Fiddle, harmony vocals
Born: April 14, 1964
Whether folks know him by name or not, Stuart Duncan could easily be called America's favorite fiddler. His tasteful touch has been enjoyed by millions of Country, Americana and Bluegrass music fans for over 40 years via the recording studio and on tour. His popularity continues to grow as does his cache of music industry awards.
Even with his distinctive, identifiable style, no two pieces Stuart creates ever sound alike. One of his many strengths is the ability to get inside a simple melody and take it to a whole new level of delight; he never runs out of fresh ideas to compliment a tune. In the studio he is hands-down the MVP who can write out charts, direct arrangements and make an amazing contribution with a fiddle, guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin or any number of speciality instruments.
His father was a lifer in the Marines. Stuart spent the majority of his childhood on Camp Pendleton, a major Marine base in Southern California. His parents were both folk musicians so he grew up surrounded by guitars and banjos. In his free time, Stuart's father ran the sound system at a local folk club in San Diego County. If it wasn't a school night, Stuart was allowed to go along.
One year in the early 1970's, two bands came through that would leave a lasting impression. The Dillards with Byron Berline played Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party (aka Seeing Nellie Home) which Stuart never forgot. Not long after, Stuart heard the Earl Scruggs Revue with Vassar Clements for the first time. Stuart knew a life of acoustic music was for him.
When he was seven, he took a few lessons from an old timer who taught him Angeline the Baker and Soldier's Joy. Mostly he learned by ear from records. His dad particularly liked Dixieland so Stuart was exposed to a lot of spirited, syncopated instrumentals. At one point, his dad got into Irish/Scottish tunes while climbing through the Duncan family tree. Stuart discovered that the Bluegrass/Old Time fiddle style is a distant cousin of Scottish music and began to explore both. He sharpened his ear studying the records of Vassar Clements, Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker and the other bluegrass fiddle greats.
With a group of other military youngsters from Camp Pendleton, Stuart performed with The Pendleton Pickers who won a radio contest that brought them to the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1974. He was still a teenager when he returned to play the Opry again in 1978, this time with banjo star Alison Brown.
Stuart met Alison when he was around ten. The two friends often played as a duet and with various bands throughout their school years, finally recording a project together entitled Pre-Sequel (sorry, never released). Eventually each would make their home in Nashville.
Another interest he shared with his father was woodworking; the Duncans were tearing apart and studying instruments when Stuart was just a boy. The two restored an old upright bass as Stuart's high school woodworking project. They built an electric guitar in the shape of a mandolin. Even today Stuart continues to study instrument construction; in the past few years he's been dismantling instruments, experimenting with the graduation (thickness) of the top and back.
After graduating high school, Stuart headed to South Plains College in Leveland, Texas where the cirriculum included a bluegrass music program. In 1992, Stuart joined a band called Lost Highway, playing throughout the mid-west for the next two summers. He met and toured with Larry Sparks who introduced him to Peter Rowan and Bela Fleck. At the time, Pete was touring with NBB. In the winter of 1984, Pete introduced Stewart to the recently formed Nashville Bluegrass Band, who told Stuart if he'd relocate to Nashville, they were sure to give him some work.
In 1985 Nashville was the epicenter of the acoustic music scene. Stuart's first project was to record with Larry Sparks in his Lonesome Guitar LP. Within months, Stuart joined NBB. The chemistry could not have been better. "From the beginning, the passion we generate as a group is authentic. We're like-minded players with similar influences like Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, but we speak a slightly different language: Bluegrass with a slant toward Old Time and Blues."
In 1992, Stuart put out a self-titled CD which featured pals Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Victor Wooten and David Grier. A mixture of sweet Old Time and hot Bluegrass, the record is still in print and can be ordered though Amazon.com.
Between NBB tours, Stuart slowly became involved in the recording industry. Several sessions with Ricky Skaggs led to offers for more studio work. Jerry Douglas, Jim Rooney and Jim Rushing brought Stuart into project after project. "I owe a lot to those guys," he says. When Mark O'Connor gave up session work, Stuart Duncan became even more in-demand as a studio musician. Marty Stewart kept calling every few months with a little work. Alan Jackson has used Stuart on all his records. George Strait has featured him on all records since Pure Country (1992) which sold six million copies. Producer Emory Gordy includes Stuart's fiddle on all Patty Loveless CDs and tours, and TBone Burnett has leaned on him for a number of high profile projects since 1999, for the movie Cold Mountain in 2003 and the Alison Kraus/Robert Plant CD in 2008. TBone also used Stuart's talents on Elvis Costello's last two records.
When asked how he feels about working in music genres beyond Bluegrass and Country, Stuarts eyes light up. "The Alison Kraus/Robert Plant thing was great. We toured for a couple months, one European leg, one stateside. I thought the rock influence was inspiring. Two worlds came together and the result was awesome." He's also been working with rocker Elvis Costello both on tour and in the studio. "Elvis is such a strong lyricist; he paints the most vivid pictures with words," Stuart says with great respect. "I really like working with his music."
Awards, awards and more awards hang on the Duncan family walls. Stuart's been named IBMA Fiddler of the Year eight times. he has also collaborated on many a session as producer. One of his most well-known projects was for Rounder Records in 1995, David Grier's Lone Soldier, listed in Acoustic Guitar Magazine's "100 Essential Acoustic Guitar Recordings of All Time." Indeed, Stuart has developed a knack for polishing a sound to its most beautiful patina.
When Stuart's mind isn't on music, it's on musical instruments. He collects odd and exotic stringed instruments, not for the investment but because he's interested in learning how they make sound. He has great curiosity about how each instrument is crafted and how its tone is produced and controlled. He came across one of his favorites on a 1986 tour to China with NBB. "We stumbled on a music store and I bought a Chinese Moon Harp, a big four-stringed instrument with a body similar to a banjo but made from wood. Somehow I managed to get it back to the states without breaking it." Stuart also has a Saz, a six-string Turkish instrumen, amongst others. But the most valued instrument he owns is clearly an old red fiddle which once belonged to Kenny Baker. Stuart bought it when he was 12 years old visiting Bean Blossom.
Stuart met his wife Deita in the mid-80's. By 1989 they had married and over the years, she took on the role of Stuart's business manager. They have three children; the oldest, Josh, currently enrolled in engineering school at Vol State, son Jonathan in his mid-teens, and Darcy, 13-going-on-20. Each of the kids is very musical and could easily choose to follow in their father's footsteps. It will interesting to see if any have inherited the Duncan ear.
No one has a true count of how many recordings feature Stuart Duncan. The current estimate is between 800 and 900. The story goes that Stuart's father had a special bookcase where he vowed to put a copy of every recording that Stuart played ever played on. This went fine for a few years but Stuart's popularity as a fiddler grew beyond his wildest expectations and one day the bookcase simply collapsed under its own weight.
A second Stuart Duncan CD is ahead, though sadly not on the immediate horizon. But there's never a lack of great music imprinted with his champion style. Just take a closer listen to your most favorite music... chances are, that's Stuart on fiddle.