How Much Wood Would Arrowood?
Carley Arrowood Paves the Way for Young Female Fiddlers
By Stephen Pitalo
Early to rise, Rutherford County’s Carley Arrowood has played bluegrass fiddle since she was a wee one, first starting a band at age 10. Since 2015, Carley has played fiddle with Darin & Brook Aldridge, written songs, performed on stages across the world, won many awards, and forged a career that inspires.
“It’s my mission to share my faith in the Lord,” Carley says of playing fiddle, songwriting, and performing. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, but it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
After seeing local fiddler Todd Elliott put on a show for her 4-H group, Carley was drawn to the fiddle. Her Suzuki-style teacher-focused mostly on classical material but would include a fiddle tune periodically. Carley had a strong preference for learning by ear, and she gravitated toward fiddle-style music.
“The classical realm has helped many a fiddle player get their feet on the ground, not just me,” Arrowood said. “Starting out playing the violin isn’t even what I wanted to do! I just knew I wanted to play the fiddle.”
But her teacher insisted that Carley learning classically, for technique and proper basics.
“She would also incorporate a fiddle tune almost regularly. And looking back, I love how I still incorporate those things in my style now. I love adding rich vibrato for feeling and pulling certain bowings that add extra emotion. When I was young, my teacher wanted me to move with my playing and I didn’t understand. I thought I’d just look silly swaying back and forth, so I refused. But once I started playing the fiddle in a band onstage more, I understood emotion in playing. I specifically remember a time when I was playing a fiddle break, and I just started moving uncontrollably as I was playing some hot lick because I was feeling it. And I knew that that’s what my teacher was talking about. That bubbly feeling from deep down that explodes when you love what you’re doing. So now, with all those sorts of hidden things I didn’t realize I was learning in classical lessons, I’ve created my style over the years, and I’m still learning new ways to express that emotion using my vibrato and bow styles in fiddle playing.”
Carley rose to first chair position in the youth symphony in Hendersonville, NC, but sought out local and regional bluegrass musicians for local fiddle music jams & collaboration. Carley’s eight-year-old sister Autumn was learning to play mandolin from Dennis McEntire, and her cousin was learning to play bass.
“When Dennis found out I was learning fiddle tunes, he put our first band together with myself, Autumn and our cousin Katie on the bass. It started as the three of us, and we called ourselves Carolina Jasmine.”
Carolina Jasmine eventually became a five-piece band, playing together for four years. The group won the annual Jr. Bluegrass Band competition at Fiddlers Grove, establishing a new standard for all-female bands that the ladies were elated to learn.
“I believe that was the first competition we’d ever done,” Arrowood recalled, “and we didn’t know what to expect. But when they called our name for first place, it was a sweet moment for a bunch of little girls.”
Then they found out later that they were the first all-female band to win the Junior Band Championship.
“and you couldn’t get us off cloud nine. We couldn’t believe that the festival had been going on for 84-85 years (at that point) and there hadn’t been an all-girl band to win. We were very tickled.”
Down the road as teenagers, Arrowood and her sister met more young pickers, and they started a band called Most Wanted Bluegrass. “That was when our love of the music really blossomed, and my love of traveling to perform came alive. Most Wanted Bluegrass was also together for four years. Fiddlers Grove is a special place to me, and I’ve gone back several more times for the band contest with Most Wanted Bluegrass, and two years ago for individual fiddle competitions. We love the Grove.”
Steady gigs at Dollywood, regional fiddler convention competitions, and contests helped propel Arrowood’s career. From 2012-2014, Carley was a regular member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Kids on Bluegrass program. The day after Carley graduated from high school, she started filling in on fiddle with Darin and Brooke Aldridge.
“I listened to players like Bobby Hicks and learned some tunes by Kenny Baker a good bit when I was learning,” Arrowood said, “and I’m still learning from them today. Arvil Freeman is another one that I got to know as a teenager, and his smooth bow styles helped me mold my style as well. They all have the ability to pull tones out of their instruments that can send a cold chill up your spine. I’ve also always loved Aubrey Haynie’s playing style, for the same reasons, since he was heavily inspired by Kenny. Alison Krauss and Jim Van Cleve are my other two biggest influencers. Out of all the fiddle players, their styles, and Aubrey’s, respectively, are the ones I tend to pull from the most.”
Carley joined the Darin and Brooke Aldridge band full-time in the fall of 2014, and she continues performing and touring with the group today. Playing with the group, Carley has gotten to share the stage with John Cowan and Jimmy Fortune, who has become a good friend. Carley has performed on the Grand Ole Opry and the Larry’s Country Diner television program in Nashville. With the Darin and Brooke Aldridge band, Carley has performed in the Czech Republic and Ireland.
“Traveling to Prague and Ireland in the same year was so surreal,” Arrowood said of those opportunities. “I’d always wanted to go to Europe but never thought it would actually happen. But by the grace of God it did, and we had a blast. I was still traveling with Darin and Brooke Aldridge at those times, and in Prague John Cowan was with us. The people there didn’t speak much English, but they knew every word to John’s songs, and that was awesome to see. Music breaks language barriers all the time, and I was so happy I got to witness that. Ireland was the same, only without the language barrier. I love their accents! At the Ulster American Folk Park, where the festival we were playing at was, they had these different shops set up to look like a colonial town, like a life-size museum.”
In one of them, she met this little old man who made fiddles out of matchsticks and popsicle sticks, and he was a fiddle player too.”
“I tried one of his matchstick fiddles and he just smiled really big. Then he let me play his fiddle, and another girl from another band joined in, and what little bit of Irish tunes I knew all came out at once and we all played them the same way. It was like a dream. Everyone was just there for the beauty of the music and the traditions, and I cannot wait to go back.”
In 2017, Carley was one of three recipients of the IBMA Momentum Award for Instrumentalist of the Year. Taking first place at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair, the Ellenboro Fiddlers’ & Bluegrass Convention, and the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention, Carley is featured in Doreyl Ammons Cain’s “Golden Threads” mural on Pack’s Tavern in Asheville, featuring regular artists from the famed “Shindig on the Green” event. And her gospel song “Jesus Drive the Train,” written by Arrowood, was featured in the 2015 IBMA Songwriter Showcase performance.
Continuing to teach private lessons in Forest City, Arrowood follows a tradition of connecting her faith with her musicianship.
“As a musician, getting to do everything I’ve just described, I don’t see how anyone could look around at all that and say there is no God in Heaven,” Arrowood said. “Every opportunity I’ve ever had is a direct blessing from the Lord. I wouldn’t have the chance to have a solo career if it weren’t for His hand, and I wouldn’t have the record deal with Mountain Home, and all these beautiful new friendships with them and different heroes of mine if He had not let it happen. He created music. He is the very reason any of it exists! And He created it all for His glory. So, when I’m playing or performing or writing or recording or whatever it may be, I always try to remember that.”
In the Bible, the Book of James reads Every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows, Arrowood pointed out. “Music is a good and perfect thing. Most everything I try to write has some positive message in it, and whether it’s a gospel song or not, I want my audience to know that love that only comes from God. That’s why we’re put on this earth, to know God and to minister to others and to the lost who don’t know His Son Jesus. Everything anyone does can be a mission field, and mine just happens to be this wonderful music.”