Episode 6: The Luthiers of Hindman, KY

Episode 6: The Luthiers of Hindman, KY


Worthy read! (And listen!)

Originally posted on Local Transmissions:

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I am very excited about this episode because we get to experience a community of passionate artisans, teachers, and musicians who are part of a century old tradition in Knott County,  located in Eastern Kentucky.

MainPhoto From left to right: Mike, Doug, Earl, Joe, and Mark

My friend Mark and I went to Hindman, KY to talk with folks at the Hindman Artisan Center. Hindman and Knott County have played a pivotal role in the design, production, and dissemination of the mountain dulcimer and its evolution into a uniquely American instrument.

All customers are greeted by this friendly sign.
To the left of the entrance.
A work desk.

 The people we interviewed are luthiers — they design, build, and repair string instruments. Anyone can become an apprentice at the center and learn to make instruments of their own. They also provide…

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Christmas Dulcimore

December 23, 2014. About ten o’clock I’ve finally mustered up enough gumption to grab some rough sawn panels and take them out to the shed to plane. The paste wax has been applied to the soles and the irons stropped. There is a light rain falling. I have somewhat mixed emotions about the rain. It is truly a blessing from God. Nourishment to the flowers; yet it is also wonderful for tracking sawdust back into the house.
The first two panels have severe checking and don’t survive the thinning with the irons. The fire barrel is a little heavier! The next two are better suited I suppose and cut down nicely. Also, on the third panel the cross cutting diagonal pattern is photogenic. If not for the poor lighting there would be images of the texture posted with this. (More light for the shop in 2015)

The shop door remains open. All the while the sounds of rain drops are interrupted by cars passing by with their tires hissing from the wet road. It is warm for December, nearly 60 degrees. My hands are still a little cold from the dampness, as sweat drips from my brow. After each plane has done its duty and as I lay it down I realize how warm it is from work: the same as myself.
Back inside I reflect on the past few hours. Once I thought of bringing out my little sound system and listening to Christmas carols, but hate the thought of dust getting in it. I notice my ears ringing a little from the silence. In the past it would have been from power tools screaming. I like the silence!

Traditional….as in that which does not change.

….as in that which does not change.

Every year or so, we take a lent free cloth and wipe it off, put on a few coats of paste wax and buff it out real good. Then what, get on with it!

Every fifty years or so we grease the fitting to keep em’ swinging freely. And then what, get on with it!
Every hundred years or so, whether it needs them or not, we change the strings. And then what, we get on with it!
Shelbi wrote me a letter describing when she was a girl visiting her grandfathers store at the forks of Troublesome Creek next to the bridge, and how it roared when flooded. And I recalled visiting my brother in Henry County as a boy, and how the creeks swelled after the rain. I’d played on these creek beds, surveying the large rocks from rain to rain; amazed at the distance the water would push them down stream. The small wooden bridge stood several feet off the creek that ran down the holler to the larger creek bed below. Now the raging water lapped at the timbers, I didn’t dare get too close fearing being swept downstream bridge and all! The water is flowing into the creek below now swollen; filling the creek bed three or feet deep and twenty feet wide. Flowing to the next creek and it into the Ohio, it into the Mississippi, and then lost to the Gulf.

I’m standing knee deep in the salt water lapping the sands beneath my feet. Small waves crash only disturbing the sands beneath, making my feet sink deeper as though in quick sand. This is the Gulf and I wonder from where it all comes. Once again I’m a small boy standing a safe distance from the little wooden bridge, scared of being swept away. Years and miles separate us.

Traditional, as in that which does not change.

Pink Dulcimore?

gg59104090   Well it seems there may be a pink dulcimore in the works! This past March at the OVG (Ohio Valley Gathering) a young man stopped at my vending table and stared at my purple dulcimore. After a few moments he asked, “Would you make a pink one?” and without a thought I responded yes without realizing his need for one. He told me about his mothers lost battle with breast cancer and his thoughts of raising money on one of the accredited web sites that do fund raising on line and the pink dulcimore as the item to raffle off. I gave him my card and have never heard back from him. :(
Fast forward to this past week end and my wife ask if I can play for a cancer walk next March; some folks she knows who do this Breast Cancer Fundraiser each year have asked. Why not look into it and see who else I can get on board? I have a breast cancer survivor acquaintance on line who I’m sure will help if she can and will be able to gather up more folks! Friday at the grocery I’ll pick up some pink Rit dye and start experimenting on some poplar wood. I had thought it through before and had decided on a “Betty” with hickory fret board overlay and zither pins. The back will have a two tone pink ribbon on the lower bout.

