His obituary explained just how significant Fletcher Bright’s impact on the music world was:
“One of the world’s greatest old-time traditional fiddlers and bluegrass fiddlers, Fletcher was a lover and supporter of all things bluegrass, and his vast repertoire of fiddle tunes is legendary.”
Bright, who died aged 86 on Christmas Day 2017, was not just an esteemed solo player, however. In 1947, he and his classmates at McCallie School, a boys’ boarding school in Chattanooga, formed The Dismembered Tennesseans, a name synonymous with bluegrass music in East Tennessee ever since.
How, then, would a band soldier continue after such an unimaginable loss?
In time, according to the members, who bring the band to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center for a Friday night performance. And with a desire to honor both Bright and co-founder Ed “Doc” Cullis, which is still happening. It took a little while to come to terms with Bright’s death, but The Dismembered Tennesseans have changed their name, rekindled the spirit that’s at the heart of what they do, and returned to the stage – this time as The New Dismembered Tennesseans.
“Fletcher was a pretty traditional bluegrass guy,” Don Cassell, the band’s mandolin player, told The Daily Times recently. “He was an academic when it comes to the fiddle community, if you will, but he loved playing bluegrass music and loved traditional bluegrass music. We’ve diversified some of it, and we play a lot of fiddle stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be in the bluegrass world, if you will.
“Also, without Fletcher, we knew it wouldn’t be quite the same. It’s going to be more root-focused, and although we’re still doing traditional bluegrass, we’re also doing other stuff, folk stuff and original tunes. And it was a breath of fresh air.
“We received strict instructions from Fletcher prior to his passing that we were to continue playing,” added Laura Walker, the band’s bassist and 30-year veteran of The Dismembered Tennesseans. “We are really happy to have chosen to move forward. It’s not the same band, and we talked about changing the name completely, but it’s rooted in history, so we decided we wanted to keep it.
Bright and Cullis were joined in the band’s inaugural version by Sammy Joyce, Frank McDonald and Ansley Moses – who occasionally sits with the band – but given the band’s 75-year history, the lineup has undergone so many changes over the years. years. that in the band’s hometown of Chattanooga, there was a sticker on the bumper that read “honk your horn if you played with The Dismembered Tennesseans”.
Like their contemporaries in outfits like the Sons of the Pioneers and The Chuck Wagon Gang, those who enter the fold don’t often leave. Like Walker, Cassell — a Knoxville resident who also plays with the Tennessee Sheiks, a regular on the Heritage Center’s entertainment roster — has been a dismembered Tennessean for about three decades, and during that time the band has played everything from dances civic group at the Kennedy Center. Additionally, the group created, organized and hosted the 3 Sisters Bluegrass Festival, which since 2007 has brought luminaries of the genre from Del McCoury to Ricky Skaggs to Sam Bush and many more to Chattanooga.
In a fortuitous turn of events, Walker said, it was the 3 Sisters Festival that led to the formation of The New Dismembered Tennesseans.
“Initially, after Fletcher passed away, Doc first decided he was going to retire, and the rest of us were like, ‘OK, that’s it,'” he said. she declared. “That February or March (of 2018) we got together to talk about where to go, and the decision was even made to hang it up, but as the time of the 3 sisters approached in October, the organizers were calling George (Bright, Fletcher’s son) and said, ‘It won’t be the same without you all. We want you to do something.
“Ever before, we had kicked off the festival, so we got together, started a band with friends, played and had a great time. We even brought Doc out of retirement for this show, and he decided it might be a bit too early to retire!
However, to truly move forward in continuing the band’s legacy required the inclusion of a fiddler – a difficult task made all the more daunting by the reputation and longevity of Bright himself. In another fortuitous turn of events, however, the man who would take on this challenge moved to Chattanooga just months before Bright’s death.
“I never like to say, whenever I talk about playing with The New Dismembered Tennesseans, that I’m his replacement,” said Tom Morley, who moved from Alabama and enjoyed a traditional country career as a fiddler. of John Anderson of “Swingin'” fame. “That doesn’t seem like the right word, never, because I’m not. I do my best to honor his repertoire and his style of playing, and I learned a lot from him, even though I never met him.
Through the Chattanooga Stage Vine, Walker learned of Morley’s arrival and sent her an invitation to a Saturday morning jam session that included herself and Cullis. Rather than picking at random, Morley found, much of the song swapping revolved around one of Bright’s more than 400 tracks — all of which he had carefully written and printed.
“Because of my classical training, even though they were canceling songs that I didn’t know and weren’t in my wheelhouse, I was able to go back to that page in Fletcher’s book and play with them immediately,” Morley said. . “I was just hanging on to the seat of my pants and told my wife one day that I was going to Fletcher Bright University. My major is Irish and Celtic fiddle, and although I had played with a bluegrass band was not my forte.
“But I learned a lot, and I certainly tried to soak up his thinking and try to keep it to myself as well. Doc and I became good friends and just played for fun and buddies, and when someone suggested to Laura that I fill in the role of violinist for a few gigs, it just evolved from there.
Morley’s modesty about his own abilities belies his comrades’ enthusiasm for the passion with which he approaches tradition. Eleanor Bright – the band’s clawhammer banjo player and Fletcher’s granddaughter – said that with Morley and guitarist Bobby Burns by her side as new band members, new possibilities arose.
“I think a lot of what we are capable of is still in the construction stage and not yet fully realized,” she said. “With the pandemic, after we got back together, it was slow at first, but the frequency is starting to increase.”
As the torchbearer of the band named Bright, she intimately understood how important music, and by extension the band’s legacy, was to her grandfather. Fletcher Bright has never attended a family reunion without her violin, she said, and one of the great honors of her life was finally feeling confident and talented enough to join him and to his sons on the porch for a family pick-up. Eventually, her grandfather invited her on stage at 3 Sisters to play a song or two — it would have been in 2010 or 2011, she reckons — and when Walker asked her to join the band’s new setup, the process was slow.
“I told them I would do what I could, even though I didn’t know all the repertoire, and the first year I still didn’t play all the songs with the band,” she said. “But I’m gaining confidence to stay on stage, and for a while I just found my place in the repertoire. But last month during rehearsals, Tom and I both realized a love for the ballad “Rain and Snow,” and together we figured it out.
“I knew the key in which I sang it, but I didn’t know how to arrange it. Tom brought the arrangement, and Bobby and Laura sandwiched me in the chorus, and it just fell into place and it was like magic. Something like that definitely builds trust, but it also opens up our repertoire.
“With the addition of Eleanor on the clawhammer banjo, we’re able to add an element of that Appalachian sound, which I really love,” Morley added. “Because I’ve played with John on many Top 10 albums and all those 80s country classics, it’s part of my training as a fiddler that I can factor into the equation.”
It’s not that The New Dismembered Tennesseans is aiming for country music brilliance – but adding other roots-focused tools to the band’s bag broadens the appeal for players and fans who are followers. followers for decades. And even though Bright no longer saws on that fiddle every time the band hits the stage, Cassell can’t help but think he smiles at the festivities with approval.
“We all loved Fletcher and we knew he would love us to keep the music going and keep things going,” he said. “We just decided to change direction a bit but keep the band alive, and we’re all grateful for that.”