Connellsville native a fiddling champion
Growing up in Connellsville, Dan Kelly began playing the fiddle at the early age of 8.
Who knew he would one day find himself playing Carnegie Hall.
Kelly was taught by Chuck Conner, Sylvan Hare and James Bryner.
As a youngster he began participating in local fiddle contests. It wasn't too long before his parents, Gloria and Ken Kelly, began making longer trips for him to compete and meet other musicians.
At 12, Kelly won the Canadian National Open Fiddle Championship. The award was presented to him by famous Canadian fiddle player Graham Townsend.
He continued to win competitions as a teenager, and soon there were fiddle trophies throughout the Kelly home. During those years of competition Kelly became the state fiddle champion of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee. He won the Mid-America Championship twice.
“Dan is like part of the Conner family. My dad played music with Dan from the time he was a little boy and traveled all over the place playing backup guitar for contests he entered,” said Robin Conner Shultz, daughter of Chuck Conner. “Our family thought so much of him that when dad passed away we gave Dan my dad's prized possession — his 1941 Martin guitar. We always knew that is what our dad would have wanted. Dad always said that Dan would take that guitar places he never had the chance to go and he has done just that. He is an amazing fiddle player and guitar player as well. He is talented beyond belief and has played with a lot of different Nashville artists. In 1983, at 17, Kelly won the most prestigious fiddle championship title in the nation, “The Grand Masters.”
He gained a reputation for smooth, rich and powerful playing that would later attract the attention of the “King of Country Music,” Roy Acuff.
When Howdy Forrester became terminally ill, Acuff asked Kelly to step into Forrester's place as a member of his “Smoky Mountain Boys.”
Kelly held this respected position until Acuff's death in 1992.
“The highest compliment or achievement I have ever received is the fact that Roy Acuff, the King of Country Fiddlers, liked my fiddling. That's always been a huge deal for me. Of all the great fiddlers in Nashville that Roy could have picked to replace Howdy, he chose me. As a young fiddler, that boosted my confidence, which helped me succeed in a town full of great musicians and fiddlers,” said Kelly.
With Acuff's encouragement, Kelly continued his college education and graduated from Belmont University with a degree in music business. Having earned a college degree in the business of music, Kelly still credits Acuff as his greatest mentor. “He taught me about the business, helped my fiddling and, as a master of the stage, helped me as a performer,” said Kelly.
Kelly said his work with Clint Black was somewhat reminiscent of those days.
“Clint has had over 20 number one hits and has sold over 20 million records. Not only is he a great singer but he's a great songwriter, musician, and producer. When you're playing with someone of his or Steve Wariner's vocal and instrumental caliber, you're inspired to play great every night. I like this because both artist and band complement each other's musicianship,” said Kelly.
Kelly has developed skills. He has worked with different musicians that make him more versatile as a player and performer. “My time with Faith Hill really helped me as a performer,” Kelly said. “You had to be a great player, but you had to be able to move and become part of the show. We went from playing venues for 15,000 people to 100,000 as Faith gained country/pop crossover success. The energy of the performance and the show was as important as playing great music.” Another thing Kelly acknowledges is the necessary growth he's had as a multi-instrumentalist. He has always played guitar and mandolin, but in his early days of touring he was hired solely as a fiddle player.
“Over the years, because of economic pressures, it has become a necessity for the fiddle player to be a utility musician who also plays mandolin and acoustic guitar. Now the trend is for the fiddle player to also be able to sing harmony. For young players who want to pursue work with touring artists, it's important to expect that you will not just be playing fiddle. The more versatile you are, the more valuable you are to potential employers,” Kelly says.
Kelly's favorite career highlight, other than playing for Acuff and winning the Grand Masters fiddle championship, was playing Carnegie Hall with Alan Jackson.
“It was with the Grand Ole Opry. They chose certain artists to represent the Opry and Alan was one of them whom I was playing with at the time. Carnegie Hall is as big as it gets. It was a dream come true,” said Kelly.
He has also toured with country stars Lonestar, Pam Tillis, Steve Wariner, and SheDaisy. Working for such well-known artists has allowed him to perform at the Kennedy Center, the Grammys, CMA and ACM award shows, the “Late Show with David Letterman,” the “Tonight Show” and “Good Morning America.”
“In 2013, I am working on my old-time band, The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. We just signed to The Conway Entertainment Group and I am focusing on my roots in old time Grand Ole Opry music like Roy Acuff and Grandpa Jones. This group is hard work, taking it from a hobby to a real touring group. We will be touring performance arts centers across the USA in 2013,” said Kelly.
Kelly's fiddling with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band is a change of pace from his playing in modern country bands. The band harkens back to the string band sound, comedy, and antics that are reminiscent of his days with Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys.
The band has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, performs at festivals, and makes regular appearances on “The Marty Stuart Show,” on RFD TV. The band has finished a new recording, which features Kelly's fiddling. It will be available from its website, tennesseemafiajugband.com, and live shows.
Kelly maintains a private teaching schedule and teaches a violin class at a local private school.
Of all the advice Kelly gives young players, he says it boils down to practice. “It seems like a no-brainer but everyone has to realize you only get out of your playing what you put in. Practicing 15 to 20 minutes a day will not make you a fiddler. It takes hard work.”
Three of his students are state fiddle champs and one of them is going to the National Fiddle Championship in June. Her name in Cara Diagivonia. His other champions are Steven Alonzo and Ivy Philips.
Nancy Henry is a freelance writer.