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Sarah Pirkle

Music, stringed instruments, vocals, songwriting

Sarah Pirkle

Recipient Information


Maryville (Blount County), Tennessee


Music, stringed instruments, vocals, songwriting

Year of Award


Grant or Fellowship

Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship

Grant Amount


Sarah Pirkle is a fiddler who also plays the clawhammer banjo, guitar, and mandolin; in addition to her instrumental work, she is a also singer and songwriter. She began playing the fiddle in 1991 with an emphasis on traditional southern fiddle styles.

“I am a native Tennessean,” explained Pirkle. “Parts of my family have been here for generations since before Tennessee was a state. I draw my inspiration from the beauty of the landscape, the history, and the character of the people of the region. This is what moves me to tell stories and make noise, which satisfies my soul, and that why it’s important to me. I believe it is important to have local acoustic music practitioners. There is nothing comparable to sitting in a room live with someone striking the notes on strings, putting flesh to wires and wood, moving the air with voices. It cannot be replaced by pre-recorded music.”

I've been a noise maker since birth, but I learned to read music in public school band playing trumpet, I also took some acoustic guitar lessons for a couple of years during middle school. I was attending nursing school in the early 1990s when I had to take a semester off for financial reasons. During that time a friend took me to see a documentary about fiddler Tommy Jarrell at the University of Tennessee library. I fell in love with the sound, I bought a fiddle and signed up for lessons with instructor Marty Kaufman in Knoxville. After about eight months of learning, Marty had plans to move out of state and couldn't find another instructor to take over her students, so she trained me to teach beginners. From there, music took over my life, I didn't go back to nursing school. I started with ten fiddle students, all elementary school age, by the end of two months I had doubled my enrollment. I practiced diligently to stay ahead of my students, and it’s been that way ever since. I have continued to learn by attending local jam sessions and festivals, where I encountered and played tunes with musicians like Charlie Acuff, the Carawan Family, too many to list.”

Pirkle’s lifelong learning opportunity is two-pronged. She would like to purchase another fiddle to use specifically for cross tuning. “There's a whole canon of Appalachian fiddle tunes that are played in a few different open tunings that cannot be duplicated in the standard Western violin tuning. It is time consuming to change tunings, doing so while performing takes up the audience’s time, and it’s unpredictable, a good opportunity to break a string. There's also wear and tear on the instrument, the changes in tension are a stress on the instrument.”

She also anticipates using Folk Fellowship resources to continue her study of Appalachian music and fiddle tunes. “I would love to have the chance to ‘dance with the one that brung me’ for a while, just focus on Appalachian old-time music, [specifically the fiddle]. One could almost never get to the end of learning the tunes of the past, and that’s what I love about it. It’s also a living, ever evolving art form, new things arise from the old constantly, another thing I love about it. In this time when we are re-examining many things in our Southern/Appalachian culture, and their connections to slavery and racism, I also consider it my responsibility to really get an understanding of the history and background of some of the standard tunes in the repertoire and make sure I present all that goes with the tunes when I teach others to play them.”