Mike Mitchell: Fiddle Surprise
by Susan Marquez
Mike Mitchell grew up in Ontario, Canada, where his parents listened to Gordon Lightfoot, Ann Murray, and Ian Tyson. That music seeped into young Mike’s soul and came back one day to welcome him into a world where he once felt like an outsider.
The young musician moved to the Blueridge area of the United States. “I was around musicians who were born into bluegrass music,” Mike recalls. “I felt like somewhat of an imposter.” Sadly, he felt that way until he was about thirty years old. “That’s when I was farting around with local bluegrass musicians in Roanoke. A friend said I should check out an album by J.D. Crowe and The New South. It’s the one known as 0044.”
The untitled album was released on the Rounder Records label in 1975 and has been widely regarded as the best bluegrass album ever made. It became known by the number the record company assigned it, 0044. The album featured J.D. Crowe, Bobby Sloan, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Ricky Skaggs. Said to be the most influential album in the second generation of bluegrass, the studio recording still has a significant impact on bluegrass artists today, including Alison Krauss, who has said she grew up listening to the album.
“I listened to the album and was blown away,” says Mike. “The song ‘Summer Wages’ really spoke to me. Ian Tyson, a Canadian, wrote the song, and my mom listened to Ian Tyson when I was growing up. When I learned that Tony Rice was covering it, that brought it all together for me. I realized I possessed the authenticity I thought I had been lacking. I soon realized that musicians in Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee were all covering that music I grew up with, and I felt I was in the right place at the right time.” Mike says he had the album CD in his car for months and listened to it everywhere he went.
Another substantial influence on Mike’s bluegrass career was fiddle-maker Arthur Conner. “I’m an Arthur Conner guy,” states Mike, who says he wasn’t playing bluegrass when he first met Arthur. “He is a big reason I started trying to play it right, doing the music justice and carrying on the tradition. He was a real mentor to me.”
Arthur’s three sons and one daughter had a band called The Conner Brothers, and they were popular in the Virginia area in the 1970s and 80s. Gene Elders (who played with George Strait and Lyle Lovett) played fiddle in that band.
By the time Mike met Arthur, his fiddles were under some of the best country fiddlers in the world.
Mike teaches at The Floyd Music School, where students have grown into playing Arthur Conner fiddles. “Some have brought them to prestigious institutions like the Berklee School of Music, Belmont University, and The Frost School of Music.
Mike apprenticed with Arthur in his shop three days a week for a year in 2013. A couple of Thanksgivings ago, Mike and his son visited Arthur. “I regularly visited the old man, and I played for him in his home. I often took my kids with me, and they played for him also. On that particular visit, Arthur was 95 years old, and he knew that would be our last time to get together. He told me to get a fiddle off the wall. It was a prototype for a five-string, a fiddle made on a viola body. He said that it was the first fiddle he made with Ricky Skaggs, whose first wife lived down the road from Arthur.”
Mike left Arthur’s house that day with the fiddle, along with Arthur’s instructions to take safe care of it.
Mike has been an endorsee of Conner Fiddles for 23 years and Arthur Conner’s representative for over twenty years. He used Conner fiddles exclusively on all of his recordings. Arthur made hundreds of fiddles in his Copper Hill home in Floyd County, Virginia. When he passed away on April 13, 2020, people could not gather for Arthur’s funeral due to the Covid pandemic.
“It was sad for me,” says Mike. “I wasn’t able to mourn like I wanted to.” Over the next few weeks, Mike talked with many of his bluegrass friends about Arthur, including Jerry Wood, who has known Arthur since the 1960s.
Mike told Jerry about the fiddle Arthur gave Mike. Jerry said he was sure that Ricky Skaggs played the very fiddle on the 0044 album. “Jerry said Skaggs played that fiddle on ‘Rock, Salt, and Nails,’ and my favorite, ‘Summer Wages.’” Mike felt his life had come full circle from the songs he listened to as a child in Canada, discovering the seminal 0044 album, and possibly possessing the fiddle used in recording his favorite song.
Jerry told Mike about being with Arthur at the Wayside Bluegrass Festival in Stewart, Virginia, when Jerry was a teenager.
“He said that Ricky Skaggs gave the fiddle back to Arthur at that festival because it was a prototype, and the scale wasn’t just right.”
Crafted to a viola scale, a fiddler would find the instrument a little large. The story from Jerry is that Arthur gave him the fiddle, and a few years later, Jerry gave it back to Arthur.
Mike loved the fiddle because he loved Arthur. He knew what a talented fiddle maker Arthur was, and the fact that it was given to Mike so soon before Arthur’s death made it more sentimental. If the fiddle was the one Ricky Skaggs played on the 0044 album, then Mike owned a critical piece of history. He contacted the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Owensboro, Kentucky, and said he’d like to donate the fiddle. “The folks at the Hall of Fame said the fiddle would have to be authenticated,” said Mike.
While working on this article, I reached out to Ricky Skaggs’ publicist about getting an interview. I told the fiddle story and said I’d like to talk to Ricky Skaggs about it. Sadly, I received an email with the following response from Skaggs:
“I didn’t use Arthur Conner’s fiddle on those two songs. It was a viola that I rented for the sessions. It was at a music store not far from the studio where we did the recording. I did record with Emmylou on that viola. Sorry to let him (Mike) down. Arthur might have gotten his story mixed up.”
So, while the fiddle isn’t what Mike thought, it is still special to him. It is a piece of bluegrass history made by a man who put his heart and soul into making instruments used to play authentic American music. And it is in good hands with Mike Mitchell, who has made a career of playing and teaching bluegrass. He took Arthur Conner’s training to heart, playing the music right, doing it justice, and carrying on the tradition. Over the years, Mike bought, refurbished, and sold many of the fiddles Arthur made.
“Nowadays, folks bring me their Arthur Conner fiddles to fix, set up, restore and sometimes consign them for me to sell. Arthur’s instruments helped make a lot of bluegrass music sound the way it does today,” says Mike, “and I’m always proud to represent Conner Fiddles.”