Musician Tim Ryan Rouillier shares story behind musical memoir “My Grandpa’s Fiddle”

More from this show

Musician and songwriter Tim Ryan Rouillier’s musical memoir, “My Grandpa’s Fiddle,” tells the story of him and his Salish Indian grandfather.

Rouillier describes his grandfather as an “Indian George Burns that played the fiddle.” He says his dad would tell him that grandpa’s fiddle sounds like two cats fighting. It was squeaky and unpleasant, but Vic was able to attract a crowd.

“He was a master performer so he was always cutting jokes,” Rouillier says. “He had this leg going and he would shake the whole house. Here’s this gosh awful screech but yet we played everywhere and the people loved him because he could just entertain like nobody’s business.”

Vic tells the story that he found same fiddle he plays today in the attic of an abandoned farm house when he was a kid. He picked it up, and immediately started teaching himself. Rouillier says it took him until he was 92 years old to finally master it.

Inspired by his grandpa, Rouillier took to the guitar at a young age. He grew up on the Indian reservation where he was surrounded by his mother’s 12 brothers and sisters and his dad’s six. Once grandpa began playing, all of the cousins would join in with banjos and guitars, he says.

“My mom would walk across the street and sing songs,” Rouillier says. “I wanted in on all that fun. I started practicing with my mom’s guitar. I was horrible. Grandpa said if you get better on that thing we can start playing some gigs together.”

Just as he was about to give up, he heard something that changed his life. Johnny Cash. He says starting with that moment he learned how to play as many Cash songs that he could. Within a year’s time, he was playing next to his grandpa.

“He played all the old fiddle tunes,” Rouillier says. “It’s really funny because when we would go out there’s all of these great musicians in Montana. They all wanted to play with and follow… Grandpa had his own style. So when he played, I’m the only guy who could follow him because he didn’t play normal. When we played it sounded solid. If a great guitar player sat in with us he would be fumbling around. It was like our own language between us.”

Rouillier found success as a musician. When he was with RCA Records, he took to the road, but the cost was being away from his growing family. When he returned home to be with his wife and son, he decided he wouldn’t give up music completely.

“My wife said if I was going to go home then I needed to start writing songs for other people or start teaching school,” Rouillier says. “That’s when I started focusing on getting my songs recorded by George Strait, Phil Vaser, Randy Travis, Deena Carter, Trisha Yearwood.”

“My Grandpa’s Fiddle” features new songs that aren’t like the radio hits Rouillier may be known for. There are songs that reach eight minutes in length and feature native dancers.

“I had all of these stories of grandpa and I floating around in my head,” Rouillier says. “His Indian wisdom kind of passed down to me. Once I had these stories laid out, I started filming it. Everywhere I went I’m filming thinking ahead of what’s going to go into this. Once we started putting that together, I needed to start writing songs that are going to match this story. That’s kind of how all that came together.”

TED SIMONS: TIM RYAN ROUILLIER HAS WRITTEN SONGS FOR SOME OF THE BIGGEST NAMES IN COUNTRY MUSIC. INCLUDING GEORGE STRAIT, ANDY TRAVIS AND TRISHA YEARWOOD. ROUILLIER ALSO AN ACCOMPLISHED PERFORMER HIMSELF. MISS MUSICAL MEMOIR, ENTITLED MY GRANDPA'S FIDDLE, AIRS TONIGHT ON PBS. PRODUCER ALYSSA ADAMS SAT DOWN AND GOT TO TALK TO ROUILLIER ABOUT THE MUSIC THAT'S INSPIRED HIS LIFE.

ALYSSA ADAMS: TIM RYAN ROUILLIER, THANK YOU FOR SITTING DOWN WITH US ON HORIZON. SO THE SHOW IS CALLED MY GRANDPA'S FIDDLE, SOUND TRACK OF MY LIFE. WHO WAS YOUR GRANDPA?

