s old-time community, not to mention the Augusta Heritage Center, which awarded him an apprenticeship to study with McCumbers. As fate would have it, the Kracks ended up purchasing a 196-acre property a mile away from McCumbers near Orma, West Virginia.
Though he was well en route to becoming one of the leading old-time practitioners of his generation, Krack’s classmates have mixed reactions to his choices of styles. “My friends at school tell me they listen to this music and like it only if I play it,” Krack said about his current crop of classmates. “They say, ‘We wouldn’t got out and buy this music or anything, but we listen to it whenever we hear you do it.’” However reticent they are to admit it, slowly, but surely Krack’s friends are beginning to appreciate old-time music.
    Krack added that in Indiana, where fewer people played a musical instrument than in West Virginia, his former classmates were more intrigued by his musical passion. “In Indiana, because I was playing when I was in school there, it was a more of a big deal because they say, ‘My grandfather (or my uncle) plays the fiddle.’”
    In October 1999, Krack met his fourth (and current) mentor through another Augusta Heritage fiddle class. Once again, Augusta awarded Krack a grant - this time to study with the man they call Bobby “The Bow” Taylor. Like McCumbers, Taylor had never had anyone officially apprentice with him until Krack. “I is really wonderful to be able to pass on what you do to somebody that can actually get it,” said Taylor. “I really had thought at this point that no one was able to do any of my stuff. I could not be prouder of him.”
Referring to himself as a “melting pot fiddler,” Taylor said he borrows heavily from the traditions of Clark Kessinger, Mike Humphreys, and Ed Haley, resulting in a bowing style that is unlike Wine’s or McCumber’s.
    Though Taylor’s style may be different from that of Krack’s predecessors, he stresses that young fiddlers should be exposed to a s many styles as possible. “I told Jake when he started the apprenticeship with me, ‘do not lose anything you got from the other masters,’” Taylor recalled. “Keep it all in its special place. Showcase it, present it and be proud of it.”
    Herein lies the soul of Krack’s fiddling. When he plays a particular tune, he plays it like the master he learned it from - a daunting feat, as any traditional practitioner can attest. “He can play it like me, or like Melvin does,” said McCumbers. “The thing I see about him is that he is a versatile player.”
    “A lot of people play Melvin’s, Lester’s and Bobby’s tunes, but no one plays them just like Melvin, Lester, OR bobby,” Krack explained. “And if you think about it, when Lester and Melvin were boys were they trying to copy who they were learning from, or were they just playing? I think they were probably learning from their dads, or other fiddlers that were older friends of theirs. Those other fiddlers wouldn’t let you learn unless you played just like them. If I weren’t getting Melvin’s bowing right, he would tell me. And the same with Lester.”
And by playing it just like the inspiring master, the essence of the tradition lives on.