Written by Bill Kopp | Photos by Olivia Siegel/Olive & West Photography
He’s a gifted fiddler for an award-winning bluegrass band, Asheville’s Town Mountain, as well as an in demand violin maker. But for Jack Devereux, the desire to know more and do better is what drives him every day.
“I was at a party. This drunk girl sat on my violin and busted the head off.”
What could have been an unmitigated disaster instead served as the catalyst for Jack Devereux’s own entry into the world of fiddle making. At the time, nine years ago, Devereux was studying jazz violin at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He owned a fiddle built by Portland, Maine’s Darol Anger (a founding member of the David Grisman Quintet) and noted violin maker Jonathan Cooper. And when the instrument broke, a series of opportunities led him toward making a lifelong hobby into a profession.
The Asheville-born musician had started playing the fiddle at age three. “I had always been interested in violins,” he says. “I tinkered with woodworking, building some string instruments as well. As kids, my brother and I were taking apart pawn shop guitars.”
Devereux grew up in a household where that kind of creative exploration was encouraged. “My mom is a very capable craftsperson,” he says. “She does a lot of metalsmithing and some carpentry.” He adds that his father is an attorney, but still expresses his creativity via writing: “Coming from that environment where craftsmanship was something that was talked about, I just grew up thinking about these things.” And he picked up a piece of advice from his grandfather, wisdom that would guide his later pursuits: “Do something you feel you can stand behind… and then charge accordingly.”
While a student at Asheville High, Devereux began an apprenticeship of sorts, working under Chris Abell, who has a shop in Asheville’s Grove Arcade in which he makes high-end flutes. He describes Abell as “a very meticulous and thoughtful craftsman who got me pointed in the right direction.” While he had long been a kind of enthusiast/hobbyist, by young adulthood, Devereux had developed a serious interest in the generations-old fine art of building acoustic instruments.
In the wake of that party mishap, Devereux took the broken instrument back to one of its original builders. “I became buddies with Jonathan Cooper in the process,” he says. “We’re into the same kind of music; Jon likes old-time music and bluegrass, even though he’s building these really expensive instruments for classical violinists.”
Over the winter break of his junior year at Berklee, Devereux started learning from and working alongside Cooper. Once classes resumed, Devereux would return to Portland when he could on weekends and breaks. “I was working and hanging with Jon,” he recalls, “just thinking it was something fun; I wasn’t thinking about it too seriously.” In that period Devereux built his first few violins. But, because he didn’t consider the early fruit of his labors as high-end instruments, he simply gave them away to friends.
“That was the whole motivation,” he says. “I’m still in the early stages of making a career out of it, but that’s secondary to ‘How do I get as good at it as I can?’”
Once Devereux graduated, he relocated to Nashville, but didn’t spend much time there. Instead, he hit the road as a sideman in what he describes as an “Americana/folkie band; just good folks doing good music.” But he quickly discovered that the life of a touring musician wasn’t for him: “I was somewhere in Ohio and realized that I was totally miserable.” He expressed that frustration during a phone call with his friend Cooper. “He had toured at some point, so he understood,” Devereux says. “So after we commiserated, he said, ‘Just come up here and work for me.’”
Devereux made the move from Nashville to Portland in November 2012. “Not the time [of year] you want to move to Maine,” he says, with a chuckle. He would remain in Portland for more than three years, much of which he says was spent “puttering around Coop’s shop. I came in not knowing too much about anything.”
In the United States there is a short list of well-known and respected schools teaching the art of violin making. Devereux characterizes those as “a trade school kind of thing; people pay a bunch of money to go to school.” He sees his own tutelage as similar yet ultimately unique. “It was very one-on-one,” he says. “Jonathan Cooper is very established and well-respected in the American violin-making scene.”
Devereux worked hard and learned as much as he could. “For the first year or two, I’m sure I was just in the way,” he says, with a self-effacing laugh. “But it got to the point where I was doing rough work on some of Jonathan’s instruments, and then building some of my own.”
He says that violin-making was definitely a left turn from what he thought he would be doing. And what was that? “I don’t know,” he admits. “I was nineteen!” All he knew was that he wanted to get better at this thing he was interested in. “That was the whole motivation,” he says. “I’m still in the early stages of making a career out of it, but that’s secondary to ‘How do I get as good at it as I can?’”
He certainly got better working with Cooper. But Devereux was cold in Maine, and so in early 2016 he returned south. The original plan was to head back to Nashville, but then he landed a gig playing fiddle with popular Asheville-based bluegrass band Town Mountain, so he ended up back in Western North Carolina.
