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Playin' those sweet tunes

Friendship, family and fellowship with the Kentucky Dulcimer Gatherin'

The Kentucky Dulcimer Gatherin' on a recent Tuesday at the Owenton I.O.O.F. Lodge. (Photo by Amanda Anderson Matthews)

RON DEVORE, A FAITHFUL MEMBER OF THE KENTUCKY DULCIMER GATHERIN’ plays the traditional Appalachian tune “Black Mountain Rag” on a recent Tuesday afternoon at Owenton’s Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge. The Kentucky Dulcimer Gatherin’ began as a small group in Bedford, Kentucky, and has since grown to more than 30 participants. (Photo by Amanda Anderson Matthews)


Sweet Owen Contributor

By 2001, when the Kentucky Dulcimer became the state’s official instrument, many had all but forgotten its dulcet tones that once rang out across the hills and hollers of Appalachia.

With origins dating back to the 19th century, the dulcimer rose to popularity in the early 1950s when Viper, Kentucky, native Jean Ritchie landed a record deal and released her first full-length album, “Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family.”

Rife with Appalachian heritage, Ritchie’s music landed in the hands of a younger generation, piquing the interest of songsters like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell, whose stardom a decade later would put folk music back in the mainstream consciousness.

Although the dulcimer may have fallen from favor in the post-folk-revival years, many Kentuckians refuse to let the instrument’s melodies–and its historical significance–fade away.

Perhaps the earliest reference to the dulcimer is found in the Old Testament, when in Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar erects an image of gold in Babylon, commanding people far and wide to fall down and worship the image when “ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick.” (Daniel 3:5, KJV).

Vastly different from the dulcimer of King Nebuchadnezzar’s day, the Kentucky Dulcimer dates back to the early 1800s, having traveled to the Americas with the Germans to Pennsylvania and on to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Traditionally built in either an hourglass or teardrop shape, Kentucky Dulcimers, also referred to as the Mountain Dulcimer, were made to have three or four strings and were played on the lap, strummed with a turkey feather or a pick, while the melody string was fretted with a finer or a small wooden tool called a noter.

Since the 1970s, Berea, Kentucky’s Warren May has constructed Kentucky Dulcimers, prioritizing playability and the ease of learning and enjoying the instrument. Many of May’s creations are on full display each Tuesday at Owenton’s Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Lodge, courtesy of The Kentucky Dulcimer Gatherin’.

Keepin’ the tunes alive

In a way, the Kentucky Dulcimer Gatherin’ was born to continue the work of Jean Ritchie. Its mission is “to share, educate and entertain; to keep alive the history of the Kentucky dulcimer; to preserve the sweet sounds and unique playing styles of the Kentucky Dulcimer.” It had humble beginnings in an art studio in Bedford, Kentucky, where in 2012, Sharon Eggemeier began offering dulcimer lessons. Starting with 12 students, the group eventually grew to 27, playing each week at Carroll County First Baptist Church.

Then, in March 2020, the world stopped.

But even COVID-19 couldn’t keep the group apart. As soon as they were able, they reassembled at the Owenton IOOF Lodge from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. each Tuesday and on the third Tuesday of each month at General Butler State Park in Carrollton.

Owen County native Betty Lusby explains that the group is more than just a band; they are a family, a fellowship.

“We’re a real close-knit group of people,” she said. “We look out for one another.”

“It’s the highlight of the week,” Pam Michels adds.

Made up of residents of Owen, Carroll, Henry, Trimble, Kenton, and Boone counties, the faithful participants celebrate birthdays, send get-well cards, and pray together at lunch.

And while they are primarily dulcimer players, there are a few other string and percussion instruments, including guitar, banjo, mandolin, keyboard, harmonica, rhythm shakers, spoons, a drum board, a train whistle, dobro, stand-up bass, and a bouzouki (Google that one).

To support the group’s mission, they visit various events and communities to share their music, from Heritage Days in Carrollton and the Scott County Public Library to the Owen County Christian Preschool.

For this group, it’s about playing and having fun while engaging the community with an essential part of Kentucky’s musical heritage. They invite the public to listen on any Tuesday, share their music, or bring an instrument and play along.

Strummin’ with old and new players

Only some people in the group are tenured dulcimer players. As Mark Briggs relates in “The Dulcimer Handbook,” “There are no tried and true, right or wrong, sure-fire ways to play the dulcimer . . . The instrument is only as complex or as simple as you choose to make it.”

Anyone can take up the dulcimer at any age. Some group members, like Reba Hance, have played the instrument for decades. In fact, Warren May offered to sell Hance his first dulcimer in 1974 for $40. She turned him down due to what she believed to be a steep price tag.

“I was a widow with three young children, and it was a lot of money at the time,” she said. “I have regretted it ever since.”

Curt Beatty and Sharon Eggemeier have played music for more than 70 years. Beatty learned to play the dulcimer by chance when he showed up to a group of dulcimer players carrying his bouzouki. Mike Sparrow and Larry Dale Perry have played for more than 50 years, and Ron DeVore began in 1984. But that’s only the story for some.

While Eggemeier is a lifelong musician, she didn’t pick up the dulcimer until she was in her 50s. Delores Ginn, a retired nurse from Bedford, Kentucky, began playing when she received a Warren May dulcimer for Christmas in 2003. Betty Lusby began playing the dulcimer in 2018 and joined the group three years ago. One common theme that draws the players to the instrument is the sound and the history.

“I thank God every day for the dulcimer because I meet great people,” Becky DeBruler said.

Whether it’s a custom Warren May, a family heirloom plucked from the wall, or a cardboard kit from Etsy, pick up your dulcimer and play. The Gatherin’ is always excited to have new members.

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