Passing it along: With a nod to tradition, Canton’s Bryan McDowell finds a way of his own

By Kristen Davis • Contributing writer

Triple-threat musician Bryan McDowell was first introduced to bluegrass music as a young child while riding in the car with his parents. His father taught him and his sister, Emma, how to identify the sounds of the different instruments and would quiz them on the new knowledge.

“By the time I was 3 or 4, I could tell anybody what instrument was playing when they took a solo,” said Canton native McDowell, now 19 years old.

By age 5, McDowell liked the sound of the fiddle best, so he and his sister played with their parents at local churches as “The McDowell Family Band.” At age 9, McDowell began taking lessons from Arvil Freeman, the renowned old-time fiddler who is a native of Madison County. After the fiddle, the musically precocious pre-teen took up the mandolin and then the guitar.

Several years later in 2009, McDowell became the first musician in the history of the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, (known as “Winfield”) to win first place in all three instrument categories — flat-pick guitar, fiddle and mandolin. McDowell’s two band mates and friends, Brandon Davis and Eric Hardin, won second and third place respectively in the flat-pick guitar competition. First known as “4 Fret Knot” then “Second Circle,” the three musicians now perform as the “Winfield Three.”

McDowell has not slowed down his big “year of firsts” in 2009. This fall, he has won the Galax Fiddlers Convention Guitar Competition, another mandolin championship at Winfield and the Georgia State championships for the flat-pick guitar, fiddle and mandolin.

Right before this year’s Winfield festival in September, McDowell released his first album, “The Contestant,” which is a compilation of his contest tunes and arrangements that he has played over the last two years.

“A lot of people were curious about how I actually sounded in the contest, so I tried to record something that depicted how I sound in the contest,” McDowell said. “It was a success in that it is like a snapshot of my playing at the time.”

To make the recordings sound as much like his live performance as possible, he would listen to the live recording or watch a video of his performance, he added.

While the songs on his “Contestant” album are traditional bluegrass tunes that he has embellished, his next album, which he is currently crafting, will include original material. Compared to the first, this next album will be “different by a long shot” because he has developed a different style, the singer-songwriter said. The album should be released within a year.

“Bryan has got his own style of playing,” said Freeman, who taught fiddle lessons to both McDowell and his sister, Emma. “While teaching him, that’s what I taught him to do — not play exactly like me, but take what I taught him and create his own style.”

McDowell’s approach to the fiddle is more progressive and jazz-like, whereas Freeman’s playing involves more bluegrass, country and “a little swing,” Freeman explained.

McDowell’s style has also been influenced by the bluegrass gospels song he played while performing with his parents and sister in their family band, said Donna McDowell, Bryan McDowell’s mother.  

“We always tried to pick music with a gospel message that would speak to people,” Donna McDowell added. “He still does some gospel, but he does a lot of other things. The biggest thing I see in his playing — I call it finesse. He has this really smooth style that folks enjoy listening to.”

Over the past two years, people all over the country have had the opportunity to hear Bryan McDowell play at shows and competitions — in Maine, New York, Colorado and throughout the southeast.  

When McDowell was a young boy, his family saw famous country-bluegrass singer/songwriter/fiddler Alison Krauss in concert and met her backstage. Krauss told her young fans, “If you play the music you love, you’ll always have an audience.” That truism has stuck with McDowell and his sister, their mother said.

Now, in addition to writing songs for his new album, McDowell is teaching music lessons in Waynesville.

“I want [the music] to be passed on,” McDowell said. “That’s how the music world is. You can’t be learning something and not pass it on to others, otherwise the music dies with you. That’s an idea [Freeman] instilled in me.”

As for his future plans, McDowell said he wants to focus on recording his music and playing shows with Davis and Hardin as “The Winfield Three.” Having won all the major competitions for the instruments he plays, he has his sights set on turning his musical passion into a feasible living. He is considering getting a college education, most likely in business rather than music.

“I was kind of ready to be done with contests,” McDowell added. “There’s a point when it’s kind of hypocritical to say that one musician is better than another one. At competitions, there’s a lot musicians can teach each other on any given day.”

Freeman said he hopes to see his former student pursue studio work rather than playing in a band long-term.

“I would love nothing more than to make a living playing music,” McDowell said. “Even if that wasn’t my main job, I never see myself laying down the instruments. I’d always have to be playing.”

For music clips and booking information, visit his web site:

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