At the time of our conversation, Devereux is between residences, having temporarily moved his shop into an outbuilding in the backyard of his parents’ home. “It’s funny to be back here,” he says, “because this is where some of my first experiments happened, tinkering with guitars and stuff.”
Devereux’s family has deep roots in the region; his mom grew up just north of Asheville, and both his parents’ families go back several generations in Buncombe County. On the grounds of the Devereux family home sits one of the original city trolleys from Asheville’s electric streetcar network, circa 1886-1934. “I don’t know how it came to be here,” Devereux shrugs. “It was there when my folks bought the house.” Today it serves as the family’s garden shed.
The Right Way
There’s a great deal of history wrapped up in the art of fiddle-making, but Devereux’s perspective on the subject is of a decidedly practical sort. While emphasizing that developing the required skills calls for a lot of what he terms “ass-in-seat time,” he says that there’s a lot of manufactured mystique. It helps sell fiddles if people don’t know how it’s done, he says. “And that’s been going on forever.”
After recounting a concise, condensed description of how the art began, he sums it up with an observation. “These guys were working in Italy in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. And they kinda got it right.” But, because the knowledge was kept mostly secret by those early figures, like Antonio Stradivari, Guiarneri del Gesù, and the Amati family, some of that knowledge was lost.
“I think that’s where all that smoke-and-mirrors stuff comes from,” Devereux says. But today, passed-down tradition and modern technology have come together, he believes, to create what he calls “a second golden era of violin making.” In the past dealers were very guarded about sharing information concerning instruments and builders. But according to Devereux, now there exists a kind of reverse-engineering technology that allows for intense analysis of the techniques used to build classic instruments. “The trade is much more open than it used to be,” he says.
For many generations, new violins were very much second-class citizens in the music world. But Devereux believes that some builders working today are crafting instruments that are “as good as the old Italian stuff.”
As a modern-day violin maker, Devereux owns up to a bit of bias on that subject. But he cites some recent high-profile tests. “A few acousticians, violin makers, and physical scientists have gotten together and done ‘blind shootouts’ between a $5 million Stradivarius and a new, high-end instrument. And the new instruments tend to pretty resoundingly sweep the field.”
It does seem that for the most part, today’s fiddle makers are doing their best to emulate the classic violins of old; there’s not a lot of wheel-reinvention taking place in the field. “I think there’s something cool about a traditional art form,” Devereux says, “about trying to be as expressive as possible while limiting yourself to the constraints of that form.”
Devereux sees that mindset at work not only in the building of instruments, but in the actual music-making. “I came out of a background of playing traditional music,” he notes. “Playing old time music, bluegrass, and Irish music—and jazz is sometimes this way, too—is about seeing how you can be expressive within a pretty constrained art form.”
But one can only take things so far. “If you change old-time music,” he observes, “at a certain point it stops being old-time music.” And Devereux believes the same is true in fiddle-making. “There are certain people ‘innovating,’ and that’s cool. But for me, it’s a question of, ‘What did those Italian guys do? How do I come to understand it better?’ And that’s an ongoing struggle. Because there’s a right way.”
For his part, Jack Devereux draws some wisdom from Eastern tradition. “I’m interested in the Japanese philosophy of paring away unnecessary stuff to get at the essence of the instrument,” he says. Concerned that he’s wandering too deeply into uncharted waters, he hastens to add, “I’m going to get myself into trouble here, because I don’t understand this stuff that well. But there’s the Wabi-sabi idea that no matter what you make, if you do it in an intentional way, it’s going to have some character.”
He waxes poetic about the balance and tension between technical ability and emotive expression. Devereux says that whether it’s making violins, playing music (or any creative pursuit, for that matter), “You have to have some reason for doing it. It’s about understanding the medium, and then finding a place and a voice within that.” Yet with regard at least to violin-making, it’s also worth wondering how an artisan expresses his or her own individuality when the goal is emulation of that which has been done before. “I don’t have to think too hard about it,” he admits. “The thing is, my fiddles are going to look and sound like my fiddles, no matter what.”
The setbacks Devereux experiences in his art tend to be the kind from which he can recover. “There’s a constant battle of things like operator error,” he explains, “sawing a piece of wood too short, and that kind of stuff.” But those problems are more than offset by a sense that he’s always learning, always improving. “My output is being lapped by my study,” he says. And with every violin he completes, he knows that the next one will be even better. That desire to know more and do better is what drives Jack Devereux every day.
