Howard “Howdy” Forrester was born March 31, 1922, into a musical family near Vernon, Tennessee, in Hickman County. His grandfather, mother and father played musical instruments at family gatherings and his uncle Bob Cates was a well-known local fiddler. Howard had three brothers, Clyde, Joe and Clayton, all of whom played various instruments. When Howard was eleven, he developed rheumatic fever and while he was recovering his mother taught him to play the fiddle, later turning the teaching over to Uncle Bob Cates. Howard started playing square dances with his Uncle Bob when his feet hardly reached the floor from his chair. As a result, no matter what other influences came along, his fiddle technique always echoed with those early country dance tunes. It has been said that Howdy played Middle Tennessee old-time fiddle better than anyone else.
After his father’s death, the family moved from Vernon to Nashville and shortly after the move, both Joe and Howard got jobs in the music business. He was with the Tennessee Mountain Boys and joined Bill Monroe’s band before serving a stint in the Navy. His wife Billie remained with Bill Monroe until 1945, playing the accordion. When he returned to Nashville, he re-joined Monroe, then played with Cowboy Copas. He joined Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys in 1951. Howard played the Grand Ole Opry for 38 years.
Joe Forrester played guitar and bass with the Tennessee Mountain Boys and with Bill Monroe in the thirties and forties. He also played the comedic character Lespedeza and did a comedy routine with Lester Flatt.
Howard didn’t forget his roots, or his extended family in Hickman County. Sunday afternoons would find the Forrester brothers back in the county visiting his cousin Floyd Pruett and playing music all afternoon with Floyd, his son Robert, and other neighbors and friends. They were often accompanied by Charlie Collins and Oswald, also members of Roy Acuff’s band. Howard’s son Bob got in on the action as well and it was not unusual to see the two father son combinations take the floor for a tune. He never stopped learning and studying, always eager to improve on his passion. Those lucky enough to be part of those Sunday afternoons were privileged to hear stories of long ago dances and exploits of Uncle Bob, discussions of the origins of various tunes and sometimes join in a square dance. Upcoming young musicians could find themselves in the middle of a jam session and Howard’s old friends usually stopped by to play a tune or two with him. The center of attention was always Howard and when he drew his bow across the fiddle, he caught everyone’s ear.
Before Howard’s death in 1987, John Hartford visited with Howdy at his home and recorded many of the old “homegrown” fiddle tunes he learned from his uncle Bob Cates and other legendary fiddlers. One is Tumbling Creek Liza Jane which memorializes a long ago fiddle duel between his Uncle Bob and another Hickman County fiddler, Raymond Totty. The result of those visits is a recording called Home Made Sugar and Puncheon Floor, available for sale at the Hickman County Historical Society in Centerville. The original tapes made by Hartford are in the archives of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. Click here to listen to the title song.
Howard Forrester was inducted in the National Fiddler’s Hall of Fame in 2015. Those who love old time fiddling still admire his style and technique and young fiddlers are still inspired by the fiddler of the Opry.
In 2012, Howard’s son Bob returned to Hickman County to participate in a tribute to his dad at the Hickman Heritage Music Fest. He also appears with his Uncle Joe Forrester in a clip on the Musical Trails website talking about his famous dad and his music.
For more information, you can visit the website dedicated to Howdy Forrester: