Violet Hensley, fiddle in hand
Note: This article was written in 2016.
YELLVILLE, ARK. – Violet Hensley has spent much of her life preserving an Ozarks most today have never known. The 99-year-old fiddler grew up in the backwoods of Arkansas, and learned to play — and make more than 70 instruments — because of her father. She became a Silver Dollar City celebrity in the 1960s for her fiddling and whittling skills, which propelled her into the national television spotlight. Her work has been lauded time and again, compliments that live through plaques in her living room — including the 2004 Arkansas Living Treasure designation.
But she’s not done yet.
On the eve of her 100th birthday, Hensley is still practicing the art of musical preservation. She’s still performing at Silver Dollar City. She’s still carving wooden spoons, used to provide Ozarks-style percussion. And just weeks ago, she accomplished a lifelong dream.
And it all began 100 years ago: In a little log cabin, hidden in the Ozark hills.
Hensley was born on Oct. 21, 1916, in Montgomery County, Ark., at “a little spot that wouldn’t even sprout a pea,” as she puts it. She came to life in the same cabin where her father was born in 1874; the same cabin her grandfather built.
And she came into a life of farming, one that was laced with a common dose of poverty. “I said, ‘We’s so poor, if the flies had anything to eat, they’d bring their own food,'” she recalls.
She was daughter number three (of four) born to George and Nora Brumley. Her birth came after hardship: An older sister died at only three weeks old, and the other contracted spinal meningitis and had to relearn to walk. Later, when Hensley was 11 years old, her mother passed away. “So that’s why I talk about Dad all the time,” she says.
Her hands began the work of farming early — but that was OK. “I loved farmin’,” says Hensley. “I loved to plow and watch the dirt turn over. I loved to plant and see the plants grow. Then, the harvest.”
She’d let her horses run as fast as they pleased while she plowed. She chopped wood: So well, in fact, that some visitors commented on it. “…They said, ‘That girl wields an axe just like a man!’ recalls Hensley with pride. “I could do pretty good with that chopping axe and crosscut saw, too.”
Back then, such skills were viewed with more value — and perhaps as more educational — than book learning.
“I didn’t go a year of any of it,” she recalls of school, which was more than a two-mile trek from their house. “Started in August in 1922, and then got in the colder part we didn’t go, or if it was rainin’, didn’t go. Come spring, I had to get out in the fields.
“When I was 15, I should’ve been in the 7th or 8th grade, but I barely had part of the 3rd grade education. ‘Cause I didn’t go much. (Dad) just said he couldn’t afford to buy us books anymore, so that was the end of my schooling.”
Looking back, Hensley ponders whether she regrets the end of her education.
“Don’t think so,” she says. “Dad’d say, ‘All you need to know is how to figure your money … and make a living by the sweat of your brow.’ Didn’t help to have all that book work.”
Life, however, wasn’t all work. Simple joys, such as whittling and fiddling, offered outlets from the pressure of everyday life. Those were things done by Hensley’s father, who took time to sing joyfully through a fiddle — but he created more than music. He also formed the instruments themselves, something that helped support the family.
“Well, he traded one for a wagon,” says Hensley. “Traded one for a shotgun. Traded one for a milk cow … with a baby calf by her side. And you could sell one for $1 back then. Now, one he’d make’d be worth, oh, $5,000.”
To some people, that is. “I’ve got one, I wouldn’t take $5,000 for it,” she says.
It was that influence that led Hensley to start fiddling as a child.
“And I picked up the fiddle, and if I was a missin’ a note, the way he played … he’d show me that, but he didn’t show me much,” she says. “Just come natural. People ask me how hard it is to learn to play the fiddle. It depends on how much you think you can do it, and how much you want to do it. If you want to do it bad enough to work at it, you’re gonna learn it.”
Then, when she was around 15 years old, Hensley took it a step further. “I told my dad one day I wanted to make a fiddle,” she says. “He said, ‘There’s the tools, wood, just help yourself.’ And I did.”
She kept making fiddles, numbering each one as she went.
One of Hensley’s fiddles: She made it in 1934, when she was 17 years old, and it’s the one she primarily plays today.
The passage of time
Milestones marked the next few years, beginning when two boys showed up at the family farm out of the blue. One of those young men was Adren Hensley.
“That was the first day I seen him, but I saw him a lot after that,” says Hensley. “We never went on a date, but he kept coming back to my house. And we got married six months later.”
It wasn’t long before the teenage bride became a mother, and there wasn’t much time for fiddle making as the children — 10 of them, to be exact — came along. The family eventually moved to Oregon to get rich by picking produce such as strawberries, potatoes and prunes.
But in 1959, they heard of an offer near Yellville too good to pass up: $250 for 40 acres of land. “So we came here,” she says. “But he’d just sold his last 40 acres for $250. So we paid $500 for 40 acres.”
She’s been in Yellville ever since.
Silver Dollar City days
Despite life’s busyness and change, fiddling wasn’t far from Hensley’s heart. During a quiet moment in life, Hensley picked up the instrument again: It began a soundtrack that would play for the rest of her life — and propel her into the national spotlight.
“In 1960, friends persuaded (Hensley) to enter the Turkey Trot Talent Contest in Yellville, and she won second place,” recorded the Kansas City Times on Aug. 8, 1974. “That was the beginning.”
Indeed, it was: Because Hensley was discovered by Jimmy Driftwood, an American folk musician and song writer. “And then I got the attention of Silver Dollar City,” she says.
