John Thomas Fowler is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and storyteller. For more than 30 years, Fowler has worked to ensure Appalachian culture remains alive by sharing the musical traditions and stories of his heritage with schools, churches and libraries, at festivals and other events, as well as through recordings and radio. His storytelling weaves together the threads that bind communities – a strong sense of shared history and family ties. Fowler often surprises audiences by tapping his foot or dancing a jig while he plays and tells stories. His presentations are designed for all ages, from a child dreaming of playing a musical instrument to a senior reminiscing of days gone by.
Fowler plays several instruments with ease and confidence. He is a master harmonica player and also plays the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and jaws harp. He might also pull out spoons, bones and “Uncle Charlie,” a lumberjack doll he uses to teach rhythm. Fowler often learns his techniques by seeking out older musicians from the mountains and Upcountry, adapting skills that were common more than 100 years ago, but that are slowly disappearing today.
As a teacher, Fowler shares his knowledge by incorporating these traditions. He rarely picks up an instrument without sharing the origin of that instrument, entertaining and educating his audience with a history lesson. He offers individuals a chance for hands-on participation with instruments in workshops or private lessons.
Fowler has produced several recordings of traditional and roots musicians and storytellers. Textile Town (1992) featured a rare collection of interviews with local mill workers from Spartanburg County. His release of Fiddle Traditions – rare field recordings – won national acclaim in 2004, and in 2010, he collaborated with Greenville, S.C., artist Glen Miller on Story, Song and Image, which featured South Carolina roots music and Miller’s paintings of each featured musician. In 1994, Fowler self-published an instructional book on playing simple hand-held folk instruments, How to Play Old-Time Musical Instruments.
A regional favorite at many storytelling festivals, Fowler created a festival at Hagood Mill that featured some of the best storytellers in the nation. In 2010, he was featured in the book Southern Appalachian Storytellers.
In 2011, Fowler served as a state scholar for the Smithsonian traveling exhibit New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music that was coordinated by The Humanities CouncilSC. Fowler consulted with host sites, offering advice on how to incorporate roots music specific to South Carolina. His insights helped shape the exhibit tour and his presentations highlighted South Carolina music history. Fowler also serves on the Humanities Council’s Speaker’s Bureau, presenting folk heritage and humanities topics through his storytelling and music.
In 2013, Fowler's biography of George Mullins was published. "Trotting Sally: The Roots and Legacy of a Folk Hero" delves into the life of this legendary upstate fiddler. Of his work, Fowler says, “My work is a celebration of my heritage and family ties to the region in which I make my home.” Sharing his heritage is not merely a facet of his life – it is the life Fowler lives every day, working diligently to ensure that the folk music he loves survives the test of time. Fowler received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 2013.