Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

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Fiddlin' Cowan Powers

By: Roy L. Sturgill

     I was about the age of eight or nine years old when the first string band I ever heard, or saw, was Fiddlin' Powers and Family. I vividly remember being in attendance with my mother, father, and perhaps a younger brother. I don't recall exactly where it was, but am reasonable sure that it was in a school, theater, or some other public gathering place, in, or near, Coeburn, Virginia. This was about 1920. To me this was a thrilling and memorable occasion. This even led me to be a great fan and lover of country music, and as the years have gone by, each time I see or hear country music, my mind goes back some sixty years to my hearing Fiddlin' Powers and Family.

     The country music field has always been noted for the relatively large part family groups have played in it. There are scores of sisters and brothers, and entire families who have made up singing and playing teams, which have won wide favor with the ever growing public that acclaims the honesty and beauty of country music.

     At the top of the list of family groups is the Fiddlin' Powers and Family. For years these folks traveled the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and perhaps a dozen other states, and brought a unique warmth wherever they played.

     The Powers Family knew where their music should go, and their artistic energies were spent in making their music reach its destination. And so, the music they played, and the songs they sang became a part of the group, and the group a part of them.

    Cowan Powers was born October 1879, and lived his entire life in what is called the Lower Castlewoods area of Russell County. He married Matilda Lambert, who was a talented banjo picker, so, it was only natural that their children be musicians. Matilda was born and reared on Cowan's Creek in Scott County near Dungannon. With all the talent in the family, it was therefore no big undertaking for the patriarch to organize the Fiddlin' Powers and Family Band. Matilda died in February 1916, at the age of 35. At her death, son, Charles became the banjo picker. As a small boy Charles got a job as water-boy with a country road crew in order to earn money to purchase his first banjo. In addition to playing the banjo, Charles also did a comedy dance routine with his younger sister, Ada.

     Ada, the youngest girl played the ukulele and did a clog and buck dance. Orpha, the oldest played the "taterbug" mandolin, and Carrie played the guitar. The father played the fiddle, (I do mean "fiddle"- the word violin was never used when speaking of mountain music).

     For their concerts, the Powers Family traveled from town to town mostly by train automobiles were few at that time. It was a familiar sight to see them boarding the train, either at Dungannon or St. Paul, depending on the section of the country in which the concert was held. At the time, Ada was only seven or eight years old and the brakeman would have to lift her up the steps of the coach. She was too small to make the steps alone, but from all reports she was a great entertainer even at that tender age.

     Their "big break" came while taking part in a concert in Johnson City, Tennessee, in the early twenties. They were chosen by an executive of The Victor Talking Machine Company and sent to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for testing, thence to Camden, New Jersey, to cut their first recordings. Whereby, The Fiddlin' Powers and Family became the very first Southern Appalachian string band to make commercial records. They were paid one hundred dollars for each side of a disc, plus a fraction of a cent royalty for each record sold. Their housing and travel expenses to the recording sessions were paid by the record companies.

     After a number of recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company, the group returned to New York and recorded for Edison. Some of their Edison recordings were of the old cylinder type.

     Their last recordings were for Okeh Phonograph Corporation in New York in about the mid-twenties.

     The Powers Family was also among the first local country musicians to broadcast over WOPI radio station in Bristol, Virginia. They were much in demand throughout the eastern United States for concerts and dances, and their popularity continued for a number of years until the girls were married and temporarily gave up their music in order to devote more time raising their families.

     Afterwards, the father played some shows with other groups, and while playing in Saltville, Virginia, he suffered an apparent heart attack and died in an Abington, Virginia hospital, August 22, 1953. He was 74 years old and was laid to rest in his native soil at Castlewood, Virginia, just a few yards west of Milton's Store.

     In 1970, the Band reorganized with the daughters, Ada, Carrie, Orpha and Orpha's husband, Eugene D. Ireson. Ada was now playing the autoharp instead of the ukulele. They performed on radio and television shows in the area, and in 1971, Ada was named Southern Highlands Champion Autoharpist at the Folk Festival of the Smokies in Tennessee, and was presented a walnut plaque in honor of her achievement on the autoharp.

     Cowan Powers and his Family Band were true pioneers in the field of ole-time country music, they were our own local folks, born and reared amongst us, and their music was so good its sound spanned the miles to reach the ears of the big recording firms of the large metropolitan centers, who readily recognized their talents and summoned them to record their music, in order that the, masses and future generations could enjoy it for all time.

 

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