TIM RYAN ROUILLIER: WELL, HE WAS GEORGE BURNS, AM INDIAN GEORGE BURNS THAT PLAYED THE FIDDLE AND WHAT I MEAN BY THAT IS-- MY DAD USED TO SAY GRANDPA'S FIDDLE SOUNDED LIKE TWO CATS FIGHTING, WHICH IS SQUEAKY AND COULD RAISE YOUR HAIR. BUT NOBODY PAID ATTENTION TO THAT FIDDLE. HE WAS A MASTER PERFORMER. SO HE WAS ALSO CUTTING JOKES. HE WAS ALWAYS GOING AND HE WOULD SHAKE THE WHOLE HOUSE. HERE'S THIS GOSH AWFUL SCREECH. BUT WE YET PLAYED EVERYWHERE AND THE PEOPLE LOVED HIM. BECAUSE HE COULD ENTERTAIN LIKE NOBODY'S BUSINESS.

ALYSSA ADAMS: AND HOW DID HE LEARN TO PLAY THE FIDDLE?

TIM RYAN ROUILLIER: TAUGHT HIMSELF, GRANDPA SAID HE FOUND THAT FIDDLE IN THE ATTAC OF AN ABANDONED FARM HOUSE WHEN HE WAS A KID. NOW THIS WAS ON THE INDIAN RESERVATION BEFORE THEY ALLOWED WHITE SETTLEMENT. IT WAS JUST NATIVES UP THERE. AND SO HE FOUND THAT FIDDLE AND STARTED PLAYING, TINKERING WITH IT. AND FINALLY BY THE TIME HE WAS 92, HE MASTERED IT.

ALYSSA ADAMS: WAS IT THE SAME FIDDLE?

TIM RYAN ROUILLIER: SAME FIDDLE.

ALYSSA ADAMS: WOW ALL THOSE YEARS. SO HOW DID YOU LEARN THEN TO PLAY GUITAR? DID HE TEACH YOU? DID YOU TEACH YOURSELF.

TIM RYAN ROUILLIER: I USED TO RUN ACROSS THE STREET. THE MINUTE I CAN MOVE, MOM HAD 12 SISTERS, MY DAD HAD SIX. ALL OF MY RELATIVES WERE AROUND IT. I’D RUN ACROSS THE STREET, GRANDPA WAS PLAYING EVERY NIGHT. ALL OF HIS COUSINS WOULD COME BY WITH BANJOS AND GUITARS. AND MY MOM WOULD WALK ACROSS THE STREET AND SING, SO I WANTED IN. I WANTED IN ON ALL THAT FUN. SO I WENT HOME AND I STARTED PRACTICING ON MY MOM'S GUITAR. AND I'M HORRIBLE. GRANDPA SAID IF YOU GET BETTER ON THAT THING, WE CAN START PLAYING GIGS TOGETHER. BY THE TIME I TURNED 7, [IT] WAS MY FIRST SHOW. AND I WAS SO TERRIBLE BUT WHAT CHANGED MY LIFE WAS ABOUT READY TO GIVE THIS GUITAR UP, AND ON THE RADIO I HEARD THIS – IT WAS OLD JOHNNY CASH. I CAN PLAY THAT. AND I SAT THERE AND JUST LEARNED JOHNNY CASH. AND WITHIN ABOUT A YEAR'S TIME, GOT GOOD ENOUGH TO PLAY ALONG WITH GRANDPA. AND THE MAGIC OF GRANDPA AS HE PLAYED EVERY SONG IN THE SAME KEY, WHICH IS THE KEY OF C. IT WAS PRETTY EASY TO PLAY THE KEY OF C. ONCE I LEARNED THE KEY OF C, MAYBE ONE OTHER CHORD.

ALYSSA ADAMS: WHAT DID YOU PLAY? YOU PLAYED A LOT OF THE CLASSICS?

