Violet Hensley was in full bloom in the month of April. It was an exhilarating and emotional month of 3’s for Ozark Mountain’s legendary 101-year old "Whittlin’ Fiddler."
On Tuesday, April 3, a few short days after her March 30th induction in the National Fiddler’s Hall of Fame, Hensley and her family celebrated a homecoming of her number 3 fiddle. Almost two weeks later, on Saturday, April 14, Hensley wowed the crowd during her third appearance at the legendary Grand Ole Opry.
For a little more than 50 years, Violet Hensley has received recognition for her craftsmanship in carving fiddles and for her unique style of entertaining which included playing her fiddle on top of her head while clogging. Between the years of 1934 and 1997, Hensley hand-crafted 73 fiddles. With each fiddle, her technique became more precise; she discovered the best wood to use for each piece and developed patterns and methods to perfect her skill.
Hensley maintained a record book which included the dates the 73 fiddles were completed, the types of wood used, and the names of the people who purchased or obtained them. Throughout the years, Hensley kept tabs on most of the fiddles, but a few, including the number 3, were unaccounted for.
“I figured that fiddle had gone by the wayside.” Hensley said.
Hensley learned the skill of fiddle-making through careful observation of the handiwork of her father, George Washington Brumley. He completed his first fiddle at the age of 14 and continued to make three or four a year until he was physically unable to complete the tedious detailed work. Hensley said her father sold a fiddle for about one dollar when he could, but recalled, “Many people did not have the money to buy them.” A few of the fiddles were traded for items the family needed. Hensley recalled her father trading for, “wagon parts, a cow and a calf, and I believe he traded one for a shotgun.”
Hensley traded only one of her hand-crafted fiddles, fiddle number 3, to a friend for a quilt.
In 1934, Hensley resided on her family’s farm in Montgomery County. John Driggers lived two miles up the road and over the mountain top. His daughter, Luda, and Violet were childhood friends. They attended school together in the one room schoolhouse in Alamo.
“I was six-years old when I started school,” Hensley said. “Luda was a little older than me, old enough to carry me around.” Luda and Violet are pictured together in front of the old Alamo school building in a 1922 school photo that is included in Hensley’s autobiography, "Whittlin’ and Fiddlin’ My Own Way."
Luda admired Violet’s two fiddles and asked Violet if she could trade a quilt for a fiddle. Violet created a tiny 1/16th sized fiddle just for Luda. It was depression era days and Violet had to make do with the tools and materials on hand. With a pencil, Violet sketched tiny streams of flowers around the rim of the upper bout and lower bout of the back of the fiddle. Then, she dipped crepe paper in water to color it. When she was satisfied with her work, she delivered the fiddle to Luda in exchange for her hand-pieced quilt.
In years to follow, Violet met and married Adren Hensley and moved away from Montgomery County. For many years, Luda and Violet lost track of one another, but Violet recalled a visit to her one last time before she passed on. Luda was gravely ill, and Violet and Adren traveled to Hot Springs to be by her side. Violet said she saw the number 3 fiddle hanging on the wall in Luda’s bedroom.
After both of her parents were deceased, Luda’s granddaughter, Judy Gillemand, inherited the family home in Hot Springs. As Gillemand and her husband David renovated the home, they removed the fragile fiddle from the wall and stored it in a safe place. The Gillemands frequented a local restaurant where they were attended by a waitress named Cassidy. On each dining occasion, the couple requested to be seated in Cassidy’s station and developed a friendship with her that included swapping family stories. On one visit, Cassidy told the couple about her famous great-grandmother, Violet Hensley. She detailed how Hensley had achieved fame for her hand-crafted fiddles and distinctive style of entertaining. Discussions about Hensley, sparked the Gillemands to unpack Luda’s fiddle and investigate the to find its origin.
Judy Gillemand shared, “The next time I got the fiddle out, I looked inside.” Tucked away in the sound hole of the stringed instrument was a piece of yellowed paper with the information: Mary Violet Brumley, July 1934, Norman, Arkansas. Gillemand said she noticed the middle name was Violet and remembered that Cassidy’s great-grandmother’s name was Violet.
“Could this be the same Violet?” she wondered.
David Gillemand did a little research online and learned that Violet Hensley’s maiden name was Brumley. The couple was ecstatic to share their discovery with their friend, Cassidy. As conversations unfolded, Cassidy learned her great-grandmother Violet once gave Judy’s grandmother Luda a fiddle and shared the information with the Gillemands.
Phone calls, emails, and photos were exchanged and a reunion meeting was arranged. On the third day of April, the third fiddle Hensley created journeyed home. Eighty-four years had passed since Hensley had cradled the tiny wooden instrument.
Several members of the family gathered for the homecoming event, each anxious to examine the craftsmanship of one of Violet’s first creations. As Judy Gillemand placed the fiddle in Violet’s hands, Hensley repeatedly stated, “I wish I could see it.” Then, as if pardoning her failed eyesight, she added, “After all, my eyes are as old as I am.”
The delicate fiddle had not weathered the years as well as its creator. The body, constructed of bass wood, was cracked and rough. Hensley ran her fingers across the tailpiece, up the neck, and over the scroll and back down.
“It is memories coming back to me," Hensley stated with satisfaction. Details of the transaction were hashed out over a dinner of fried chicken. Sandra Flagg stated, “I wish we had a quilt to barter for it.” With a little negotiating, the fiddle remained with the Hensley family. Lewonna Nelson shared that the fiddle will most likely be on display in Hensley’s booth at Silver Dollar City.
The stories of Violet’s life are evidence that her life is as interesting and unique and as the fiddles she has created. Like tiny flowers that rim an 84 year old fiddle, Violet is a treasured flower in continuous bloom.