Guitar aficionados prize early instruments like a 1937 Martin D28; when one surfaces on the market, it can change hands for well over $60,000. But guitars and violins are vastly different, says Devereux. “The D28 was a product that was standardized. They do have plenty of variation in them, but the goal was always standardization,” he says. “With what we—and the people we learn from and emulate—do, that’s never part of the equation.”
To illustrate, Devereux picks up a custom-made plywood violin body mold that’s been sitting on his work surface. “I start with this mold; the template is symmetrical. I put the wood on here and trace it and cut it out. But then the ribs [sides] get bent around the template.” He says that the ribs dictate the final shape, rather than the other way around. “So there’s always going to be some ‘lumpiness.’ Even when you look at old violins, there’s ‘wobble’ in there.” To phrase it in modern terms, that wobble—that individual character—is a feature, not a bug.
There does exist a kind of production-model violin, made in China. “Those are made in a manufacturing setting,” Devereux explains. That approach uses a mold for the ribs. “All the tops and backs get cut out the same shape,” he says, “and they all go together: bang, bang, bang.”
And for him, the payoff comes when he strings up a finished fiddle. Devereux says that he’s always excited to discover, “When you flip the switch, does the monster comes alive?”
Devereux’s method is at once less precise and more elegant. But it, too, is based on accuracy. With the help of a friend at the Library of Congress (“He does the care and feeding of their musical instrument collection.”), he acquired photographic copies of historically significant violins. “There’s a geometric rationale behind it,” he says. “Knowing just the length of the body, you can extrapolate the whole shape with only a compass and a straightedge.”
He explains that up until the Age of Enlightenment, mathematics was often approached as a series of ratios, rather than specific measurements. “You can read all these treatises about building most anything during the Medieval to early Renaissance,” he says, with a knowing smile, “and there’s a lot of incredible geometric extrapolation. It’s less about the numbers. It’s more about, ‘This is one-seventh of that.’” That kind of analog beauty (as opposed to digital exactitude) is a key to the elegance of artisan-built violins. Devereux happily embraces the fact that even with this approach, there’s what he likens to “photocopy error.” No matter how precise one tries to be, when an artisan builds a fiddle, no two are ever quite the same.
It’s little surprise, then, to learn that Devereux is deeply immersed in his chosen profession. “It’s such a cliché, but this is what I go to bed thinking about, and it’s what I wake up thinking about, too. I have this great job. I get to go visit other violin makers.” On occasion he has to summon his inner discipline to focus on the task at hand, but as a rule, he says, “I just like thinking about this stuff, and then working on it.”
Devereux has achieved a kind of life balance by making time for live musical performance. His distaste for touring largely dissipated when he joined Town Mountain, one of his all-time favorite bands (see sidebar). As a result, a typical work day for Devereux can involve both sides of his livelihoods. “I’m in this weird place now where I’m touring a lot,” he says. “I love it and I love the band, but at the same time, it’s tough.” The evening before our conversation, he had driven home from a run of Town Mountain gigs, arriving back at 6:30PM. “I got home and thought, ‘It’s been three days since I’ve been in the shop!’ And then I was here in the shop until 11.”
Between making instruments and playing music with Town Mountain, Devereux has little time for other pursuits. “I really don’t do anything else,” he says.
FIRE IN THE MOUNTAIN
“I’ve been a Town Mountain superfan since they started,” Jack Devereux says, of the “hard drivin’ Carolina string band”—as they put it on their website TownMountain.net—from Asheville. In addition to fiddler Devereux, the band includes guitarist/vocalist Robert Greer, bassist Zach Smith, mandolinist Phil Barker, and banjo player Jesse Langlais, and since forming in 2005, they have released five studio albums, the most recent being 2016’s Southern Crescent, recorded in Louisiana with GRAMMY-winning producer/engineer Dirk Powell. They also have a live-in-Asheville album and an EP of Grateful Dead tunes to their credit; performed at the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium; shared bills with everyone from Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, and Steep Canyon Rangers, to Ralph Stanley, the Del McCoury Band, and the Seldom Scene; and snagged a pair of International Bluegrass Music Association Momentum Awards in 2013 for Band of the Year and Vocalist of the Year (Greer).
“When I was in high school, they were the ‘cool kids’ on the local bluegrass scene,” notes Devereux. “They’re not that much older than me. Even when I was in Boston, we were buddies.” When original fiddler Bobby Britt—proud owner of the second fiddle Devereux ever sold—had to miss some gigs for health reasons, Devereux subbed for him. And after Britt left for good in late 2015 to continue his studies, Devereux joined Town Mountain a few months later as a full member.