TIM RYAN ROUILLIER: YEAH HE PLAYED ALL THE OLD FIDDLE TUNES. IT'S REALLY FUNNY BECAUSE WHEN WE WOULD GO OUT, ALL THESE GREAT MUSICIANS IN MONTANA. THEY GO I REMEMBER SITTING WITH YOUR GRANDPA AND I WOULD PLAY. WELL, GRANDPA, HE WAS A LOGGER AND THEY WERE ALL RAISED IN THE MOUNTAINS. MOM WAS RAISED IN A THREE BEDROOM CABIN WITH 12 KIDS. NOT COUNTING GRANDMA AND GRANDPA. GRANDPA HAD HIS OWN STYLE. SO WHEN HE PLAYED, I'M THE ONLY GUY WHO COULD FOLLOW HIM AROUND BECAUSE HE DIDN'T PLAY NORMAL. HIS BEATS WERE DIFFERENT. BUT WHEN WE PLAYED, IT SOUNDED GOOD, SOLID. IF A GREAT GUITAR PLAYER SAT IN WITH US, HE'S FUMBLING AROUND. THEIR EYES WOULD GET BIG. THEY WOULD GET LOST BUT WITH JUST GRANDPA, LIKE OUR OWN LANGUAGE BETWEEN US.

ALYSSA ADAMS: EVENTUALLY YOU GREW UP AND TOOK OFF ON YOUR OWN AND YOU STARTED IN NASHVILLE. YOU HAD YOUR OWN SHOW. HE GAVE UP TOURING WITH YOUR OWN SHOW TO WRITE. WHY DID YOU DO THAT?

TIM RYAN ROUILLIER: YOU KNOW, GOSH I WAS ON RCA RECORD AT THAT TIME. AND I WAS ON THE ROAD QUITE A BIT. AND WE HAD JUST HAD OUR FIRST CHILD. AND I WAS OUT AND I WAS KIND OF MISSING THE WIFE, PEGGY, AND MY LITTLE BOY, MATT DILLON. I CALLED PEGGY, YOU KNOW I DON'T WANT TO BE GONE ALL THE TIME AND YOU RAISE MATTHEW BY YOURSELF. I WANT TO COME HOME AND I WANT TO COACH MY KIDS AND EVERYTHING. BECAUSE I WAS COMING TO ARIZONA STATE TO PLAY FOOTBALL. SO ATHLETICS HAS ALWAYS BEEN BIG IN MY LIFE. AND SO I GOT HOME THAT WEEKEND. SHE SAYS ARE YOU SERIOUS? I SAID YEAH. SHE SAID IF YOU DO THIS, YOU BETTER START WRITING SONGS FOR OTHER PEOPLE OR TEACHING SCHOOL. I'M GOING TO FOCUS ON GETTING OTHER OF MY SONGS RECORDED BY OTHER PEOPLE. THAT'S WHEN I STARTED FOCUSING ON GETTING MY SONGS RECORDED BY GEORGE STRAIT, PHILL VASSAR, RANDY TRAVIS.

ALYSSA ADAMS: THOSE ARE PRETTY BIG NAMES SO I’M WONDERING, WHAT'S THAT LIKE HEARING YOUR SONGS, HAVING BEEN A PERFORMER, PERFORMED BY OTHER PEOPLE?

TIM RYAN ROUILLIER: YOU KNOW, I LOVED IT. BECAUSE GEORGE STRAIT, GEORGE STRAIT, GREATEST SINGER OF ALL TIME DANG NEAR. HE’S LIKE A BROTHER. WHEN THEY ARE SINGING, WE ARE GOING DOWN THE HIGHWAY AN COMES DOWN THE RADIO, IT'S GREAT. YOU GO TO THE MAILBOX AND THERE'S A NICE ROYALTY CHECK IN THERE. AND GUESS WHAT I GOT TO STAY HOME, I'M COACHING MY KIDS, MY KIDS ARE NOW VERY SUCCESSFUL COLLEGE GRADUATES. AND IT WORKED OUT. WE WERE ABLE TO KEEP EVERYTHING. BECAUSE MUSIC CAN BE VERY, VERY HARD ON FAMILIES, RELATIONSHIPS.

