Jesse Presley “J. P.” Fraley passed away on February 17, at his home in Denton, Kentucky. He was 87 years old. One of the most prominent East Kentucky fiddlers of his generation, J. P. Fraley was the son of fiddler Richard Fraley, and grew up in the town of Hitchins, which he described as “the jumping off place for the back country.” The elder Fraley strongly encouraged young J. P. to take up the fiddle, even letting him get out of doing farm work with the family when he said that he wanted to go play a tune. Reminiscing to Guthrie Meade and Mark Wilson in 1974, Fraley said, “I’d always try to euchre some way out of hoeing that corn, I tell you.”
The Fraley family sometimes traveled to Ashland, where Richard Fraley would leave J. P. in the company of Ed Haley, then fiddling on the streets of the town. J. P. would sometimes stay with Haley for hours at a time, moving with him from one street corner to another, and observing and absorbing the now-legendary fiddler’s techniques.
When Fraley grew up, he served in the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Air Force. He also worked at farming, in a brickyard, and as a world-traveling company representative in the mining machinery industry. Having set aside his music in favor of his career for some years, in the 1950s Fraley entered a fiddle contest on a whim and, though he felt he was entirely out of practice, won first place. From then on, he and his wife Annadeene Prater Fraley (1925-1996), a singer and guitarist from Star Branch, Kentucky, who had been a radio performer as a girl, would perform together and with friends regularly. They made recordings as well, including the classic Rounder albums Maysville and Wild Rose of the Mountain. They became frequent performers and attendees at old-time music festivals, and J. P. would win the senior fiddle championship at the Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia, and, after three Fiddler of the Festival titles, was designated a Master Fiddler at Fiddler’s Grove in Union Grove, North Carolina. He also received the Appalachian Treasure honor from Morehead State University.
Forty years ago this summer, Annadeene Fraley brought together a group of musical family and friends for a small festival-like gathering. It would become an annual event, and grow into J. P. Fraley’s Mountain Music Gathering, held Labor Day weekend at Carter Caves State Park between Grayson and Olive Hill, Kentucky. The festival will go on in 2011, now held in memory of J. P. and Annadeene.