Photo courtesy of Charlotte Ross.

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Joe Thrift

Violin builder and oldtime musician

Dobson, NC (Surry County)

Joe Thrift is a violin maker and fiddler who has steeped himself in all aspects of the instrument. Born in Winston-Salem, Joe grew up in a family that was sympathetic to his musical interests. His father was a pipe organ builder, and his mother an organist and choir director. In the early 1970s, Joe became interested in building instruments and playing music. "After building several small instruments myself," he recalls, "I apprenticed to a local maker and worked in his shop, visiting as many other makers as I could find." The local maker was Dave Sturgill, who had a shop in Alleghany County. Other young musicians with similar interests worked at Sturgill's shop, and they formed bands to play at the local and regional festivals. Joe also visited with Albert Hash of Whitetop, Virginia, a fiddle player and maker who heightened Joe's interested in playing and making fiddles.

In 1976, Joe moved to Newark-On-Trent, England, to attend the Newark School of Violin Making. After graduating, he returned to Winston-Salem and opened a violin shop, making, repairing, and restoring violins, violas, and cellos. As he became more interested in playing fiddle, he made regular visits to Tommy Jarrell's house near Mount Airy. Joe learned a host of tunes from Jarrell, as well as an approach to playing. "I play the notes they way they sound to me," he says. "I like driving fiddle with hard-driving but simple guitar playing." In addition to playing with Jarrell, Joe was busy listening to recordings of early old-time musicians and bands such as Luther Strong, the Skillet Lickers, and Dykes Magic City Trio.

By 1982, Joe was performing with his fiddling friend Rich Hartness and Rich's band Too Wet to Plow. Soon Joe and Hartness formed the Red Hots, which also included Tom Riccio and Riley Baugus. The Red Hots made several recordings and have performed in the region for years. Joe has recorded and performed with other groups also, including a period as keyboard player for the nationally-touring group Donna the Buffalo in the 1990s. In 2000, Joe started the band Man Alive with Bill and Nancy Sluys and guitar player David Long. Next, he played in the group jimmyjohnnyjoe with Mark Olitsky, Jason Sypher, and Debra Clifford.

Joe continues to perform with the Red Hots, with Tom Riccio, Nick McMillian, and Kelley Breiding from Surry County. He has also continued to develop his instrument building skills, making multiple trips to Germany to study with his friend and mentor Roger Hargrave, a renowned violin maker. Hargrave, and his co-worker Bertrand Bellin, have helped Joe master the Cremonese style, a technique he continues to use. He makes instruments full-time in his home workshop in Surry County. "I handcraft my violins using the same tools and methods of the classic Italian violin makers of the 1600s and 1700s," Joe says.

Availability

Joe Thrift is available to play for performances and dances with his band the Red Hots. He is also available for workshops and demonstrations on violin building and techniques fiddlers can use to do simple repairs to their instruments.