Among all the music and dancing Saturday around the front of the Historic Earle Theater’s stage during the live WPAQ Merry-Go-Round broadcast, a quiet young man in a felt hat calmly carved a fiddle neck. He wasn’t so much competing for attention as he was a reminder of the role of legacy in the music exemplified by Tommy Jarrell.
The slender woodcarver and musician was Chris Testerman, and two tables were loaded with examples of his craft — fiddles, dulcimers. artwork and displays on Jarrell were also for sale. Testerman, who grew up in Virginia’s Grayson County in the Whitetop area was inspired by the renowned fiddle maker, Albert Hash.
Testerman said he became interested in being a luthier (someone who repairs stringed instruments) while he was in high school and talked with Hash’s daughter, Audrey, who followed in her father’s footsteps as a fiddle maker. The 16-year-old craftsman knew for certain his interest in the music and creating instruments from wood was leaving with him when he graduated from Mount Rogers High School.
He said he was playing banjo when he was 8 and had picked up fiddling by the time he was 10. He is characteristically straightforward describing this side of his love of bluegrass and old time music.
“I play a little bit of everything,” said Testerman. “I just wanted to build fiddles and play like Albert Hash. It is just interesting. I like to be able to apply what I’ve learned and all of my fiddles are different.” He said he enjoys working with wood and also does a lot of wood carving which allows him to be able to create different decorations for his fiddles, which is a trait he shares with his role model, Albert Hash.
He points out how he uses different patterns and styles of fiddle bodies to achieve a different tone from the instruments. Testerman speaks gratefully of the mentorship of Audrey Hash, who even showed him several mistakes her father had made on instruments. He smiled as he said in his trade something new is learned every day. He said he is also helped in his craft by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
He said repairs on fiddles are demanding and require exact measurement. He recalled how one German fiddle he repaired was brought to him with the wood crumbling into pieces.
Testerman said he makes dulcimers and apprenticed under Whitetop’s Walter Messick to learn to make them. Messick, who was a Lutheran minister, was also a student of Albert Hash. He said that although fiddles catch and hold much of his interest, dulcimers pay a lot of the bills. He said he can create a dulcimer in a day where fiddles routinely take a month. He also makes guitars and many of the fiddle bodies he reproduces are patterned after Hash’s styles from the 1950s.
He even had to endure some “picking” from the other love of his life, wife and fellow musician, Erika Testerman of Mount Airy and member of the Round Peak Ramblers.
Erika Testerman smiled as she explains how she kept after Chris to make her a fiddle. She said she loves the one made especially for her from her husband and talks about their shared love for bluegrass and old time music, which brought them together.
“We both played and we went to many of the same festivals and had a lot of mutual friends,” said Erika Testerman. She recalled playing at the Rex Theatre when the two were 15 and admits Chris’ playing caught her attention. She said shortly after noticing him, he was absent for a while but she got to know him later. She smiled as she said the most difficult time for them can be deciding who gets to play the fiddle but it always works out fine.
Chris Testerman sat nearby, sanding while he tapped his foot in time to the music. The two, as well as the celebration seem to be a reminder that some traditions keep on going.
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.