| STROKING AND STRUMMING – The local dulcimer players bring Appalachian tunes and a love for music to West Tennessee each Tuesday in Sharon. |
If you happen to be driving through Sharon on a Tuesday night with your windows rolled down, you might think you hear some mountain music filtering through the thick summer air. And you would be right.
For just over the railroad tracks on the main street, in a little brick building, a group of about 15-25 dulcimer players from around Weakley and other area counties meet every week to strum and sing along to old Appalachian tunes.
Only a few of them have had any formal musical training and very few even knew what this three or four stringed traditional mountain instrument looked like a few years ago.
Yet week after week, they loyally assemble at the Sharon Senior Center to rake their strings and sing such standards as “Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm.”
Sometimes they take their group on the road to area assisted living facilities and nursing homes.
And their ranks are growing. At least five members of the group play on mountain dulcimers that were made by a local Sidonia man, JM Shanes.
They are made out of poplar, cherry, maple, walnut cypress and other local woods, some a century old, that he has collected in the workshop next to his house. Decorated with sound holes of hummingbirds, oak leaves, hearts and flowers, most are in the shape of an hourglass.
Each lap instrument has a slightly different sound.
Starting at 6 p.m., the Tuesday night musicians straggle into the Sharon Senior Center and start setting up in a circle.
Their music stands resemble a cross between a folding canvas lawn chair and a violin stand; most of these too are locally made. Then out come the dulcimers from their cases, each one different from the one next to it.
Marshall Hazelwood of Martin even sports a lap instrument that looks like a small banjo on one end. A very thick loose-leaf notebook filled with more than 100 songs is balanced up on the stand, some volumes as thick as five or six inches.
Their “conductor” — Prentice Ary from Sharon — has already set up shop in the middle. He plays both a guitar and his dulcimer. To his left, is Bill Johnson from Martin on guitar and Demple Newson from Sharon on the mandolin.
Everyone else has a dulcimer balanced across their laps.
At 6:30, they are ready to begin playing.
Prentice’s wife, Betty starts them off with a song that she says everyone knows, “Boil Those Cabbage Down.” This is the “dulcimer theme song,” says Prentice, the first thing any dulcimer group plays “wherever you go.”
It’s folk music, not exactly bluegrass, country or anything half as raucous. Various members of the group describe the sound as “low and soft:”
“Its real restful,” offers Betty Ary. Indeed the effect seems to be calming; a peacefulness passes over the faces of the dulcimer players.
Or, it could be concentration?
Soon the group is focusing on some simple chords, mostly in the key of D printed on their song sheets. But Prentice Ary is trying to bring them up another level to read off of index card sized “tabs” that require much more finger work on the frets and more closely follow the melody.
“We’re going to play six songs and when we get to 10, we can go to another nursing home or someplace,” he encourages them.
He says some of the people in the group took “some convincing” to get started because they had not played musical instruments before.
“The dulcimer is simple to play, but there is no end to the music you can get out of it,” says Ary, noting that depth and difficulty is up the player.
Ary and others take trips to some of the more prominent dulcimer festivals in the southeast including one last June at the Land Between the Lakes.
The genesis of the group was a chance visit by some of the Sharon players to a dulcimer festival in Tishomingo State Park n Mississippi, explains Ary. The 100 or so participants looked like they were having fun and the Sharon visitors brought the word home.
Dulcimers were purchased from a craftsman in Alabama named Horace Eves and soon a small group formed in Sharon playing out of a carport and later Ary’s machine shop.
As the group grew, the Senior Center in Sharon offered its facilities and that’s where they are today.
Bonnie Roberts from Sharon was one of the early members. “I bought a dulcimer in Nashville at Opryland and played “Wildwood Flower” all the way home. “But it’s no fun to play by yourself, you need a group.”
She put it away for a while and then joined the Sharon players.
Most of the group have Alabama dulcimers but when Eves died last summer, the Sharon group contacted JM Shanes, who was making wooden bowls and furniture in his retirement and asked him if he might be interested in making some dulcimers for the group.
“I didn’t even know what a dulcimer was,” remembers Shanes. He went online to find some forms and studied the dulcimers in the group and pretty soon Shanes was making dulcimers.
“The first one was pretty ugly,” he admits but now some of the group members proudly strum his hand crafted work. Roberts has “upgraded” her dulcimer to one made by Shanes.
“First they got me making the dulcimers and now they have me playing,” says Shanes.
About half way through the session, the group takes a break with three freezers of homemade vanilla ice cream. This is the time to socialize but soon they are back at it again with decidedly much more enthusiasm.
The singing picks up too with tunes like “Walk Across Texas.” Ary takes requests for favorites including “Mountain Dew” and the “Sunnyside of Life.”
About 8 p.m., they’re laying the dulcimers gently back in their cases.
The five or so spectators, including one knitter, get ready to leave, too.“It sure does keep you happy,” says one musician on her way out.
“It keeps you young,” answers another back.
Visitors are welcome to come and listen to the dulcimer group every Tuesday at the Sharon Senior Center from 6-8 p.m.
They also encourage others to pick up the dulcimer and play with them; they have a few extra to get started on. A bluegrass group plays on Monday evenings.
Editor’s note: Sandy Koch is an adjunct instructor of political science at UT Martin. Before that she was a journalist and editor for about 20 years writing mostly about international topics.