“They write great material,” he says. “It’s not just dumb bluegrass clichés. They’re doing some serious songwriting that could stand up in any genre.” Devereux guested on pedal steel guitar on the band’s 2015 Dead Sessions EP, and looks forward to playing fiddle on the band’s next album, set to be recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studio.
The Cult of Old Wood
A violin maker can’t simply drive to the nearest lumberyard for wood. Devereux explains that the raw material—maple for the sides and back, spruce for the top—is milled specifically for violins, and is sourced from Eastern Europe, the foot of the Alps toward Italy.
“Builders get really specific about density and weight; you can measure the way that sound passes through a certain piece of wood,” he says. And then there’s age. “The newest wood you could put on a fiddle has been out of the tree for maybe five to seven years. I just bought a back that’s probably been out of the tree for maybe 60, 70 years. And it’s going to sit there; I’m going to wait on that for something special.”
Devereux recounts an in-joke among fiddle makers. “Old violin makers save their best wood until they die. Then the widow gets fifteen phone calls: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. You wanna sell some wood?’” But like so many issues surrounding fiddle-making, there’s disagreement as to the importance of aged wood. “The most expensive violin in the world right now is a Giuseppe Guarneri that sold for something like $18 million and change,” Devereux says. “And if you look at the wood he used, some of it was two or three years old.”
But people do like their mystique. “I feel like every six months, NPR will do a story on ‘The Secret of the Old Violins,’” Devereux chuckles. “And a lot of all that is b.s.: the way the wood was processed, and if it was cut by a virgin on a night with a full moon.”
The Big Payoff
It’s difficult to pin Devereux down as to how long it takes to build a fiddle, start-to-finish. He says that the woodworking phase often runs a month or more. But the varnishing stage “has a mind of its own” and could be two weeks, a month, or more. And while in an ideal world, he’d like to be building ten to twelve instruments a year, with his Town Mountain performance commitments in 2016, he managed roughly half that number. To date, he says he has completed and delivered more than 30 instruments.
Whenever possible, Devereux strongly prefers to hand-deliver a finished fiddle to its new owner. But because he has attracted the attention of musicians across the globe, that’s not always possible. “I’ve got a handful of instruments in Europe now,” he says, “and delivering those is always tricky: customs, transcontinental shipping, import taxes, and so on.” In those cases he tries to hand the violin off to a trusted friend or associate who’s headed that way.
Devereux admits that the practice of presenting a finished instrument is sometimes bittersweet. By that point, he has already logged quite a bit of time playing and adjusting that fiddle himself. And at the moment, he doesn’t even own one of his own creations. “I keep meaning to build myself something,” he says. In the meantime he sometimes borrows back one of his violins for special occasions.
After giving away his earliest models, Devereux’s first sale was to a good friend and former Berklee classmate who lives in Victoria, British Columbia. He had been playing what Devereux describes as a “dirtbag instrument; he had no money.” But he wanted one of Devereux’s fiddles, and insisted on paying for it, telling the fiddle maker, “If you’re going to do this, be serious about it.”
“The instrument should act as a conduit from the mind of the player,” Devereux says. And part of his goal as an instrument maker is to make that connection as invisible as possible. “When someone’s playing one of my fiddles, I don’t want them to be thinking about the instrument.” Devereux does that thinking when he’s building.
And for him, the payoff comes when he strings up a finished fiddle. Devereux says that he’s always excited to discover, “When you flip the switch, does the monster comes alive?” He readily admits that he’s a nerd when it comes to instrument making. “I just love reading about it and trying to go hang out with these old fiddlers and talk to the guys who know more than I do. I really like getting into the nuts and bolts of it.”
Asked what surprises him the most about his work, he has a ready answer. “People keep ordering fiddles! I mean, my website’s a disaster, and I’ve done no advertising. It’s miraculous; I have a waiting list.” Because of the time involved, he only builds on commission; there’s no stock room full of fiddles in Jack Devereux’s shop. “I would like eventually to get maybe three, four ahead,” he says.
While he’s receptive to creating instruments that meet the specific desires of his clients, Devereux admits that he really wants to do things his way. Though he insists he has been fortunate never to find himself in this position, he knows of other fiddle makers who have encountered customers seeking a “magic bullet,” a violin that will magically make them a better player.
“Luckily,” he says, “people seem to like the stuff that I like to make.”
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