ALYSSA ADAMS: SO THIS SHOW INSPIRED BY YOUR GRANDFATHER. WHAT ABOUT YOUR OTHER MUSIC, MUSIC THAT YOU WROTE FOR GEORGE STRAIGHT. IS YOUR GRANDPA ALWAYS YOUR INSPIRATION?

TIM RYAN ROUILLIER: GRANDPA AND MERLE HAGGARD. AND THIS GUYS DAN SEALS WHO I REALLY GOT INTO. THIS SHOW IS ORIGINAL SONGS. WHAT I STARTED WITH ALLYSA IS I HAD ALL THESE STORIES OF GRANDPA FLOATING AROUND IN MY HEAD. IT'S HIS INDIAN WISDOM PASSED DOWN TO ME. THEY ARE FUNNY. ONCE I GOT THE STORIES LAID OUT, THEN I WENT OUT AND I STARTED FILMING IT. OKAY, THAT'S GOING TO LOOK GOOD. EVERYWHERE I WENT I'M FILMING, THINKING AHEAD OF WHAT'S GOING INTO THIS. THEN ONCE I STARTED PUTTING THAT TOGETHER I SAID I NEED TO START WRITING SONGS THAT ARE GOING TO MATCH THIS STORY. THAT'S HOW ALL THAT CAME TOGETHER. BUT THE COMMERCIAL STUFF, THAT'S ALL SEPARATE. THAT WAS FOR TWO AND A HALF MINUTES FOR RADIO. COUNTRY RADIO. THESE SONGS, SOME WERE SEVEN MINUTES, I HAVE NATIVE DANCERS IN THEM. I’VE GOT THE GREAT LEGENDARY GORDON TOOTOOSIS A NATIVE ACTOR, HE'S NOT WITH US, BUT HE'S NARRATING ONE OF THE SONGS.SO I HAD THE LIBERTY OF GOING, YOU KNOW WHAT, I DON'T CARE IF IT'S AN EIGHT MINUTE SONG, IT'S PART OF THIS MUSICAL. AND IT'S SO FUN.I THINK THAT'S WHEN YOUR BEST COMES OUT.

IT'S A GREAT SHOW. I LOVE TO BE ABLE TO HEAR SOMETHING FROM IT OR ONE OF YOUR PIECES IF YOU WOULDN'T MIND PLAYING FOR US RIGHT NOW.

THIS IS A SONG CALLED GOLDEN HARVEST.AND BEHIND THE SCENES I WROTE THIS WITH MY DEAR FRIEND ALEX. ALEX WROTE DELTA DAWN, RUBIN JAMES. HE'S A HALL OF FAME SONGWRITER. AND ALEX WROTE KEY OF C. WHEN I GOT READY TO LEAVE TO GO TO NASHVILLE, I WENT TO GRANDPA AND I SAID I'M GOING TO NASHVILLE AND I THINK I'M GOING TO TRY MY LUCK AT MAKING IT IN COUNTRY MUSIC. HE LOOKED AT ME, LUCK HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING AND PREPARING ALL YOUR LIFE. BASICALLY, HE WAS SAYING HE WAS GOING TO LIVE THROUGH ME. YOUR SUCCESS IS GOING TO BE MY GOLDEN HARVEST. AND ALL THESE YEARS, THAT WAS KIND OF WEIRD HOW HE SAID THAT. SO THIS SONG IS CALLED THE GOLDEN HARVEST. ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ I HAVE LEARNED TO LEAN WHEN MY FIELDS ARE PARCHED AND BROWN ♪

TED SIMONS: YOU CAN CATCH MY GRANDPA'S FIDDLE AT 7:00 WITH THE WRECKING CREW DOCUMENTARY IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING AT 7:30.

Tim Ryan Rouillier: Musician and songwriter

A graphic for the Arizona PBS news show,
airs April 13

This week on Horizonte!

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024
airs April 16

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates as part of ‘AZ Votes 2024’

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 12

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

The Capital building with text reading: Circle on Circle: Robert Lowell's D.C.
May 2

An evening with ‘Poetry in America’

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: