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Postman not just fiddling around

September 14, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

You might call him the Fiddler on the Route.

Hagerstown postman James "Jimmie" Brown has trod the same Greenberry Hills mail route since 1979, all the while teaching himself to play the fiddle and 10 other musical instruments.

At one point in his life Brown delivered mail by day and played solo acoustic guitar in bars at night.

His alter ego was "Downtown Jimmie Brown," he said.

"I think a lot of mailmen have split personalities," joked Brown, 53.

The Boonsboro resident will perform Sept. 17 at the fifth annual Appalachian Music Concert at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Sharpsburg.

And he won't just be fiddling around on stage.

"I very seldom play two songs together on the same instrument," Brown said.

He will alternate playing the fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer, hammer dulcimer, guitar, banjo and harmonica while his wife, Crystal, plays the piano and dulcimer and the church choir sings traditional Appalachian tunes.

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"I'm glad that he's directing his talents to Appalachian music," said fellow fiddler Robert Caruthers, of Boonsboro. "It makes me feel good that somebody of his knowledge is appreciative of this music."

The rural Southern mountain music is in his genes, Brown said.

The postman began playing the trumpet at age 11, switched to acoustic guitar at 16, and took music courses in college before strumming the blues in bars from Hagerstown to Washington, D.C., as a young adult.

Brown eventually conceded that the best blues players were African American, and "no matter how hard an Anglo tried to sound authentic, there was not the same ease of delivery," he said.

The descendant of "hill people" began searching for his own roots - and discovered Appalachian music.

"It's bluer than the blues," Brown said.

He traded in his collection of guitars for his ensemble of Appalachian instruments, listened to such great Appalachian musicians as Clyde Davenport and Mike Seger, and began teaching himself to play, Brown said.

Each instrument presented a unique challenge, he said.

Learning to bow and play the fiddle in tune were especially difficult, but Brown could apply his new mastery of that instrument's fingering techniques to the mandolin, he said.

Brown developed "completely different" skills to play the banjo and dulcimers, he said.

His repertoire now includes a long list of traditional Appalachian tunes, to which he sometimes adds his "own little wrinkle."

"I have no compunction about contaminating the old songs with my own lyrics," Brown said.

He looks forward to expanding his musical horizons after retiring from his 29-year career with the post office in less than two years.

Brown will explore Celtic music with his harp, auto harp and pennywhistle, and would like to play the hammer dulcimer and harp at weddings, he said.

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