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Fiddling around with Justin Branum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 20, 2011 - 2010 was not a bad year for Justin Branum. After taking the honors at both the Tennessee state fiddle championship and the Gone to Texas fiddle championship, he topped it off by winning the Grand Master fiddle championship in Nashville, complete with an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage.

Contests have figured large on Branum's musical path. He started playing the violin at 12 and entered his first fiddle contest just eight months later. "I practiced for it, but then sort of forgot about it until we got there, and I heard how good the other kids were," he said. "It was kind of scary and intimidating."

In the hours before the contest began, he went to work. "I locked myself up in a room practicing all day long. I didn't talk to anyone or anything," he remembers. "I played better than I ever had before."

Branum didn't place very high in the contest, but it gave him confidence. "That's when it really started to take hold," he says. "I saw people my own age who played really well, and that was a big push."

That "push" propelled him into a career in music, though he has "unofficially retired from fiddle contests," says Branum, his round, bearded face always ready to smile. "They're OK when you're young," says the 27-year-old, "but it's really stressful to have five people sitting there just listening for you to make a mistake. This year I'll be one of the judges at the Grand Master fiddle championship."

But won't he miss practicing for those contests? "No, I hate practicing for contests," he insists. "I practice the music I like, and I practice to become a better musician. I work on the music for the bands I'm in. If you just practice for contests, you're going to be less well-rounded."

"Well-rounded" is a good adjective for Branum's musicianship. In addition to fiddle, he plays mandolin, viola and guitar. The groups he plays with show his range of interest: Swing DeVille [jazz], Notable Haberdashers and Palominos [Western swing] and Colonel Ford [country] as well as an occasional gig with a string quartet or orchestra.

Branum first went to East Central College in Union, Mo., as a jazz guitar major because "I was scared of classical violin at first, and that was the alternative. But I had been interested in jazz for a long time, especially Western swing. My favorite fiddle player is Johnny Gimble who played with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys." Later he completed a master's degree in jazz performance at Webster University.

Gary Hunt, regarded by many as the best guitarist in St. Louis, plays with Branum in both Swing DeVille and Colonel Ford. "He's a high-level player with great ears," says Hunt who encouraged Branum to play the country style. "It's really exciting for the guys in the band to hear because you don't know what he's going to play next. It really lifts the level of the music and gets the energy flowing. One minute he'll quote Johnny Gimble and the next minute Cannonball Adderly.

"He gets that little smile on his face," adds Hunt, "so he knows he's doing it."

Branum doesn't believe that a fiddler has to move to Nashville to make a living. "I'm really happy with the music scene here. All the musicians I play with are really great, I get to play the kind of music I like, and the people in St. Louis are very supportive."

Moreover, today's technology makes it possible to do session work from almost anywhere. "The other night I cut a fiddle track in my living room for a new country song," says Branum. "A guy came in, sat down and opened up his laptop. He'd already recorded the other tracks so I laid down the fiddle part for the song."

Teaching music is a key reason Branum can make a living with music here. "I really like to teach, something I've been doing since I was a teenager," says Branum. "I like working with people, teaching the kind of music I like to play and getting it out there."

And teaching benefits his own playing: "When I have to break something down to show it to someone else, I know it five times better when I'm done."

Branum's teaching gigs include private lessons, a course in jazz improvisation at East Central College as well as several classes at the Folk School of St Louis.

"With his education and experience, he brings a level of excellence that really sets us apart as a school," says Kelly Wells, executive director of the Folk School. "At the same time, he's one of the most modest people I've ever been around. He's very willing to take people at their own skill levels and work with them."

There may not be any fiddle contests this summer, but Branum plans to be busy playing, teaching and recording some original tracks of his own. To top it all off, he just got engaged, so 2011 is turning out to be another pretty good year for a very good fiddler.

Mark Neilsen is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

Mark Neilsen special to the Beacon