Fiddling, whittling and living out a legacy
By Rebecca Canfield
Jerry Davis grew up to the sound of the fiddle. The music, always in the background of his most treasured memories, is a part of his very soul.
Jerry’s father, Jimmy Jo, was a fiddler, too, as was his grandfather, John T., who grew up in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. John T. Davis moved to Texas when he was in his twenties, and never left. He brought his fiddle with him, and taught his son and grandson what it meant to truly love music.
Jerry, who grew up in Leander and was on the high school track team, began playing the fiddle at his father’s knees at the tender age of nine. Yet he learned more than just how to play the fiddle from his father, he also learned how to make fiddles as well. In doing so, the Davis family crossed the line from creating music into a whole different place where they learned not only the love of fiddle playing, but the art of crafting the instrument itself. This, in turn took Jerry’s love of and appreciation for the fiddle to a new level completely.
Each instrument, Jerry explained, has its own unique sound. Even the tiniest differentiation in the fiddle making process effects the sound, giving each fiddle a slightly different tone and making no two fiddles exactly the same.
“When I was young, I played in a lot of bands, mostly country and southern rock,” stated Jerry. “My favorite fiddle player though, is Johnny Gimble.”
Currently, Jerry plays fiddle at the Williamson County Cowboy Church and also at the former VFW hall in Liberty Hill once a month. Yet, Davis played in his share of honky tonks back in his younger years, though these days he plays for a different audience.
“It’s the same music,” Davis said. “Just different words.”
Although Jerry’s father made 17 different fiddles, Jimmy Jo didn’t really get into the swing of fiddle making until his retirement years. Jimmy Jo’s first fiddle was made in 1951, the year Jerry was born. However, Jimmy Jo’s life got busier while raising a son, and he didn’t make his second fiddle until the 1970’s.
Jimmy Jo learned how to make his first fiddle from an elderly man in Austin, Jerry explained. In later years when he picked the art up again, Jimmy Jo combined that knowledge with skills he learned from a book entitled The Technique of Violin Making by H.S. Wake. Jerry uses that same book to this day.
Although Jerry didn’t initially have an interest in fiddle making, as he got a little older, he began watching his father make fiddles when he would go to visit. Then one day, Jerry, who worked as a carpenter, welder and stone worker, said, “I bet I can do that.” And he was right.
Yet Jerry did not stop at learning to make fiddles. A true craftsman at heart, he is always thinking up new things to create, build, or design and normally has about 10 projects going on at any given time.
One of his most legendary projects, though, was the creation of a totem pole in his backyard, a sight which has friends and neighbors awestruck.
“It was an old cottonwood tree that went dead, and I was afraid the limbs were going to fall on my shop, and I started cutting it down, when I got the idea to make a totem pole. I thought if it didn’t work out, I would just cut it down,” Jerry said with a laugh.
Jerry, who at the time had no experience in creating totem poles, had received a carved bear from a friend, and using that as a guide, started recreating what he saw in the tree. The finished result, to the amazement of his friends, was truly impressive for a first try. Yet, Jerry merely shrugs his shoulders, and explains that making things is natural for him.
“I think you’re kind of born with it, just like playing an instrument,” Jerry said. “My dad could carve, too, but not as much as I do. I started off in carpentry work, and he worked for IBM.”
Jerry’s house and shop, all stand as evidence of his craftsmanship. Every which way you turn there is a new treasure to behold. A gnome tree made from an old stump, a handmade stone table on the patio, large, hand-carved picture frames, half-whittled ducks, and large stone ant sculptures line his workshop. There is also a half-made fiddle that is waiting for its turn to be played by someone. Yet it will be a good long while before it is finished, because it takes a month of playing after a fiddle has been created before the varnish can go on the fiddle, Jerry said. The varnish, is the most difficult part of the process.
“When you are done building it, you put your strings on it, and play it for about a month, and then you take it apart and start varnishing it,” Jerry explained. “Doing this takes all the stress and tension out of the wood and it gives it a better sound. It gets acclimated to the climate, and all that. Then you put about 10 coats of varnish on there and sand between coats. It’s real tedious to get a good varnish job.”
Each of the items in Jerry’s shop waiting for attention, however, must wait a little longer, as before they can be finished more practical projects, such as redoing the shower must come first.
These days, in addition to spending time in his workshop and tinkering around the house, Jerry can be found enjoying a Liberty Hill High School football game or savoring a good chicken fried steak at a favorite local restaurant. And although he loves his community, Jerry says that he simply can’t make a totem pole for everyone.
“It takes a certain kind of wood,” Jerry explained. “I told one guy I would make him one, but I found out he had an oak tree, and the wood is too hard. A cedar tree or a cotton wood tree is soft, but anything like an oak or a pecan tree is too hard for the chainsaw. It’s also a lot of work.”
However, Jerry’s biggest goal, surprisingly enough, has nothing to do with making things. Jerry, whose grandmother lived to be 103 years old, stated that he wouldn’t half mind becoming a centenarian himself one day as well. His own mother, a woman in her 80’s now, is still alive and well and resides in Central Texas. And although nobody can predict the future, it seems as if fortitude is in the Davis DNA, making Jerry’s wish not as unlikely as some might think.
Until that day, one can find Jerry in his workshop creating something brilliant.