Retta Spradlin

Surrepta (Retta) Spradlin, like her two sisters and brother, never married and never left the home of her parents. She lived with her brother and sisters from birth to death (1903 to 1978) in the tiny community of Bell Farm, Kentucky, which eventually became no more than 6 homesteads surrounded by miles of undeveloped wilderness, as farms were abandoned and the Stearn Railroad line was pulled out of the area. The Spradlins were proudly old-fashioned: they refused to have electricity in their house because they did not want to “get above their parents,” set all of their clocks by “sun time,” and were extremely generous to visitors. Their house became a way station for travelers, particularly musicians. Burnett and Rutherford, the Kentucky Wildcats String Band, and Al Davenport were often overnight guests, creating music-sharing opportunities for Retta and her smooth fiddling brother, Oren. The CCC camp at Bell Farm brought further musical attention to Retta and her beau Hertzel Bell, the fiddling grandson of Will Phipps. After Bell died in 1949, Retta played only at home, behind Oren or alone for visitors that requested a tune.

The banjo used on her recordings, a Silvertone purchased new by her father in 1918, was the only banjo Retta ever owned. Retta was entirely comfortable with the thudding, percussive sound, which beautifully set off her striking, clear voice.