Raised in the rich traditional music community around Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, Joseph Decosimo is a leading performer of Old-Time fiddle and banjo music. Joseph is a traditional musician and folklorist with a deep respect and love for the older sounds of his home state, Appalachia, and the broader American South. His Old-Time fiddling and banjo playing have introduced listeners around the US, UK, Canada, and Australia to the richness and vibrancy of the region's musical traditions. Based in Durham, North Carolina, he currently performs Old-Time fiddle, banjo, and songs anywhere people are willing to listen. A skilled teacher, he has taught a number of workshops, festivals, and even in a traditional music program at a university. Besides performing the music, he researches and writes about it: He holds a PhD in American Studies and an MA in Folklore.
the longer story
In seventh grade, he purchased a banjo from a neighbor and quickly found his way to the backrooms of the local Friday night opry where he encountered older musicians from the region. At sixteen, he began making regular visits to learn from fiddler Charlie Acuff and eventually started playing gigs around East Tennessee with Acuff’s band the Lantana Drifters. He has dedicated himself to spending time with the master fiddlers living in the region, including National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow Clyde Davenport and Charlie McCarroll. By grounding himself in a regional repertoire and style, he crafts music for the present with a deep understanding of place and a reverence for the past.
Joseph's attention to the tradition has not gone unnoticed. In 2007, he won the National Old Time Banjo Championship. His fiddling has earned him blue ribbons at prestigious contests from the Appalachian Stringband Festival (Clifftop) to the Tennessee Valley Fiddlers Convention. His band, The Bucking Mules, comprised of guitarist, singer, and fiddler Karen Celia Heil, banjo player and fellow Tennesseean Luke Richardson, and bassist Joe DeJarnette has won first place in the stringband contest at Clifftop in 2012 and 2014. They continue to perform at festivals and workshops at home and abroad, delivering driving, regionally-inflected music. Their 2017 album “Smoke Behind the Clouds,” released on the Free Dirt label, was nominated for best Bluegrass release at Independent Music Awards.
A sought-after teacher and performer of old time music, he has taught and performed at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA; the Swannanoa Gathering in Swannanoa, NC; the Blue Ridge Old Time Music Week in Mars Hill, NC; the Nimble Fingers Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Workshop in Sorrento, BC; the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, WV; the Ashokan Southern Week in Olivebridge, NY; and the Berkeley Old Time Music Festival in Berkeley, CA. From 2012-2013, he served on the faculty of East Tennessee State University's Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies Program, teaching Appalachian Studies, Old Time Fiddle and Banjo, and working with student bands.
In 2012, he earned an MA in Folklore from the University of North Carolina, where he explored transformations in the fiddling tradition of the McCarroll family of East Tennessee. In 2018, he completed a PhD in American Studies at the University of North Carolina. He continues to research and write about listening, learning, sound technologies, and aesthetics in Old-Time music and other traditional forms of music. He deeply engages with traditional music through his scholarship and performance, making sure that it never reduces to an academic exercise.