James Maynard “Fiddle Man” Phillips of Fairlawn did not live quite long enough to see another Christmas.
He will miss eating the homemade candy his neighbor, Brenda Aker, made each year. Brenda’s husband, John, would take the tin of candy to Maynard every Christmas. He would always return the tin so the couple could bring him more candy the next year, Aker said.
The 88 year-old died peacefully in his sleep Dec. 17. He lived alone and had no children to carry on his legacy. But legacies like Phillips’s are not easily forgotten in a close-knit community like Radford.
Phillips was a lot of things to a lot of people. He was a devoted husband to his late wife, Lucille Lytton Phillips, whom he waited on hand and foot during her long illness involving dialysis until she died over 10 years ago.
He was an avid animal lover who toted around his tiny beige Chihuahua in his car everywhere he went, including Wal-Mart, according to both Aker and his niece by marriage, Susie Lytton.
He and Lucille would take turns staying with the dog in the car while the other one went in the store. He took in every homeless cat that crossed his path. He fed them and asked fellow musician Tim Pakledinaz to help him get them spayed and neutered.
He was a Korean War Navy Veteran, a Whitt-Akers mechanic, a Radford Arsenal maintenance worker and a union man. He was a colorful character full of life and spirit and funny stories.
But it is his music that people remember most.
Phillips said he was born playing music. His father taught him the fiddle when he was six and he got his start in the music scene playing in the family band with his mother Stella, his father Roy, and his three sisters, Pauline Phillips, Kate Harris, and Nancy Mitchell. They played square dance halls in Dublin, Bland, and West Virginia.
They would travel to Floyd to play different families’ house parties on Saturday nights so folks could cut loose a little on the weekend and celebrate life with a little dancing. The Floyd gigs usually went into the wee hours, and the Phillips family would spend the night at the hosting family’s home.
“We didn’t get paid to play back then. We played for the heck of it,” he told Pakledinaz right before he died.
With no television or computer gadgets like we have now, it was just something to do. He moved to Indiana and played his fiddle at the Beacon Light. But even the rascal from Southwest Virginia didn’t much care for that.
“It was pretty rough,” he said.
Around 1948, Phillips joined the National Guard for an eight-month stint. He then went into the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and was stationed in California. He had just gotten there and decided to go to the engine room to listen to the band play.
One of the band members hollered Maynard’s name over the microphone.
“They set me up,” he laughed. “I told them I didn’t even have my fiddle with me and one of them threw down his fiddle and said there you are.”
Come to find out, that band had been waiting on Phillips. “Is that the fiddle boy from Virginia we are supposed to be getting?” they asked.
That’s where the talented musician acquired his “Fiddle Man” nickname that would follow him the rest of his life. Even his co-workers at the Radford Arsenal knew him not as Maynard, but as Fiddle Man.
Phillips said he may not have been in combat during the war, but he did get even better on the fiddle.
“We ended up playing pretty good music,” he said.
The band played in a hanger at a California navy base. “Those Yankees there said they had never heard hillbilly music before.” It wasn’t long until Phillips “Fiddle Man” had those Yankees hooting and hollering in the front row during all of his performances.
He gained some loyal fans who would show up at all of his gigs. One was of Indian descent, which tickled Phillips, making him proud of his Southwest Virginian musical heritage.
The San Diego manager for renowned singer/songwriter Sony James wanted to hire Phillips. “Uncle Sam has done beat you to it,” Phillips told him. He continued to play off and on in California until the navy shipped him to Kodiack, Alaska where he landed a regular gig playing a radio show.
The West End Radford fiddler continued his music career when he and Lucille moved back to his hometown.
According to Lytton, who took care of Phillips when his health started to decline, he opened for George Jones and Willie Nelson.
He was a member of the Orange Blossom Boys, among others and often played in two or three bands at the same time. In addition to the fiddle, Phillips played the guitar, dobro, and harmonica. During one of his interviews—Phillips loved to be interviewed and share his stories– Pakledinaz asked Phillips if he would like to play the harmonica.
“I don’t have enough breath left in me to blow, but there is one in the top drawer over there,” he said, then proceeded to blow an amazing rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” on it.
But he loved the fiddle the most. “He could really tear it up,” Pakledinz said. “No matter what band he played with, Maynard and his fiddle playing always stood out.”
Phillips continued his long music career right to the end. His family and friends say playing in jam sessions at the River City Grill in Radford was one of his favorite things to do. He played there up until this past fall.
Folks are supposed to be happy and make a joyful noise during the holidays. But for some people, the winter break brings sadness and mourning for the loved ones who are no longer with us. New River Valley bluegrass aficionados will sure miss James Maynard “Fiddle Man” Phillips and his music.
Phillips often wrote his own lyrics and music. In one of Pakledinaz’s recent interviews Fiddle Man pulled a beautiful original song out of a dresser drawer that he had written on notebook paper.
He read, “Years have taken their toll/Since those days of long ago/I still love you for the memories you hold