“It’s the tunes that matter and the people that play them.”

Interview and tunes with Fiddlin' Banjo Billy Mathews


Many people have told me over the last several years that I certainly have lived an interesting and exciting life. I was orphaned at birth, then later adopted from the Children’s Home Society and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. My parents were both college graduates and set a great example for me and my older brother. In grade school I started piano lessons at 8 years old. I actually learned a lot about the structure of music, but failed miserably at reading sheet music. At age 11 I got a paper route to earn enough money to buy a guitar from Sears and Roebuck. In the 7th grade I was playing rhythm guitar in a band and played dances all through junior high and high school. We played the popular music of the day blues, soul, and rock and roll. 

I spent the next two years studying music at the University of Minnesota and playing acoustic 6 and 12-string fingerstyle guitar. In my second year at U of M I created my own independent study program to learn to play the banjo. That same year I traveled to Colorado with my banjo and guitar. I hoped to expand my horizons and pursue my musical career. I landed a gig at the local steakhouse on Silverthorne, then on to Steamboat Springs where I found work playing backup guitar. I then found housing in Oak Creek about 25 miles south of Steamboat. There I met John Walsh from New York. We were both banjo players, new to the area.

Billy Matthews and John Walsh

Together John and I established the Phippsburg Banjo Company in an abandoned mortuary building on Main Street. We honed our luthier skills, accumulated resources, and started making banjos. At the same time I was beginning to play the fiddle. At the banjo company we put on many events. We had concerts and held square dances.

Phippsburg Banjo Co.

A couple of years later we decided to move our operation to a small farm in rural northwest Arkansas. In the spring of 1975 we set up shop. Here I would stay, set down some roots, build a house where I raised three children. I also raised horses, chickens, and goats to help earn enough money to support a growing family. I spent the better part of the next 30 years making banjos, playing music, and traveling to juried arts & craft shows and folk music festivals throughout the country. I sold banjos and my own recordings of oldtime fiddle and banjo music. 

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As a member of the internationally known old time string band “The Skirtlifters” I have shared the stage with many noteworthy musicians and performed at some of the most prestigious music festivals in the country. I have made programs for Voice of America, the BBC production “Echoes of America”, ABC Denver, Co., NBC Springfield, Mo. and “KMFU’s” Sound of the Wind, the world’s first wind-powered FM radio station. As an oldtime fiddler I have played well over 200 square and contra dances all across the country and continue to play concerts, festivals, and do workshops. In 2011 I finished recording a 501-tune archive which has now been transcribed to sheet music by Emily Elam. The book is now available

The Skirtlifters (1989)

Late in life I searched and discovered my birth family. I have three sisters and a brother. As it turns out my grandfather was a wheat farmer from South Dakota and an old time fiddler! I have built a homestead and made a reasonable living playing old time music. In the future I will continue to go where the music leads. Music is an avenue of communication between people – the ultimate artistic expression. 

For more information please visit my website banjobilly.net

The Skirtlifters play “Bulldog” and “Fort Smith Breakdown”
Full concert audio of The Skirtlifters, cued up to a rollicking “Pikes Peak” with Mathews on fiddle and Clarke Buehling on banjo


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