“Why, when she was born I thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. We could tell she
was musical ever since she was a little bitty thing. She’d go around humming and trying to sing
before she could even talk, ” recalled Phern Ryals, proud mother of Valerie Delaine Ryals O’Brien.
Valerie’s fascination with music led to an epiphany when she was three years old; she discovered her
mother’s fiddle stored under her parents’ bed.
“I’d just pluck the strings and I fell in love with the sound. I knew then that I had to learn to play the
fiddle,” Valerie remembers.
It was not until the age of nine, however, that Valerie’s formal instruction with music began. Upon
entering fourth grade she enrolled in orchestra where she learned the rudiments of technique and
reading music on the staff. Her dedication and obvious passion for the instrument came to the
attention of her grandfather, O.G. Ryals, a fiddler of the old time folk tradition, who, striking while
the iron was hot, introduced little Valerie to Rubber Dolly. And although she has never forsaken her
connection with the classical realm, she knew that the tunes her granddaddy played struck a
resonance in her very heart and soul.
Acting according to the advice of L.T. Childress – a workmate of Valerie’s father, Lenn Ryals – her
parents began taking her to local fiddle contests and events where she could, as a spectator, absorb
some of what the fiddle players on stage were doing. Moreover, she was able to meet and eventually
receive one-on-one guidance from such icons as Dale Morris, Claude Henson, Eck Robertson, Benny
Thomasson, Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor, Major Franklin, Tommy Hughes, Jesse Mears, and the
legendary Solomon brothers, Norman and Vernon.
“At that time, there weren’t many females in the fiddling world who seemed to really stick with it,”
recalls Valerie. “ But I’ll always remember the kindness and patience of the wonderful gentlemen
who helped me get started playing, the fiddlers and the guitar players. They became like family members.”
Speaking of family members, when brother Lenn Junior came along, it wasn’t long before his young fingers started itching to play music. Then baby
sister Lydia was born and, lo and behold, all three of Lenn and Phern’s young uns were musicians. And all three of them continue to play fiddle,
guitar and mandolin to this day. Holidays and family get- togethers are filled with music.
At age 13, Valerie’s dedication finally started paying off when she won the Junior World Championship in Crockett, Texas. Other highlights, at
various times throughout her career, include First Runner-Up in the World Champion Contest, and the first woman on the T.O.T.F.A. Board of
Directors. For a number of years now, Valerie has performed as a Master Artist with Texas Folklife Resources, a non-profit Austin- based
organization whose mission is the preservation and perpetuation of the folk arts. Her affiliation with T.F.R. has led her to perform in such diverse
venues as public and private schools, car lots, churches, and neighborhood bars in small- town Texas - from the Gulf coast to the Panhandle.
also served as an educator for the Texas Commission of the Arts wherein her role was much the same as that with T.F.R., taking her all over the Lone
Star State. She has been an instructor at both Johnny Gimble’s and Randy Elmore’s fiddle camps, as well as an instructor for DFW WOW Suzuki
Violin Institute and TCU’s Fiddle Workshop. In 2005 Valerie was honored by being chosen, along with Bob Wills and Johnny Gimble, to represent
Texas’ rich tradition of fiddling by having her fiddle on loan for exhibit in the Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History in Austin.
After graduating high school in 1973 Valerie enrolled in the Suzuki teacher-training program at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The
Suzuki – or “mother tongue” – approach has proven itself a valuable resource in teaching not only classical, but music in the old time Texas genre.
Valerie remembers her mother cautioning her when she was a teenager that she’d better practice and stay serious about her music because some day
she may have to rely on it for a livelihood. Phern’s advice turned out to be more prophetic than she probably realized at the time. For more than
twenty- five years Valerie’s Music Studio in Burleson, Texas has launched hundreds -if not thousands- of students into the world of Texas fiddling.
The studio has grown to the point that, without the dedication and help of sister Lydia, daughters Julie and Jennifer, longtime friend Mary Lamb, and
a score of other generous and able assistants throughout the years, its continuing growth and success would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
Valerie reminisces that, insofar as she had always wanted to be in business for herself, operating a teaching studio seemed the obvious thing to do.
Moreover, raising two young daughters precluded the thought of touring and, in general, playing in a “band- type environment.”
Although the operation of a teaching studio demands much of her time, Valerie continues to find opportunities to play her fiddle for appreciative
audiences all across the U.S.A. “Now that my daughters Jennifer and Julie are grown, I enjoy going to places like California and Wyoming and
Tennessee for a few days and playing. My husband, Rich O’Brien, performs at quite a few cowboy gatherings across the country and I enjoy going
and playing with him. But I’m always glad to get back home and be with my three beautiful little grand babies, Bernard, Nicholas, and Isabella. They
are a source of incredible joy to me.”
Valerie’s skill as a fiddle player has enabled her to share the stage with such luminaries as The Chieftains, with whom she performed at Fort Worth’s
Bass Performance Hall in 2000. Her Texas- style approach fit Paddy Maloney’s Emerald Isle style like a glove and, though it need not be said, a
good time was had by all in the sold- out performance!
In 2006 Valerie returned to Bass Hall at the invitation of singer/songwriter Michael Martin Murphey as his special guest for his annual Cowboy
Christmas tour. Again, Valerie’s playing and poise made it appear as though she had always been a permanent part of the Rio Grand band.
Lately, Valerie has performed with Texas music legend Red Steagall both onstage and in the recording studio. Additionally, she coordinates and
organizes the fiddle contest held at the annual Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering and Western Swing Festival in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards
And if all the above isn’t enough, she still manages to play a few gigs each year with her all-girl instrumental band, The Half Note Heifers, which
features daughter Julie on guitar, sister Lydia on mandolin, and friend Billie Kauhs on upright bass.
Valerie’s reputation as a consummate instrumentalist is eclipsed only by her dedication and skill as a perpetuator and teacher of the music she loves.
In 2004, Valerie was recognized by the Zonta Club of Johnson County as one of two Women of Achievement in business.
“ The world seems to get crazier every day and to be able to do something positive in a wholesome environment, like teaching in my little studio, is
something I’m very grateful for. It’s like I heard Dolly Parton say once, ‘If you can make a living doing something you enjoy, you’ll never have to
work a day in your life.’ And I don’t plan to ever fully retire because I love what I do.”
Valerie Ryals O’Brien is a Lone Star treasure. And Phern and Lenn Ryals are proud of what she has done… and rightfully so.