by Bruce Eder (CMT.com)
Clark Kessinger (1896-1975) and Luches Kessinger (1906-1944) — who were not brothers but were related — were among the top fiddle duos of their era, and left behind an enviable body of music in just three years of steady recording. Clark Kessinger took up the banjo and the fiddle at age five, following in the wake of his grandfather and uncle (both fiddle players). It wasn’t long before he was attracting attention at the local saloons in Lincoln County, VA, where he was raised — in the company of his father, the boy delighted adults with his skills at playing the hits of the day on his fiddle.
He later graduated to playing at dances, and had embarked on a music career when America’s entry into the First World War interrupted his work, sending him into uniform at age 20. It was after he was mustered out and resumed playing that he found a performing partner in his nephew, guitarist Luches Kessinger — the two played in perfectly complementary styles, and were soon working full-time together and became a major attraction in the area around Charleston, WV.
Clark Kessinger played like few country fiddlers, with a clear intonation and a range that dazzled onlookers and fellow musicians. He was such a daunting talent that, as Charles Wolfe cited in his essay on the duo, other fiddlers would simply decline to compete with him in contests. By 1927, the Kessingers had landed a coveted spot on WOBU in Charleston and their fame spread through the new, burgeoning broadcast medium.
Technology took a further hand in early February 1928 when Clark and Luches Kessinger, along with dance caller Ernest Legg, were recorded in Ashland, KY in a series of sides done for Brunswick Records. The result was their debut single, “Wednesday Night Waltz” b/w “Goodnight Waltz,” for which they were paid $100 and which went on to outsell and eclipse an existing (and current) hit version of the A-side by the Leake County Revellers. Ironically, whereas the custom of the time was that the caller on a dance record was often as central to its appeal as the players, Kessinger was so good a player that it was decided to forego the presence of a caller on future sides, and give his fiddle the exclusive spotlight.
They were signed up as the Kessinger Brothers and recorded extensively over the next two years (some of their sides were also credited to the “Wright Brothers” and the “Arnold Brothers”), their output totaling over 25 singles by 1930. Among their sides, “Dill Pickle Rag” and “Salt River” were established as permanent parts of old-time fiddle repertory, and Clark Kessinger recorded some solo fiddle material for Vocalion in the 1930’s.
He was so prominent a musician, that no less a figure than the legendary classical violinist Josef Szigeti (some sources say it was Fritz Kreisler) met with him to discuss style and technique when the latter appeared in West Virginia. Unfortunately, Clark Kessinger was never able to sustain a full-time performing career amid the privations of the Great Depression — married and with a family to support, he retreated to the safer living of a house painter.
He appeared with his cousin on WOBU and played in some fiddle competitions, with some occasional live performances (with the Delmore Brothers, among others). After Luches’ death in 1944, he appeared only at local dances around Charleston, and wasn’t heard from again in recorded music until the early ’60s, when he was rediscovered through modern folk music scholars — astonishingly, the sexagenarian fiddler was still near the peak of his powers and suddenly found himself in demand at folk festivals, and ended up recording a handful of LPs. Kessinger suffered a stroke in 1971, nine years after his comeback, while recording an LP for Rounder Records. He was never able to play again, and passed away from an additional stroke in 1975, at the age of 78.