My first dulcimer was made by Stephen Wise.
I was a singer/guitar player in the bluegrass-meets-Irish band Eaglebone Whistle. I tried playing the dulcimer for a while but couldn’t figure out how to keep it from sliding off my lap. So it stayed in my closet for a few years. Later, when I became a solo songwriter, it came out of the closet! I suddenly had the idea that if I strung it up backwards I could play it standing, like a guitar. When I went to Nashville to record my first album, Pick It Up (Green Linnet), the dulcimer came with me.
Jim Rooney produced the album, and he invited his friend Mark O’Connor, one of my bluegrass heroes, to play fiddle on it. I brought the dulcimer out for a song – a traditional tune called “Dubuque” – which Mark learned on the spot. You can hear his bare foot tapping in the background on the record.
From then on I took the dulcimer with me whenever I played live. It’s been up and down I-95 about 1000 times; it’s ridden Amtrak from Boston to San Luis Obispo CA, with stops all along the way; it’s strummed its way through the city streets of Montreal to the lake shores of Ontario across the plains of Winnipeg to the foot hills of Calgary to Vancouver, where my singing partner and I had a few days off and watched every episode of Twin Peaks. It’s ridden in overhead bins, water taxis, golf carts, looked for a parking spot in New York, shivered through the snow drifts of Michigan, wound its way through Italy, Germany, Vienna, Amsterdam, the Scottish Highlands, and one time followed Suzanne Vega at the New York City Folk Festival (see bnw photo).
When I brought my dulcimer to New York to record my second album, Jane Gillman (Green Linnet), Steve Burgh, the producer, enlisted his friend Charlie Giordano, to play accordion on a track called “One Look Back.” It was the first time Charlie had ever recorded his accordion; these days he plays it every night with Bruce Springsteen.
The dulcimer has opened shows for all kinds of headliners – from John Hammond to 10,000 Maniacs to David Byrne – and one time it slept next to me somewhere in the midwest, where the promoter’s idea of accommodations was a roll out cot on the stage. It’s toured small town America in musical theatre productions, played smoky bars – back when there were smoky bars – college campuses, festivals. It’s inspired preschoolers, intrigued rockers and bikers; it’s stayed up all night with Guy Clark and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot; and it’s helped me write songs that I never would have thought of on my guitar.
Steve Wise also made my 000 size guitar.
I used to carry it everywhere in a gig bag over my shoulder, until one day I was crossing MacDougal St in New York and a cab ran right into it. It survived, but since then I’ve kept it safe in its hard shell cocoon. Not long ago I finally strummed a hole right through the top. I thought it looked kind of cool that way – like Willie Nelson’s guitar – but Steve didn’t. So he patched it up.
I think the sweetest sounding recording of my guitar is on the album I did with Darcie Deaville, Ways to Fly (Flying Fish/Rounder), recorded by Mark Hallman. Darcie wrote a song on that album called Skyscraper… a kind of a psychedelic-folk song. In an attempt to create a psychedelic harmony part, I sang lying down on the floor of the studio with a mic dangling over my head. Mark was all in. It was a success, so I recorded all my harmony parts on the album that way.
My first harmonica was a Hohner Blues harp, key of G.
And its first performance was the Western Junior High Talent Show in my hometown of Bethesda, MD. I played Mr. Tambourine Man…and got an encore! So I played the only other harmonica song I knew, Blowin’ In the Wind. I learned how to play harmonica from wearing grooves in Bob Dylan’s very first album. He has a song on there called “Song to Woody” where he mentions Sonny Terry, which is how I found out about my harmonica hero. Nobody plays like Sonny.
Years later I embarked on a coast-to-coast record release train tour with Green Linnet label-mate Cormac McCarthy (the singer, not the novelist). One of the many ways we kept ourselves entertained was with an ongoing contest to see who could sell more albums to unsuspecting people we met along the way. On Thanksgiving Day, after our train had pulled out of Chicago, we swayed our way to the club car – he with guitar, me with harmonicas – and we staged a concert. We came out even record-sales-wise, and stayed that way until the very last day of the tour, when I secretly sold one to an American Airlines ticket agent.
The harmonica is humbling. One of my teachers, Carlos del Junco, says the two most difficult instruments to play are violin and harmonica. I consider it my “soul” instrument and am always trying to up my game. John Hammond taught me how to tongue block and play octaves one night at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem PA. And James Conway from Chicago is an ongoing inspiration. In 1999 Hohner endorsed me as a player…and even more of an honor – one night Ramblin’ Jack said: You sound just like Woody!
People often ask me about my musical influences. Some of my earliest influences were the DJ’s on the amazing radio stations in Bethesda, MD when I was in high school. WHFS-FM was so unusual and ground-breaking it was featured in its own documentary. I learned about Cajun music, Piedmont Virginia Blues, Firesign Theatre, John Martyn, the Beatles Christmas tapes, Jackson Brown, Asbury Park, the list is endless, from WHFS DJ’s Damien Einstein and Cerphe.
My high school friend Hesther and I were WHFS groupies. When a touring artist would come to town and stop by the station to play live, we’d walk over – age 15 – knock on the door, then sit quietly on the couch while Whoever played just a few feet away. The performer who made the biggest impression on me was Nicky Hopkins, keyboardist for the Stones, so slight and delicate in his green velveteen jacket. One time we went to see Tom Rush, the New England folksinger. He was packing up his guitar and saw us watching from the couch. “You guys want to be musicians?” We nodded. “Well let me give you a little advice: DON’T DO IT! IT’S A TERRIBLE LIFE!” Can’t say I’ve ever agreed with him.
On the public radio end of the dial, Mary Cliff opened my young ears to Jean Ritchie, the Stanley Brothers, Alice Gerard and Hazel Dickens; and from her I learned about the open mics at the Red Fox Inn that was just down the road from my house. Hesther and I would show up and play on Monday nights.
Before iPhone voice memo’s there were portable cassette tape players. When I was in high school I had a Sony, and my dad had one from Radio Shack he kept downstairs. Late at night I’d go down and steal my dad’s and then put both on my bed. I’d record into one, then record into the other while the first was playing, and on and on, back and forth, bouncing tracks, creating my first home recording studio. Since then I’ve heard stories of so many other musicians doing this same thing…but at the time I thought I’d invented something.
This sense of complete immersion in inventing and creating is what composing and recording in my home studio feels like to me now, like I’m my 14 year-old self on my bed with a guitar and two cassette decks.
Of course, not every creation turns out “right.” Some I crumple up, some I keep as ideas for another day. But all are part of the mysterious process called art, a process to which my life is devoted.