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
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
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
“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
And by playing it just like the inspiring master, the essence of the tradition