Jack Devereux, the Town Mountain fiddler is quietly confident. His vibe: “Trust me, I know what I am doing.”
This is the guy you want shooting free throws with no time left. The man you hope is flying the plane when the engine cuts out. The person you trust to take the wheel when you are seeing double.
It should come as not too much of a surprise, then that when it comes to his chosen profession, Devereux is a master of one of the most difficult and detailed crafts in existence – the art of building violins.
“My grandfather was a professional musician. A great guitar and fiddle player,” Devereux reminisces. “He was a country music singer back in the 60’s and he got me going to Shindig on the Green and playing fiddle tunes.”
There aren’t too many other places in the country where one would have more exposure to incredible bluegrass musicians. Devereux took full advantage of the opportunity to rub shoulders with musicians better than he was.
Devereux chased his musical dreams to Berklee School of Music in Boston, Mass. In 2009 during his freshman year he was introduced to John Cooper, a professor at Berklee who, in addition to his teaching at the school, was one of the most respected violin makers in the northeast.
The opportunity presented itself due to his financial difficulties as a student. Devereux laughs quietly as he explains. “I started working with John because I bought an instrument from his shop and it got broken. I couldn’t afford to have it repaired or to buy a new one. I was like ‘I bought this fiddle here and it broke,’ and he was like ‘Come hang out.’”
That broken fiddle would pull Devereux into an entirely new world, one he would choose to never fully leave. Over that winter break, Devereux would sleep in Cooper’s workshop for nearly three weeks, begin building his first instrument, and catch some kind of itch that even playing sold-out shows with bands the likes of Town Mountain would never be able to fully scratch.
It’s often the broken things in life that lead us to the most well-constructed doorways.
“Working with John was a really cool thing because I was able to spend some time with really incredible, old, classic instruments,” Devereux expounds. “In the violin making world, the Italian stuff from the 18th century is the gold standard. I was able to work in a shop with a guy that had established himself enough to be working on these hundreds of thousands of dollar instruments.
“Still, when it comes down to it, it’s like, ‘Here is a fiddle on a bench that isn’t working the way it’s supposed to.’ It’s only later that you realize the instrument is worth more than your house.”
“I started building a fiddle just for fun and it took me about a year. I built a few more and at that time, I just gave them away. I didn’t like them enough to sell them but all my friends had really shitty fiddles and it was like, this is nothing special but it’s better than what you have,” Devereux chuckles.
“You see these people, and it’s funny, like around Berklee. I’m sure it must be a music school thing or maybe just anywhere you have a lot of talented young players in the same place. They don’t have any money, they are playing music all the time, and just using these horrible instruments. It was really cool that early on to have these instruments get in front of really good players and get feed back about what was and wasn’t working.”
By the time he had finished his stint at Berklee, Devereux was growing into a true luthier in his own right. Still, conflicted about his life goals, he took a job with a band and went on tour. It didn’t take long for him to start pining for the old work-bench and tools.
Devereux took his focus back to building fiddles after eight months on the road.
“I was somewhere off bitching about being on the road (to John Cooper) and he was like, ‘Dude, just come work with me,’” Devereux tells me.
It was an easy call, though the north country winters were tough. After a couple of years working in Boston and Maine, he decided to head South again.
“Honestly,” he admits, “I was just tired of being cold. And Asheville is one of those few places (musically) where if you don’t move to L.A. or New York, this is the place. Moving down, I was thinking I would be doing nothing but building violins.”
The opportunity to tour with one of the hottest bluegrass acts on the scene would eventually present itself and, spoiler alert, Devereux would take it. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Back in Asheville, built his reputation as a craftsman. Those fiddles he had built and given away to musician friends were gracing stages across the country. Some of the work that he had considered not of a high enough quality to sell was catching the ears of some of the hottest musicians going.
“I was taking fiddle lessons from an incredible player named Bobby Britt, who plays (I believe) the second fiddle Jack ever made,” Rodenbough explains. “Bobby would not stop raving about it. I remember I complimented his sound on a record, and he said ‘I’d normally say it’s the player, not the instrument, but in this case it’s at least 50-50!’ I knew Jack was going to be a rising star in the world of luthiers, so I was trying to sneak in there quickly before he got too big for me to afford one!”
It would be Britt whom Devereux would eventually replace as fiddler for Town Mountain. It was also Britt who was the last to play a Devereux-made fiddle with Town Mountain.
You see, Rodenbough had been smart to get in early. When I asked Devereux if he played one of his own fiddles, he raised his hands, palms upward, and shrugged.
“No. I can’t afford to.”
The way violins are made hasn’t changed in 200 years. It’s always been one person sitting at a workbench, working by hand. It’s an intensely personal process that allows the luthier to tailor the violin or fiddle to suit a specific sound or style of play.
“It is a fun thing to be able to tailor the instrument if you know it is going to a person who plays a certain type of style. You have some aggressive players who need an instrument that won’t crumple under that as opposed to others who need it to accurately respond under a lighter touch.”
“Even with the Strads and the really sought after instruments,” he continues, “they all have this kind of weird personality and symmetry and tool marks and funkiness that I find really compelling. You try to make it as perfect as you can but based on the working methods there is always going to be a kind of organic funkiness to it.”
Rodenbough raves about the way her fiddle compliments her sound.
“I love the low end so much. I tend toward the lower part of the fiddle range anyway, and this one makes that a gorgeous place to hang out. Also, I’m a more expressive player than I am technically impressive, and I find this fiddle to be really expressive, capable of a wide dynamic range, with an emotional innate voice. The tone is sweet and warm but can be made to cut, too.”
At the end of the day though, Devereux’s goal is to be forgotten.
“I feel like I have a lot of responsibility to the player to make it easy. You just kind of want to disappear,” Devereux tells me confidently. “If the player is having to think about the instrument then they aren’t able to totally think about playing music. You want to take that out of the equation.
“The more effortless you can make the conduit between the player and the listener the better you are doing your job.”
Still, fiddle making and fiddle playing have always gone hand and hand for Jack Devereux. Despite his best-laid-plans, it doesn’t seem too surprising to find him bouncing around the country in a bluegrass band.
Not that he doesn’t have enough work to keep him busy. Every fiddle that Devereux makes is sold before he makes the first cut. And while he would love to have more time to spend on his craftsmanship, the camaraderie he feels with the guys in Town Mountain is worth the sacrifice.
“The dudes I’m playing with, I mean, really, I would not tour with any other band. I like our music. And I think we are doing it for the right reasons. It’s like, this thing (violin making) I can do in perpetuity. Better to do that (touring) while I have the opportunity and am still young and dumb enough to get in a van for eight hours and go play for a bunch of hippies at a festival.”
This weekend he doesn’t have to drive eight hours. Town Mountain will play for a bunch of hometown hippies at The Orange Peel, where they’ll be supported by The Stray Birds, a band featuring one of Devereux’s former college roommates, Mia Dimtri.
Town Mountain plays this Saturday at The Orange Peel. Tickets are $12 in advance.
Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the author and publisher of Rosman City Blues and currently resides outside of Asheville with his dog and best friend, Dr. Gonzo.
You can reach him at Caleb.email@example.com and/or Facebook.com/GonzoNC.