Prolific. Accomplished. Busy. None of these words fully relay the scope of what multi-instrumentalist Craig Duncan has done over the years. His output is so vast that it’s hard to find the phrases to describe it. Perhaps a summary is the best way to begin exploring a musician whose art seems to know few limits.
Duncan has artist or producer credits on a whopping 106 CDs and a lengthy list of publishing credits for writing books – and composing music – for Mel Bay Publications. He’s worked with many artists and within many genres, ranging from old-time to Celtic to…The Beatles.
Duncan is a North American Fiddler’s Hall of Fame member and winner of a 2018 Dove Award for “Instrumental Album of the Year.” Records he’s been a part of have sold upwards of five million copies, and his music has been heard on many television programs, including “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and more.
The list of artists Duncan has recorded music for is long and includes names such as Randy Travis, Billy Dean, Kathy Mattea, Charlie McCoy, and Roy Clark.
While fiddle is his primary focus, Duncan’s full roster includes hammer dulcimer, mandolin, guitar, bass guitar, autoharp, Irish banjo, and dulcimer.
Many of Duncan’s recordings were created for the gift shop market, an interesting niche where he found solid footing.
“When I started playing hammer dulcimer, I talked with a friend, Jack Jezzro, who was producing recordings for a company that sold their products in vacation areas like the Smoky Mountains,” Duncan explained. “The gift shops in most areas sold music recordings featuring local music styles. Our first recording was a Christmas record using mountain instruments – hammer dulcimer, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, bass, and autoharp. This was followed by a hymn recording, and the ‘Smoky Mountain Hymns’ series took off.” He added, “This led to the opportunity to produce acoustic recordings for several companies in many different styles.”
It seems like a long jump from hymns to The Beatles, but Duncan has made that leap and many more like it. He recently was part of a release that included songs by one of the most prominent groups in music history but created with instruments ordinarily heard in bluegrass. He said the unique record was very well received.
“When I make a recording with bluegrass instruments in a genre outside the typical bluegrass world, the goal is to make the recording in the style of the genre, not to make the genre sound like bluegrass,” he explained. “So ‘Bluegrass Beatles’ should sound like Beatles music, ‘Bluegrass Swing’ should sound like big band, ‘Bluegrass Sinatra’ should sound like Sinatra music, including the way he phrases. ‘Bluegrass Homecoming’ should sound like Gaither Homecoming gospel, and ‘Bare Necessities’ should sound like Disney music.”
Whew…the scope of all that is dizzying to even consider!
Duncan is lucky; he says he enjoys many distinctive styles and gets the pleasure of eventually recording in most all of them.
“I listen to many styles of music, and particularly like roots music…music of the people,” he said. “This includes bluegrass, traditional country, Irish, Scottish, Celtic, western swing, cowboy, Cajun, blues, classical….”
He’s been at it for a long time. He started playing fiddle in his school orchestra in third grade, was in a boy’s choir from age eight to 12 and started out with electric bass at age 13. “I’ve always loved music,” he said. “My first professional job was playing the fiddle at Carowinds Theme Park in Charlotte, North Carolina, when I was 19.”
Today, Duncan mainly records and performs at private events. A typical week is varied. On the day he told his story to The Bluegrass Standard, his calendar for the following week included “leading a French music band for a convention,” “playing fiddle with great local country artist Wendy Newcomer,” “playing a solo hammer dulcimer job, a Cajun duo with accordionist Jeff Taylor,” and “playing two bluegrass trio jobs with David Talbot on banjo and Mark Powelson on bass.” And, as if that weren’t enough, he said, “my dance band is playing a wedding reception on Saturday.”
But even that’s still not enough…not just yet.
“Most Sunday mornings, you can find me leading music at Faith Presbyterian Church in Goodlettsville, Tenn., just a few miles northeast of downtown Nashville,” he added.
See? The word “prolific” barely scratches the surface.
Those of us who aren’t music makers… songwriters…or teachers of music… sit back and watch in awe as Craig Duncan does what he does, filling more and more corners of the earth with sounds that soothe the soul.