Hensley’s “citizenship” at Silver Dollar City began in 1967 after she was discovered by the park’s former publicist, Don Richardson. “He wanted me to work at Silver Dollar City,” recalls Hensley — but originally, it wasn’t to play the fiddle. It was to be a woodcarver.
The folks at Silver Dollar City, however, soon changed their tune: Instead of whittling, they simply wanted her to fiddle. And soon, so did others.
“Directors of other craft fairs wore a path to the Hensleys’ door,” reported the newspaper. “Violet performed at War Eagle, Mountain Home and Mountain View in Arkansas, and at the White River Arts-Crafts Fair in Forsyth, Mo., as well as Silver Dollar City … Television appearances and more travel followed, once to Denver, where she asked for a hotel room looking out on the mountains.”
Those television moments were tied to an early marketing strategy at Silver Dollar City. Select citizens hit the road, appearing on national TV programs to bring awareness to the park, and Hensley was one of them.
Some of those experiences live through photos on her living room walls: She danced with “Mr. Green Jeans” on “The Captain Kangaroo Show.” Another moment, frozen in time, shows her on “The Art Linkletter Show” with Shad Heller, Silver Dollar City’s longtime blacksmith and mayor. And when “The Beverly Hillbillies” filmed several episodes at the park, she was there — “walking along and eatin’ an ice cream cone with “Granny,'” Hensley recalls.
But most of her time as a Silver Dollar City citizen was spent playing and demonstrating the art of fiddle making. She sold whittlings and showed off fiddling; her enjoyment proven by words spoken through the Springfield Business Journal in 1990.
“I love it here (at SDC),” she said. “I must have a million friends that I have met. I’ve been here for 24 years, and I want to be here for 24 more.”
She paused, perhaps with doubt: “I would be 98 years old then.”
But she needn’t have worried. “I’m still there,” the 99-year-old says now, noting that she’ll be playing at Silver Dollar City in September and October. “This is my 50th fall festival there.”
Hensley is shown on “The Captain Kangaroo Show” in the 1970s. (Courtesy of Violet Hensley)
Realizing a dream
Despite her accomplishments, Hensley always had a dream: She wanted to play on the Grand Ole Opry. She grew up listening to the program, originally via a battery operated radio, which debuted when she was 9 years old. But it was something that seemed never to be.
Until a few weeks ago, that is. Things changed when Tim Crouch, musician and familiar face at the Opry, read Hensley’s autobiography and found mention of her ultimate dream of playing on the Opry. “When he got to that part, he said, ‘I’m going to make it so,'” Hensley recounts.
Crouch contacted Opry star Mike Snider, who arranged for Hensley to be his guest during an upcoming show. And then they contacted Hensley’s daughter, Sandra Flagg, who broke the news to her mother.
“Sandy come over, and she said, ‘What’s the greatest thing you wanna do?’ says Hensley. “And I said, ‘Play the fiddle on the Grand Ole Opry.’
“She said, ‘You’re gonna do it!'”
And, on Aug. 6, 2016, she did just that: On the stage where stars shine, Hensley wowed the crowd, jubilation beaming across her face. It was a moment that took a lifetime to achieve, appreciated by the audience in the 4,400-seat auditorium — and resulted in crashing, thunderous applause.
Despite the thousands of people in the audience — and even more tuning in from elsewhere — Hensley doesn’t recall being nervous that night. After all, “I’ve been on so many shows that it’s just somethin’ else,” she says.
What flabbergasted her, however, were the friends and neighbors who traveled there to hear her perform. “It’s amazing, I call it,” she says, especially because the trip cost them money on her behalf. “…I said, ‘It’s amazing to go somewhere and have somebody followin’ you around.'”
But while a good thing, realizing her dream hasn’t changed Hensley. “I was just me,” she says. “Pleased? Of course, yes, I was pleased.
“But it’s still just me. You don’t want to try to be somebody you’re not.”
Smiley, Hensley’s dog, listens to her play.
Playing a legacy
Even though she still plays, Hensley doesn’t make fiddles these days. After building more than 70 of the one-of-a-kind instruments, she reluctantly called it quits: Her sight is just too bad for the tiny detail work required.
“I don’t make nothing but spoons,” she says of her current creations — for playing, not eating — which she has done so many times that she doesn’t need to see. Her fingers know.
“I can feel it,” she says. “I know right where I’m cutting ‘cause I’ve done enough of it.”
But while macular degeneration has stolen sight, age hasn’t taken her sharp mind. Hensley’s memory time travels easily, recalling events to the date, and taking her far from her kitchen to the world, free from modern convenience, from where she began.
Just like when she picks up a fiddle. With a quick snap of the case, she takes out the brown-hued beauty — the one she created in 1934 — adorned with floral carvings. Then she brings it to her neck and prepares to play.
“When you’re used to it, your finger goes right there without you even looking,” she says. “Know right where to put it.”
She begins to sing, harmonizing with both bow and voice, foot stomping as she goes. “Angeline the baker, age of 43; fed her sugar candy, but she still won’t marry me,” sings Hensley, fingers a fire. “Angeline the baker, Angeline I know. Should have married Angeline, just twenty years ago.”
Her little dog, Smiley, stays and listens. And, as it’s easy to do when Hensley plays, seems to smile.
Want to hear her play?
Hensley will perform throughout at Silver Dollar City’s National Harvest & Cowboy Festival, held from Sept. 14 to Oct. 29. (And she’ll celebrate her 100th birthday there on Oct. 21!)