TOTFA Stories

Valerie Ryals O'Brien ~ A Family Tradition

Music runs deep on both sides of Valerie's family. For fun, her great-grandfather Nathan Ryals played a fiddle made out of a cigar box and passed his love of music down to his sons, O.G. Ryals and his twin brothers, Darris and Harris. Valerie's grandfather, O.G., a fiddler like his father, used to sit with her at the kitchen table going over the old tunes one note at a time. His brother Darris became a fiddle maker and played the mandolin in his spare time. On the other side of her family, her grandfather Bishop called square dances and used to have barn dances where the old time fiddlers played lighthearted, creative music and reminisced while the younger folks watched, learned, and practiced. Though Valerie remembers waking up to the sound of her dad singing and playing the guitar, her curiosity and love of fiddling was sparked at the age of three when she discovered her mother's fiddle under the bed. Before long, she, her sister, and brother were all playing.

Valerie started violin lessons at age nine, learned her first Texas-Style fiddle tunes by eleven, and won the Junior World Championship at thirteen. Like everyone in her family, she became an accomplished musician on several instruments. In the early days, there was little sheet music for the old tunes, and tape recorders weren't available. Old-Time fiddling had to be learned mainly by watching and listening. Throughout her childhood, Valerie's parents spent countless weekends taking her to concerts and contests, sacrificing time, energy and money to support her musical interests. They often drove three or four hours just so Valerie could learn one new piece of music. At her first contest in Alvarado, Texas, Valerie got to hear two great Texas fiddle legends, Norman Solomon and Johnny Gimble, twin fiddle "Maidens Prayer." Another time, Valerie's parents took her to Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth to hear Eck Robertson who is credited with making the first country music recording back in 1923. She enjoyed watching the noted musician wow the crowd by bowing the fiddle with a couple of toothpicks. Later, Valerie was fortunate to study with such masters as Benny Thomasson. Bryan Houston, Texas Shorty, Sleepy Johnson, Major Franklin, Vernon and Norman Solomon.

Steeped in the tradition of Texas Old-Time Fiddling, Valerie is committed to preserve the legacy by giving lectures and performances, making television appearances and recordings, and by teaching it to future generations. She is also helping to preserve the legacy by recording the music in the form of sheet music and audio recordings. Without her dedication, a large part of Texas' rich musical heritage could have been lost for future generations. The tradition lives on at Valerie's Music Studio in Burleson, Texas, where Valerie along with her two daughters Julie and Jennifer, her sister, Lydia, her husband Rich O'Brien and Mary Lamb offer instruction in Texas old-time fiddling, guitar, bass, piano, mandolin, and banjo to students from all over Texas. The family tradition has come full circle: one of her students is great-uncle Harris Ryals [Darris twin brother], now in his seventies!

Texas old-time fiddling traditionally has been passed down from one player to another, from one generation to the next. For many years sheet music and recordings were hard to find. Lovers of the music attended contests, performances, and jam sessions to listen and learn from others, incorporating various styles and textures into their music. Even today, it is commonplace to see a six-foot tall, silver-haired master fiddler bending down to accompany a five-year-old novice who wants to play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."