Stan Lee sat in the shade of his Buford home’s garage while a couple of bargain hunters rummaged through the price-marked items for sale in his driveway.
“A keepsake” rested nearby on a stack of folded blue jeans. The old fiddle was not for sale.
“This is the instrument I learned to play on,” Lee said picking up the fiddle and resting it under his chin. “It was my grandfather’s. His name was William Henry Fraiser. He lived with us in the early ’50s and he had it hanging on the wall in the back bedroom.”
Years of fingers playing songs have worn their marks into the wood, including the past 21 years Lee has spent portraying “Grandpa Darryl” for the Georgia Mountain Players rendition of “Smoke on the Mountain.” The thespian group will end its run of the play Sunday, leaving Lee with a lot of memories of playing his fiddle.
The 75-year-old Buford man held his fiddle in front of him and ran a finger across the small carved letters on its face.
“I carved my name in it and my granddaddy, he autographed it right there when his daddy, my great-granddaddy bought it for him,” Lee said.
He turned the fiddle over and pointed to the numbers “1882” carved under his grandfather’s signature.
Lee said the fiddle was purchased 131 years ago for $12 from a traveling wood stove salesman. He explained a violin maker who repaired the aging instrument told him it was likely made in the 1700s, evidenced by its short neck.
Though he knew the fiddle was hanging in the back room, he never gave it much thought until he came home from school one afternoon and heard a song coming from the back bedroom. Lee was 13 years old when he heard his grandfather play for the first time.
“When I heard him playing that just sent off some sparks you know,” Lee said. “I asked him to kind of show me how to get a note or two. I just picked up on it. It just came natural to me you know.”
His grandfather taught him to play “In the Sweet By and By in the key of A.” Lee’s grandfather died a year later, but not before teaching the teen how to play “pretty good.”
In 2010, Lee was inducted into the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame. But he is probably best known in Gainesville for his “Grandpa Darryl” persona in “Smoke on the Mountain.”
Lee, a founding member of the group, recalled being asked to join the group and play his fiddle. After the first practice, Lee said he got interested and stayed interested. After the first four of five years, Lee said, the crowds grew and almost every show was sold out.
Georgia Mountain Players managing artistic director Mike Martin said Lee’s fiddle playing has added something special to the performance.
“The fiddle is a very important part in several songs,” Martin said. “He’s just always there smiling and going along like its the first time even though we’ve done this for 21 years ... and every one if you look at his face it’s like he’s seeing it for the first time. He’s just smiling and going along with everything. It never seems to get old to him and it doesn’t to us.”
The mostly-sold-out play will run one final time through the month of August.
Martin said it’s bittersweet to see the group end.
“It’s really been fun over the years to do this,” Lee said. “This year is the last year we’re doing it and I hate to see it come to an end, but all good things must come to an end.”
Lee played professionally with top music artists such as Bill Anderson, Wanda Jackson and Patsy Cline from the mid-1950s to ’60s. He even played on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1960 in Nashville, Tenn.
Lee said he enjoyed his time as a professional musician but after a decade it became “more of a job.”
Another reason for his career change was after growing up on a farm 50 feet away from his current home he couldn’t keep up with the parties, he said.
“Most of the musicians and entertainers, when we would get through doing a show, they wanted to party,” Lee said. “Me being grown up on a farm, I wasn’t used to going like that. When 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock come, I was ready to go to bed. I couldn’t handle the nightlife.”
Lee left the spotlight in the mid 1960s to begin his career in insurance sales. He retired in 2003.
Though he wasn’t on a professional circuit any longer, he didn’t stop playing the fiddle. Saturday nights were spent at the Gainesville Civic Center giving people something to dance to. He played with a band, Elmer Snodgrass and the Musical Pioneers for several years.
Lee said he still plays fiddle for “private parties, weddings, hangings, whatever.” Every Thursday he plays at the Duluth Family Restaurant.
“I wouldn’t take nothing for my experiences I’ve had during my time in the music business,” Lee said.