Whorl Wind in Winchester

   I didn’t hear anything on the news about this past week end, so it must all be in my head. In our circles it is said if you don’t have pictures then it never happened, well I have pictures and video too! The second Homer Ledford Festival went down without a glitch thanks to our beloved Dana McCall at the helm. Folks from all over traveled to Winchester Kentucky for a visit. Dana invited the best talent in the dulcimer world, from Stephen Seifert to Don Pedi and many more. We jammed late Friday night in the gym, got up early and taught classes all day. A young lady shared her Thomas dulcimore that had been in her family since Elijah Hicks bought it from Uncle Ed for his daughter. We all do a little vending so we had to tear down the tables and the like to get ready for the concert. Once complete I drove back to the hotel room and rested for a few minutes myself, I was starting to drag a little.
Back up and at em’ I drive to the Leed’s Theater in down town Winchester to help Bill Johnson with sound. This was my second visit to the Leed’s; I had been to the concert the year before but this was my first time back stage, and man was it fun. First up are Bill and his cohorts in Backroom Bluegrass Band, then Don Pedi, Robert Tincher, and Joe LaMay and Sherri Reese. I got to open the second set! I shared two original tunes, Faith, Hope and Love and Staples and Strings. I nearly choked on the verbal aspect of performing. My throat was dry from nerves. Heckling from Don Pedi’s roadie helped take the edge off a little. There were at least a hundred monologs I had prepared before hand but once on stage they all went blank, but preparation on the strumming paid off! My tunes, played my way, in my time, at ease in my own little world, doing what I love to do.
Martha and Cynthia had an incredible set, Dave Hass and John and Karen Keane work wonders on the stage and we finish with Stephen Seifert! And so another festival has come and gone. Images and video record memories of what is for some folks a once in a life time treat. (That will never be forgotten)
Thank you Dana, Homer Ledford Festival, Leeds and all involved!


My latest adventure is in the world of flue flutes. Wood or bamboo can be used; the techniques are a little different in the construction. What I find most extraordinary is the parallels that exist in the making of the dulcimore! When I learned to make a dulcimore I discovered the systematic curve in nearly all the tonal aspects. Well flutes are no different. Each key fall into a realm of dimensions that make or break the tone you are looking for. The key itself is stretching the dimension it lies in. Too much bottom will alter the top and vice versa. Find the balance and you have a wonderful flute.
The craft itself; that is the makers’ insights draw parallels. If you ask six traditional dulcimore makers why they do a specific task, you will get six different answers! The flute is made by the individual, and traits are maker specific to say the least. There may be similarities esthetically, but the tone and playability are very different. I’m still developing my understanding of the flue flute. My initial perspective was quite wrong. The dynamics are twofold. Not unlike the dulcimore VSL the flute keys are bound by the length of the sound wave. And, the diameter of the sound bore? Still figuring this one out.


P2240002-800I’ve not been in this adventure three years. My love of wood working and study of things dulcimore has not weaned. I’ve developed even more resolve in “how things should be in dulcimore”, and I’m unrepentant for it.
I’ve noticed in the vending booths a trend I can’t ignore. Young men maybe just out of college, with that look in their eye when they look to my dulcimores. They will pick them up and ask great questions, curious. I see the early stage of passion, or what might be, we really don’t know till they have one to take home with to play with for a while. I remember that stage in my life where I had more time than money to explore. Three hundred dollars might as well be three thousand dollars when it comes to what could be called extravagant spending. So they take a card with my information on it and wonder off into the sunset.
Last night lying in bed, I realized how many dulcimore in the just the past year I’ve given away and gifted. Why not loaners? Why not some sort of dulcimore mentoring program for young folks. How is the true folk tradition to survive unless we do as our forefathers did and take a hand in the propagation of the culture.
The traditional dulcimore has been made for nearly two hundred years. It did not cease to exist when the modern instrument took center stage. Individual craftsman as hobby have been making dulcimore a few at a time in regional pockets this whole time. Made for family and friends, they were gifted and sold when possible to a few interested. I found this folk tradition on the internet! I would like to share it personally, to yet again, a few interested folks. I very much would like to find young interested people and loan dulcimore for a said amount of time for them to explore. In that time if they excel, they keep their instrument or trade it in for a better or one more suited for their style of play. If they lose interest, they simply return it. If I’m going to gift dulcimore, I’d like to see they are going to folks who will truly play them, and I’m unrepentant for it.