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Fiddlin’ and Feelin’ Fine

Arlington resident Speedy Tolliver, 87, releases his first full-length album this week.

In the basement of his north-central Arlington home, 87-year-old Odell Roy “Speedy” Tolliver’s hands fly across the neck of his dark chestnut-colored fiddle as he romps through a lightning-quick rendition of “Orange Blossom Special.”

Though his hearing has deteriorated in recent years, his fingers are as fast as they have ever been, he claims.

“I play everyday,” said Tolliver, who has lived in the same house, just north of I-66, with his wife since 1961. “Music is good therapy for me, it’s relaxing. My music and my wife are the reasons I’m still here.

This week marks a new chapter in Tolliver’s long, illustrious career as a fiddler and banjo player. Last Sunday the Arlington Cultural Affairs office released Tolliver’s first full-length album, “Now & Then,” which contains new studio cuts, live tracks and re-mastered pieces originally recorded in the 1940s.

At the CD release party, held at the Ellipse Arts Center in Ballston, Tolliver held his own with a half-dozen other bluegrass musicians in a series of jam-sessions.

“He’s still in his prime,” said Mary Briggs, who orchestrated the production of the CD for Arlington Cultural Affairs and plays back-up guitar in several songs on the album. “He hasn’t lost a lot over the years.”

Tolliver was born in 1918 in the highlands of southwest Virginia, in a small town named Green Cove. Like many boys in the farming community, Tolliver was introduced to the banjo at the age of nine by his father, an accomplished musician.

“On Saturday nights we would just listen to the Nashville radio stations and play,” Tolliver said. “In that era there wasn’t much else to do for entertainment.”

Tolliver quickly became a renowned banjo picker, and when he was 17 years old he won a competition at the acclaimed White Top Folk Festival.

In 1939 he migrated to Washington, D.C. to join professional bluegrass and roots music bands. When the fiddler dropped out of Tolliver’s band “The Lee Highway Boys,” he mastered the instrument.

“He has such a gift,” said his wife Gala, who married Speedy in 1951. “He can’t read music, but if you play something for him he will play it back to you note for note in five minutes.”

Tolliver emerged as one of the preeminent acts of the Washington region’s bluegrass scene in the 1940s and was a staple on the radio. But in 1950 he gave up playing professionally in order to raise his family. It was almost 15 years before Tolliver would take the stage again.

These days Tolliver plays with an assortment of bands and typically performs three times a week. Briggs has been nagging Tolliver for years to get into a recording studio, and when Arlington Cultural Affairs purchased the former WETA Radio Studios on South Four Mile Run, the opportunity arose.

“He’s not only a lovely person but historically important to this region,” Briggs said.

At the Ellipse Arts Center, musicians were eager to play with the living legend.

“The cool thing about Speedy is he knows no boundaries,” said Gregg Kimball, a musicologist at the Library of Virginia who recorded the live tracks on Tolliver’s album. “His fiddling goes off in a lot of directions. He can play something bluesy or something more traditional.”

Unlike some musicians, Tolliver has been able to incorporate new musical styles into his repertoire, said Mark Campbell, a fiddler who plays on the new album. This versatility is what continues to draw audiences out to see Tolliver, seventy years after he first won accolades at the White Top Folk Festival.

“He has such a depth of understanding and specializes in so many styles that anyone can play with him,” Campbell said.