“Blackberry Blossom” is a popular fiddle tune played regularly at bluegrass jams and often one of the first melodies that aspiring flatpickers learn. It is so universal that I am not presenting the original version here, though I encourage everyone to seek it out—a quick internet search will yield a multitude of tabs, and a wonderful version from Scott Nygaard is available in the AG book Fiddle Tune Essentials. In this lesson, we will look at a unique interpretation from genre-bending acoustic guitarist Jon Stickley, released in 2012 on his trio album JS3.
This traditional tune has a long history, but the earliest versions don’t sound much like the “Blackberry Blossom” we play today. The tune as we know it begins with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, who rewrote it in the 1930s from earlier renditions he had heard. Smith’s melody is identical to the current one, but with the notable exception that the B section is played in E major instead of E minor. The shift to E minor is from fiddler Tommy Jackson who recorded it in the early 1950s. Jackson’s version became the standard, with flatpicking recordings appearing in the 1960s and on from Doc Watson, Dan Crary, Norman Blake, Tony Rice, and many others.
The Jon Stickley Trio—an acoustic instrumental powerhouse that combines Stickley’s articulate flatpicking, Lyndsay Pruett’s inventive fiddle, and Hunter Deacon’s rock-solid drums—has created perhaps the most unique interpretation of “Blackberry” since Smith or Jackson. Initially the trio experimented with the tune at live shows playing the melody over a funk drumbeat. Over time, it added the intro, outro, revised chords, and jam interlude—incorporating elements of rock and jazz throughout—heard on the JS3 version.
Stickley and Pruitt trade solos throughout, and Example 1 presents Stickley’s initial pass through the tune beginning at 0:40 on the studio recording. The first half of the A section (bars 1–8) closely resembles the traditional melody, while the second half (9–16) veers into a tasty descending scalar pattern and several slippery licks. Measure 17 marks the beginning of the B section, dropped down an octave from where flatpickers normally play it, almost making it sound more metal than bluegrass.
Chord symbols above the staff in Ex. 1 present the standard progression typically used for this song, while Example 2 shows Stickley’s creative use of chord substitutions and unique voicings played during Pruitt’s A-section solos. Without a bassist, Stickley’s rhythm here drives the momentum forward with a walking bass line, a pulsating rhythm, and a chord progression reminiscent of the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back.”
The trio’s arrangement of “Blackberry Blossom” continues a long lineage of adventurous adaptations of this tune. Stickley told me he thinks of playing the B part as more of an “E7 funk” than of E minor, which is kind of like how Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith did it with his E-major B part. Therein lies the beauty of playing these traditional tunes: bringing an old melody into new territory while also preserving the history of how it got there.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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