I finally caught up with roving fiddle shredder Nate Leath in late July as he fought to get his rig to FloydFest, Southwest Virginia's annual jamboree. The festival, now in its seventeenth year, was once again home to important members of Leath’s musical family. When we met up, the North Carolina native was temporarily sidelined with car troubles in Charlottesville, his current hometown, allowing me the rare chance to talk with this hard-touring road warrior.
Leath made a name for himself at age eleven when he became the youngest winner of the adult bluegrass fiddle contest at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention. Now, he’s passing on his musical experience to the next generation as a folk art master with The Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. His apprentices are the brother-sister duo Eli and Aila Wildman. Based in Floyd, Eli (mandolin) and Aila (fiddle) tour regionally as The Wildmans, along with their mother Deb Wildman on upright bass and young banjo prodigy Victor Furtado.
The Wildmans were also set to perform at FloydFest and Leath was eager to join them at their camp. He recounted his first experience meeting them at Floyd years prior when Eli and Aila were just eleven and eight years old. “I was there playing with Danny Knicely, Love Canon, The Harris Brothers, Leftover Salmon, Jorma [Kaukonen] from Hot Tuna. I think I played 22 sets, it was ridiculous.” He was waiting with Knicely to perform on The Porch stage when something caught his attention. “We walked over there and it was Aila and Eli Wildman just tearing it up. I mean going for it. We got our instruments out and played some tunes with them. It was about time to do our sound check and we asked if they’d sit in with us. They’d never done anything like that before—most kids shy away from that kind of thing pretty quick, you know? But they did not, they were very enthusiastic. No question about it. Kind of like a McGregor UFC fight—drop of a dime, they were like ‘Hell yeah, that’s what we want to do!’ They got up there and played some standards with us and you could just tell that they were born to do it. You could see the lightbulbs going off for them. Their dad told me later that that moment at FloydFest is when it just clicked for them.”
Despite his role in that inspirational moment, Leath isn’t taking credit for anyone’s success. “I’m not the one. Everybody’s the one, but I’m trying to do my part.” That sentiment is one he learned from his own teachers. “Danny was my mentor. He still is, he always will be. He and so many other people were so good to me when I was little. I think it’s really important that you encourage as much as you can. It’s not only your duty or responsibility, but it makes you a lot better, too—and it feels great. When somebody falls in love with playing music and you have a little bit to do with that … it’s a good feeling.” He laughed and followed up with, “So, you know, it’s really just selfish.”
Asked about his own origin story, Leath chuckled, “I don’t know if you believe in ghosts or not. Maybe I’m just crazy, I don’t know, but I believe in one.” He recounted a story from when he about three years old: “I was in the living room and my grandma comes in and asks ‘Who’re you talking to?’ and I said ‘I’m talking to Paw Paw.’ And I look over at where Paw Paw was sitting and, boy, it was really kind of weird.” That weirdness was due to the fact that Paw Paw was deceased. He continued, “She told me I walked over to a painting of a fiddle and said, ‘I can play that fiddle if you get me one. Paw Paw told me that!’”
Several years later, Leath’s uncle found him a busted fiddle and glued it back together. “The first time I picked up that fiddle, my uncle ran back into the room like he saw a ghost.” Apparently, Leath’s first attempts at pulling the bow were naturally musical, not the feral-cat sounds one might expect. His family asked him to try Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Leath just automatically knew how to play it. “It was kind of freaky,” he recalled, “but I’m not endorsing ghost stories. It’s really a mystery to me.” Whatever the source, there’s no doubt Leath’s talent was unleashed at that moment. “I went from getting my fiddle at eight-and-a-half to winning Galax at eleven—there wasn’t a children’s category back then.”
Leath grew up listening to heavy metal (a taste he inherited from his mother), but his penchant for electric distortion didn’t hinder his folk music ambitions. Whereas Eli and Aila Wildman began their musical journey with standardized music lessons, grinding out scales and learning theory, Leath played along with popular recordings and learned to play by ear. He found local bluegrass teachers and collaborators including renowned artists such as such as North Carolinian mandolinist Clarence Greene. After just a few weeks of lessons, Greene invited Leath to join his bluegrass band, The Lincoln County Partners.
When Leath grew older, he left home to study at Berklee College of Music, but his self-taught background presented him with some obstacles. “I didn’t know how to read music. I didn’t know how to hold my fiddle right. I had to re-learn things because I had dug myself into a rut and the only way out was to start from square one.” His gigging schedule also conflicted with his studies. “I was touring with David Grisman and Old School Freight Train. At the end, it got too crazy. I had to take a break from Berklee. I thought I could make it work, but I’d be at a festival, Sam Bush is jamming in the green room, and I realize I’m not going write a paper tonight.” Though he did eventually graduate, there was a moment when it didn’t seem like it was in the cards. “They handed me a bill and I had never seen a bill with that kind of number on it. They had taken away my scholarship! I had to go talk to the scholarship department and work it out. I’m so grateful they gave it back to me because I was able to go back and finish.”
Now an adjunct professor of music at Washington and Lee University with students of his own, Leath is adamant in his appreciation for the music-loving communities of North Carolina and Virginia that helped him realize his potential. He is particularly grateful to Jon Lohman, Director of The Virginia Folklife Program, not only for the apprenticeship position, but also for paying to replace his fiddle after it was run over in a tragic moving accident. Leath is happy to report that the new fiddle, made by Don Leister in Richmond, sounds much better than the old flattened one.
Nate Leath and The Wildmans will be competing at the 82nd Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax. The festival will be held from August 7–12, learn more at oldfiddlersconvention.com. Leath has several album available from Patuxent Music, hear them at pxrec.com.
Photography by Pat Jarrett / Virginia Foundation for the Humanities