By Alex Kienlen

Log Cabin Correspondent

Want to know how to pick your share of the cotton crop? "The key is to keep your head down and never stop," that is the way Jim Brunson told it to his family.

Born the middle child of seven to a sharecropper family in South Arkansas in 1928, Brunson had to learn some lessons early, born into that hard-scrabble existence. He died early Monday morning, Sept. 4, Labor Day, his 87th year.

Those times, sharecropping during the Great Depression era, that place, "never stop" was the way it was done. His family recalled his stories of 6-year-old Brunson being sent in from the fields a little early to put the cornbread on so the rest of the family could eat. No milk, too much money, used water to make the meal.

Keep your head down, never stop.

For any number of us musicians around Conway, we didn’t realize how far back the story went or how many turns it took. To us he was "Brunson," or "Fiddlin’ Jim," and usually just "Jim." Whenever we’d meet to play somewhere Jim would show up, fiddle in hand, playing with the offhand skill of someone who’d been at it for a long time. When it was his turn to lead he’d call out some long forgotten tune, "Possum Up a Gum Stump" was a favorite, lead us through the ancient tune, its twists and turns. Sometimes when playing at the library some kids would stop to see what the noise was and he’d jump up, show ‘em how to do a clogging shuffle in time with the music. He was "old school." In a town with a lot of great fiddle players, Jim was more than an original, he was the original.

Keep your head down, never stop.

Brunson joined the Air Force right out of high school in 1946. For Arkansas, it’s not an unusual story. Aviation was something new then — this was right about the time military aviation went from being Army Air Corps to Air Force — with all the promise of freedom and adventure in open skies. Sharecropping, meanwhile, was a tough way to make a living. It wasn’t a hard choice. The Air Force paid a decent wage and he signed up as a grunt enlisted. He married Katherine in 1948.

The story’s a little fuzzy as to how aviation specifically became a thing for Jim. But there was a story about playing hooky from school in his senior year, going out and getting in an airplane and trying to fly it, a plan ruined by crashing into a pond. No injuries. The story’s a little vague about what happened to the plane, or how the person who owned it felt about all this.

Never stop, and make a career out of the Air Force, coming up through the ranks after starting at the dead bottom to retire as a Major in 1970.

Throughout that term a varied career took shape, as would be expected as technology, aerospace and the military changed. A great deal of it was spent teaching incoming pilots the intricacies of flight, what lift was, how weight could change affect that, thrust, drag, why the airplane did what it did. Student pilots would come back from flights with questions and he’d sit and go over it with them, no different, really, than showing little kids in a library how to shuffle-step.

An eye for and a sense of precision (fiddles don’t have marks on the neck, the musician has to have an attuned sense of what happens when to get the right notes out) led to a late-career task of inspecting nuclear weapons and facilities to make sure everything was up to standards.

The family looked but wasn’t able to find it just yet. Somewhere in all the trophies was a plaque for being one of the first 400 men to fly faster than the speed of sound.

Keep your head down, never stop.

Brunson retired from the service to Conway in 1970 to pursue a teaching degree, earned at the University of Central Arkansas. Teaching in the Air Force was what he liked and he wanted to continue. Degree in hand, he taught high school for a year, found out that was a different crowd compared to prospective pilots and went to work for the Social Security Administration. He kept the flag planted in Conway. The years of travel of a military family were over, Conway was home.

Music played an important role throughout all this. His mother had traded for a fiddle when he was a boy and he learned there, nights off from the field. Jim kept playing while working up the ranks in the military. He even had a story about playing a couple times in 1951, stationed outside Dothan with this country music artist named Hank Williams who showed up in a club where Jim was in the band. The last time they played together was about two weeks before Williams died. He shared that story a lot.

Keep your head down, never stop.

Sure, backed off playing quite as much when the family was young, but as they got older he got busy. All those trophies, in shelves, in corners, from winning fiddling contests, attending various festivals, getting together with old friends, making new ones. More music, with Katherine as regular performers at the Ozark Folk Center, in Mountain View.

If you played with him much, you’d realize you were dealing with someone who not only knew a lot of songs and how to work a fiddle (never a violin), but someone who had a real sense of precision and a real drive to teach. He was direct, in that same way a flight school instructor would be with kids trying to be pilots in those early jet-age years: No room for decorum when the ground’s coming up and you have more weight than lift. Any number of local musicians have typed-out descriptions from Brunson of how to approach old mountain songs. He’d hold forth: This chord goes after that chord and the song has these two parts so just play it like that and … 2, 3, 4 … and off you’d go.

Keep your head down, never stop.

He got old. The memory wasn’t as sharp, sometimes he’d forget he’d met you before. He’d still call a song out, often as not the only reason we knew what it was came from his having played it in the past. Driving got hard, it was easier to ride with someone.

Keep your head down, never stop.

But he’d still play, the same habitual precision so ingrained it seemed matter-of-fact. Jim was always ready to point something out, to teach a chord change, or how to do a shuffle-step the old school way. The same way a farming community would go on to be the City of Colleges is the same way a sharecropper’s kid who played the fiddle would go from making cornbread to inspecting nuclear weapons.

Jim, "Fiddlin’ Jim," Brunson is survived by his wife, Kathryn, his daughters, their families, including children and great grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

And a well and lovingly worn fiddle.