A Tribute to Jimmy Arnold

Unless you keep up with a lot of banjo players, you may not know Jimmy. After all, Jimmy Arnold is certainly not a household name. What did he ever do? The answer: in all my years of banjo playing, I’ve heard few people with as much raw talent for distinctive, stunning banjo breaks as Jimmy had.

Obviously there are other, more well-known banjo players: Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, Bela Fleck, and Eric Weissberg of Dueling Banjos fame come to mind as being recognizable to the general public. To bluegrass aficionados, you should also add the names J. D. Crowe, Vic Jordan,  Bobby Thompson, Bill Emerson, Alan Munde, Bill Keith, … the list is extensive.

But in my book, few others have that touch, that absolute skill with creativity, that Jimmy possessed, even thought they may have gone much farther and higher on the whole.

To my knowledge, he put out only a few records and never achieved great success with his music. I have his banjo album, Strictly Arnold, on vinyl and it has always been a special musical set.

Sadly, Jimmy died much too soon after a tragedy-filled life. Alcohol and broken relationships were a recurring theme in his life.

Today, we approach the 17th anniversary since he died suddenly in 1992 of a heart attack. I’ve heard the exact day as either Christmas Day or New Years day. Not sure which is right.

I just know I miss this good ‘ol southern boy and his music, as does everyone who knew him personally and professionally.

About Pgibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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10 Responses to A Tribute to Jimmy Arnold

  1. Ross Wyatt says:

    Mate, I was put in charge of Jimmy when he came to Australia, could not keep up with his thirst, but his music will never die in my heart, I was blessed to meet him Lucky I recorded him live in our kitchen, and I have this recording to watch. Ross

  2. Steve says:

    I grew up around High Point, NC which is south of SW Virginia. In the mid-70s I was in my early teens and bluegrass was a hallowed music. A classmate/friend’s father had a music shop that catered to bluegrass players. My friend’s family was friends with Jimmy Arnold.

    My friend kept telling me to listen to Strictly Arnold… but none of the local record stores had a copy so I never got to hear him play either on vinyl or live. But Jimmy Arnold was a “legend” in town for a few years. All of the local bluegrass cats said he was the finest picker they had ever heard. He would blow into town for a few days and then be gone for months… then years…. then I moved away and never heard his name again.

    I became curious this evening, entered his name in Google and was surprised to find him documented in many locations. I will take some time and give him a listen to now – 40 years later – how ironic, now I can finally find his music!

    When you are a young kid hyperbole about “legends” is common. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Roy Clark, etc. They were really good but not really legendary caliber once you witness really good players. Christopher Parkening, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker, Mark O’Connor, Art Tatum, Louie Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Tal Farlow, Joe Pass, Alan Holdsworth, Van Cliburn, etc. were genuine legends. I’m glad to learn that Jimmy was a genuine prodigy and that the legend title was appropriate.

    As with so many who grew up in low information environments (poverty and a Pentecostal rural existence do not produce most NASA engineers) but rich in the music of their cultures, stepping out of those environments/cultures can be both liberating and confusing. The late great Lenny Breau comes to mind immediately. A musical prodigy who simply could not navigate life very well. Jimmy appears to have been typical in this regard.

    It breaks my heart every time I read of these type of stories. Since I did not know him, only my imagination can fill in the blanks surrounding his biographical sketches. I am sure much of what I am imaging bears no resemblance to reality. Nonetheless, having known my share of alcohol and drug abusers in the past, I am sure he was increasingly bewildered by parts of life that did not conform to his early indoctrinations… drugs and booze turn minds into mush. I can only guess that his impaired thoughts and a desire to feel secure drew him back to what he perceived as his secure roots. I suspect this is why he returned to his Pentecostal roots before he died. Again, this is all conjecture and amazingly sad. Dead at 40. Wow.

  3. Gary Shelton says:

    Gary says :
    3/10 / 2017
    It’s been over 30 since this east coast guy
    witnessed the brilliant musicianship of Jimmy Arnold – and just
    decided to “Google” him.
    Sad to read about his early departure from this world.
    It was an intimate setting in Brooklyn, NY (Brooklyn Heights)
    where I saw and heard Mr. Arnold play his banjo with brilliance and humility .
    I happily purchased his > Jimmy ARNoLd Rainbow Ride < album.
    He was gracious enough to write on the album cover :
    "To A city Boy with Bluegrass in his Soul
    Thanks A
    1,000,000 " and signed his name.

    Thank you Phil for the opportunity to share this memory.
    All the best to you !

    • Phill Gibson says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Gary!

      • Ross Wyatt says:

        I was lucky enough to be his bodyguard in Australia. We had a great time together and drank way too much even missed a concert. I made a home movie of him playing with Australian Tim Lee at Tims house. They both tried to out play each other on banjos.It was a hell of a night.

  4. roger neal says:

    Jimmy was always a person who had a smile. He had a very high IQ . I am not sure if that is a blessing or a curse. He experienced a lot of an adult life at an early age. I am not sure what impact that had on him as he became an adult. He was an only child, as i am. This can also be good or bad. His experience with college did not go well since he already had mastered and was probably much more advanced than those who were the instructors of music. I was five years older than he and probably five years behind him intelligent wise. I now have two daughters who live and work in Nashville and each time i visit, i think of Jimmy and what could have been for him in that world. I am glad that his music has continued to be enjoyed. I know that would make him very happy since that was his life.

  5. Debbie Moody says:

    I just heard Jimmy playing banjo on satellite radio. My cousin, Wesley Golding, played with him from childhood til adulthood. I mainly wanted to say that he had wonderful parents who supported his talent in every way, as did Wesley’s parents support their son. Jimmy’s tragic life must have broken his parents’ hearts.

    • Pgibson says:

      Hi Debbie,
      Thanks for posting your memories of Jimmy and his family – I always like when someone has some details like that about Jimmy to tell everyone!

      • Roger Neal says:

        Thank you very much for the article. I think of Jimmy often. It is a real pity that with all of his talent, taking care of himself was not one of his strong suites. He always was smiling and saw life as an opportunity to share his talents with everyone. I always was impressed by his musical abilities since I have a problem getting a radio to play properly. I hope you have a great day and once again, thank you for the article. I have shared it with my three daughters. I was an only child as Jimmy was. His Father and my Mother were brother and sister.

  6. Pgibson says:

    Thanks, Roger – great to know more about him from a cousin! 🙂

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