Mountain Sounds, Legacy of Dulcimers
By Cat Kessler
Locally Crafted Instruments Lend Melodies a Blue Ridge Ring
Enthusiasts of Appalachian music are likely familiar with the whimsical sounds of dulcimers, instruments that have a rich legacy tied to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jerry Read Smith, a local craftsman who has made more than 8,000 musical instruments, builds hammered dulcimers in his workshop in the nearby town of Black Mountain.
The hammered dulcimer and the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer are both members of the zither family of instruments but are otherwise not related to each other, except for their shared connection to this mountain region. The hammered dulcimer, which is Jerry's specialty, is comprised of a trapezoidal-shaped sound box with one or more bridges that support dozens of strings. It is played by hitting the strings with mallets called "hammers"-much in the same way that a piano is played, although the dulcimer is obviously much more portable. By contrast, the mountain dulcimer-which is believed to have been invented in this area-is hourglass-shaped with just a few strings running parallel to a fret board, and it is played by strumming with the fingers.
Asheville is home to a number of talented dulcimer players, and visitors to the area might hear dulcimer music played in one of the many live music venues in town, or even on the sidewalks of downtown that are frequented by buskers and street performers. Jerry has also constructed a beautiful 50-seat private recording and performance space at his home, where he hosts Friday night concerts throughout the year. Visit his website for details.
Interested musicians and others can also visit Jerry's showroom, Song of the Wood, in Black Mountain. A new shop in downtown's Grove Arcade, Appalachian Strings, features locally handmade instruments, including an upright dulcimer, which is constructed and tuned like its mountain cousin, but is played upright, similar to a banjo or guitar.