Texas-born virtuoso finds harmony, sophistication in Appalachian instrument
by Jessica Howard
David Schnaufer strums a lively tune on an instrument that looks like a cross between a guitar and a violin. The instrument, which provides its own accompaniment through constant drones, is essentially a bagpipe with strings.
The sound of the Appalachian dulcimer is mountainous, historical and rural. So rural that anyone with Southern roots would probably hear the earthy tones and imagine their great-grandfather whittling on the front porch.
"We play the sound of the ground we walk," said David Schnaufer, adjunct associate professor of dulcimer at the Blair School of Music.
A zither similar to the dulcimer landed in North America with German immigrants in the 1600s and 1700s, and was adapted to create the dulcimer by the people of Appalachia in the 1800s.
"It's a wild animal. It's never been domesticated," said Schnaufer.
In the 1700s, dulcimers were longer and shaped like a thin hourglass. Some have hearts or stars carved through the face. Tennesseans created a dulcimer in the shape of a rectangular box using yellow poplar wood, fence staples and eye screws for tuners. The sound a dulcimer makes tends to vary from instrument to instrument, more so than guitars or violins. The instrument is as individual as the artist who plays it.
Born in LaMarque, Texas, Schnaufer began playing the dulcimer -- a zither with four strings that span the surface of its hollow body, neck and head -- at age 21, learning from players born in the 1800s. He started playing because he wanted to use the dulcimer -- more melody-based than chord-based -- as a vehicle to write songs.
"Within five minutes, I thought I sounded good," he said.
Living in West Virginia in the late 1970s, Schnaufer finally called Chet Atkins in Nashville after sending tapes to the late country legend and getting no response. Atkins' secretary told him that if he was serious about pursuing a career in music, he should think about moving to Music City.
About that time, country music was transforming to a more acoustic sound, he said, yet the dulcimer still wasn't represented. As soon as he got to town, he asked The Judds if they needed a dulcimer player, and he began recording with them the next day.
Since then, he's worked with some of the finest in the business: Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Mark Knopfler, Chet Atkins and other prolific performers.
Part historian, teacher, performer and former dulcimer luthier, he hopes his students will draw from the dulcimer's heritage to create new music.
"You can teach history, but that is not how it lives," he said. "It takes people doing new things."
Steve Stubblefield began taking dulcimer lessons from Schnaufer three years ago. Stubblefield has come full circle as a musician in Schnaufer's eyes, going from student to fellow musician and now producer of Schnaufer's latest album, Uncle Dulcimer. Like his teacher, Stubblefield too took up the dulcimer to help his songwriting.
"Every lesson, he had a song. It was some of the best writing I've ever heard," Schnaufer said. "I said, 'This is really something.'"
Schnaufer often joins Stubblefield and his three-man band for performances. Described as a "front-porch psychedelia" band by Schnaufer, Starlings, TN released its debut album, The Leaper's Fork, in January, and the group is planning to tour regionally this spring. Several of Schnaufer's songs and arrangements appear on the CD.
Schnaufer said he "keeps a lot of students." He's taught people from a 5-year-old girl to an elderly man to 1980s pop rocker Cyndi Lauper. Lauper traveled to the Blair School in 1997 to take dulcimer lessons from him. A dulcimer player since she was 21 years old, Lauper provides the vocals for the track "Twilight Eyes" on Schnaufer's 1999 CD, Delcimore.
Although the dulcimer has a loyal following, it's a relatively obscure instrument. Surprisingly, Schnaufer said that the use of the dulcimer is not exclusive to country music: The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and R.E.M. have all had the instrument in their recordings.
"Anybody can make beautiful music in five minutes of playing the dulcimer," said Schnaufer. "It's the simplest of all the stringed instruments, but can be as complex as anything else."
Delcimore illustrates the unlikely pairing of the dulcimer to a variety of genres. Many of the tracks were recorded in woods outside of Nashville. A careful listen reveals Schnaufer's "backup singers" in the form of cicadas, sounding much like heavy rain hitting a small body of water. An adaptation of Bach's "Minuet in G" remains classical and delicate.
Schnaufer even helped create the concerto "Blackberry Winter," often the musical accompaniment of figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva.
Schnaufer first encountered the Blair School of Music when he rented Turner Hall to play a concert in the late 1980s. A dozen years later, he was approached by Dean Mark Wait while playing at a dinner party. Wait recruited Schnaufer to the faculty to help broaden the scope of the music school's curriculum. Schnaufer has been teaching dulcimer at Blair since 1995.
"We are primarily a school of classical music, but it's important to offer music of this region," said Wait. "David is one of our terrific faculty members, and we're awfully lucky to have him."
Blair does not offer a degree in dulcimer; most of Schnaufer's students are enrolled in the pre-collegiate or adult studies program at the Blair School.
"I'm the only dulcimer professor in the world," he said laughing.