Known as the “Whittling Fiddler,” the “Stradivarius of the Ozarks,” or more simply, the “Fiddle Maker,” Violet Brumley Hensley, a fiddle maker and musician most of her life, was designated as the 2004 Arkansas Living Treasure by the Arkansas Arts Council. According to the Arts Council, this designation recognizes Hensley as an outstanding Arkansan who has elevated her work as a fiddle maker to the status of art and who actively preserves and advances the art form.
Violet Brumley was born near Mount Ida (Montgomery County) on October 21, 1916, to George Washington Brumley and Nora Springer Brumley. The Brumleys had two other daughters. She followed in her father’s footsteps as a musician, and at the age of fifteen, Brumley told her father, who crafted his first fiddle at age fourteen in 1888, that she wanted to make a fiddle of her own. By observing her father’s fiddle-making technique, she cut the pattern and dried the wood by the fireplace. She learned how to split the wood with a hatchet and use hand planes, homemade curved knives of her father’s design, and other hand tools to carve and create her first instrument.
She made four fiddles from 1932 to 1934, before marrying Adren Hensley when she was eighteen. Although raising nine children took most of her time, she continued to play music, and after taking up fiddle-making again in 1961, she made sixty-nine more instruments.
Hensley makes her fiddles from native woods and has used approximately 100 different types of wood. She favors certain woods for particular pieces of the fiddle, such as wild cherry and maple for the back, sides, and neck; spruce, pine, and buckeye for the top; dogwood for the tail piece; and persimmon for the pegs. Hensley’s workshop is located in her home in Yellville (Marion County), where she and her husband moved their family in 1968. Her workbench not only provides a place to build the musical instruments she makes, which are coveted for their quality workmanship and clear musical tones, but is also a place to repair fiddles.
Hensley has given solo demonstrations and exhibits at the War Eagle Craft Show (1965), the Silver Dollar City National Craft Festival (1967 to the present), the Silver Dollar City Music Festival (1980–2001), the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (July 1970), and Northwest Mississippi Junior College (April 1974), as well at Arkansas schools and in Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri.
She has appeared on television on numerous occasions in such shows as The Beverly Hillbillies (1969), The Art Linkletter Show (1970), Captain Kangaroo (1977), and Live with Regis and Kathy Lee (1992). In addition, she has been featured in the magazines National Geographic (1970), Mature Living (1987), and Country Woman (1991), among others. During the 1980s, she appeared weekly on radio station KCTT in Yellville. Her most recent television appearance was on Ozarks Public Television (KOZK/KOZJ) at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, in the summer of 2006, in the program “Handcrafted Musical Instruments.”
Hensley and family members have made three albums: Old Time Fiddle Tunes (1974), The Whittling Fiddler and Family (1983), and Family Treasures (2004). Hensley and family also recorded Old-Time Hoedowns in the early 1970s. Family members who have played with Hensley are daughters Lewonna Nelson and Sandra Flagg, son Calvin Hensley, and husband Adren Hensley. Son-in-law and guitarist Tim Nelson replaced Adren Hensley after his death in 1997 and joined family members in making Family Treasures.
Hensley’s dedication to her art has led to local and national acclaim, including the 2004 Arkansas Living Treasure designation. She received the 1997 Living Treasure Award from Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and was inducted into its Hall of Fame. Hensley made her forty-first consecutive appearance at Silver Dollar City during its 2007 National Crafts Festival. Hensley is no longer making complete fiddles due to failing eyesight, but she is able to make some of the less intricate parts. She continues teaching others to make and play fiddles.
For additional information:
“Arts Council Names 2004 Arkansas Living Treasure.” Art Lines (April–June 2004): 1, 7.
Fellone, Frank. “Fiddle Queen of Arkansas.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 29, 2014, p. 1E, 6E.
Hensley, Violet Brumley. Oral History, 2007. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Arkansas Studies Institute (ASI) Research Portal: Video of Violet Hensley Oral History (accessed October 11, 2017).
Hensley, Violet, with Randall Franks. Whittlin’ and Fiddlin’ My Own Way. Tunnel Hill, GA: Peach Picked Publishing, 2014.
McConnell, Kaitlyn. “99-Year-Old Violet Hensley, a Living Link to an Ozarks Past.” Ozarks Alive, September 4, 2016. http://www.ozarksalive.com/99-year-old-violet-hensley-a-living-link-to-an-ozarks-past/ (accessed October 17, 2016).
———. “At 100, Yellville Fiddle Maker Not Ready to End Career.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 25, 2016, p. 7B.
Parks, Michelle. “Music Maker.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 14, 2006, pp. 3E, 6E.
Worster, Ann. “The Whittling Fiddler.” The Baxter Bulletin, January 13, 2004, pp. 8–9.
York, Joe. Violet Hensley: 74 Fiddles. Arkansas Living Treasure Film Series. http://www.historicarkansas.org/alt-film-project/violet-hensley (accessed October 17, 2016).
Ann Phillips Worster