As a child growing up in Alabama, Lebron Batey was surrounded by music. “My mom was in a Gospel group, and I traveled with them as a young child. My dad’s side of the family all played an instrument. Our family reunions were filled with people picking.” Lebron says he always played one instrument or another, but it was when he met Gene Ivey that he became interested in actually making one.
“Gene was a ‘shade tree luthier,’” says Lebron. “He classes on fiddle making. “He needed another student, and he asked if I’d like to learn to make a fiddle.” Lebron jumped at the chance, thinking it would be a one-time deal for him. He began a nine-month apprenticeship, and Lebron ended up building his first two fiddles and a mandolin in Gene’s shop. “It hit with me,” he says. “I love what I did with the first one, and Gene told me that I’d always remember it. He said it was like eating potato chips – you can’t stop with just one.”
That was in 1987, and Lebron says he was working the second shift at the time. “I had a young family too, so I didn’t have much time to devote to building fiddles.” But Gene had been right, and Lebron wanted to continue making fiddles. He set up shop in a 12’ x 24’ metal building at his home in Sylvania, Alabama, where he made fiddles for 18 years. Lebron says he has recently added a new 16’ x 40’ building. “I needed more space.”
Building a fiddle requires knowledge, skill, and intuition. It takes Lebron roughly 150 to 175 hours to do the woodwork on a fiddle. He begins with air-dried wood, most of it ten years or older. “I use curly maple and spruce. There are five or six different species of spruce people use to get the tone they desire. I use either Ingleman or Adirondack Ridge spruce, which only grows in Canada or Washington State. It’s hard to find.” Lebron explains that the quality of wood is graded on clearness and grain. “A quality instrument is only as good as the wood from which it’s made.” It’s hard to find a good selection of wood.” Lebron says he finds wood by contacting other makers, and once he got Ingleman spruce from the man who actually cut down the tree.”
Once the wood is sourced, Lebron says he has to book-match the wood by cutting it in half and laying it side by side. “Occasionally, I’ll get a piece that I can use to make a solid back fiddle, but that is rare.” Everything on the fiddle is handmade. “I use ebony, rosewood or boxwood for the fingerboard.”
Lebron uses a mold from his favorite violinmakers for the inner core shape of the violin. “I like the 1737 Guarnerius mold the most,” he says, “but I altered it some to make my own pattern. I opened the length up a bit, and I made my pattern out of aluminum instead of wood.”
Along the way, Lebron has learned that having the right tools makes all the difference. “I know that having the right gouges and other tools will make my job easier in the long run.” The wood has to be cut a certain way. “All the tone comes from the graduation or the thickness of the wood. I know it may sound strange, but I let the wood talk to me. I can tell by the way my knife cuts it what it will sound like. If the wood is really hard, I can go a little thinner. If the wood is more spongey, I leave it a little thicker. It’s an intuitive thing – it has to feel good to me. I listen to how it sounds then I make a judgment call.”
To date, Lebron has produced 126 fiddles in what little spare time he has. He has worked for 36 years for the Mueller Company in Chattanooga. “I travel 124 miles each day round trip,” he says. Then he spends time in his shop. “I didn’t intend to do repair work, but two or three stores in Chattanooga send their repair work to me, as well as a shop in Ft. Payne, Alabama.”
Doyle Lawson bought one of the first fiddles Lebron sold.
“I had a booth at a show in Cullman, Alabama, and Doyle came by and bought one. He still owns it.” As a matter of fact, Lebron kept up with who bought the first 15 or so fiddles he made. “I had a logbook where I kept up with who bought each fiddle, what it was made of, and how much I sold it for.”
That changed when two friends of Lebron’s who work at Gibson in Nashville opened the doors for him to sell his fiddles there. “Danny Roberts and Jackie Miller said the store wanted handcrafted fiddles to sell. I didn’t think mine would be good enough to sell there, but for the next four years, they took every fiddle I made. Gibson did a good job of promoting me and getting my name out.”
Like most businesses, Covid made it hard on Lebron. But he persevered. While he doesn’t play fiddle professionally, he does play at his church on Sundays. At one time, he played in a band, but working full time, commuting, making fiddles and coaching his son’s baseball team took up all of his time. “I’m not the best player, but I can do sweet backup.”
One of the most interesting fiddles Lebron has made is a five-string. “The first one I ever made is currently on the market. I bought the neck with a head carved on the top from China. Since then, I have built four more five-string fiddles, and I did my own carving on those.”
Lebron owns three of the fiddles he has made. “I’m getting ready to start two new ones. That’s always exciting. It makes me work a little longer in the shop. As a fiddle takes shape, it gets more interesting.”