Southern Virginia is where I was born, in a valley nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Roanoke is an old railroad town, its last heyday was when railroads ran the world, around the end of the nineteenth century. I grew up with that feeling, slow and once seen, worse than never being seen. It was there I learned that the ghosts of success are more oppressive than the ghosts of nothing at all.
There were many things I look back on that made me happy as a kid there. Lilac bushes in the summer, the heady heat, the blue-green mountains, cold winter and snow, sleigh riding. My neighborhood soda fountain, the same one my dad went to for cherry cokes and cheeseburgers when he was a kid. I climbed up on the same chrome stools.
My home growing up had three distinct musical sounds. One of the first I remember is lying in my bed at night and my mother playing piano in the room at the bottom of the stairs. It was soothing, a time when I trusted my mother. She played the sad Chopin over and over. Its gentleness put me to sleep. The second was the sounds of my brother’s rock music dominating, playing incessantly all day and night. (See my Spotify Playlist “Music My Brother Made Me Listen To”) Third was the sound of my father’s obsessive classical music, Bach, Mozart concertos and operas. Opera Opera Opera all weekend on speakers that were larger and taller than me until I was ten years old.
So understand what a shock it was to me when I picked up a dulcimer while making Revelation that it felt strangely natural. I had taken violin, guitar and piano lessons as a kid learning classical music.
I really wondered where the connection started. I kept seeing an annual summer arts and crafts festival downtown in a park next to the library. Local artisans from all the region’s small towns came to display and make their wares in their booths. They played music and danced, had face painting, balloons, cotton candy. I recall one year being very taken with seeing a dulcimer. It hung on display and then there was a young guy making another one. I remember noticing how absorbed he was, he wasn’t mean but he didn’t notice me as I got close to watch. He was just absorbed in his work, focused. He felt peaceful to me. I remember the blonde treated wood, the clamps, the sound of the sand paper, the little heart and bird symbols carved into the surface.
Dulcimers coming into my life and writing the song on the album “Snakes in the Snow” came simultaneously over the course of a month. Ron Browning, my voice coach had suggested my writing and singing with one. I had already been thinking about it. I am always hesitant to take up new instruments since I feel fortunate to be playing guitar with any facility at all, which in itself that is a miracle to me. Chris Brown soon after suggested playing a dulcimer to me in our long and lingering year long discussion about music in regards to Revelation. He always brought up Joni Mitchell on "Blue" and Stephen Stills having her play a dulcimer. At that time, Chris challenged me to write an acapella song for the album.
So I did. It came to me like a gift from a bird that flew into my New York apartment, it just mostly popped out. I have always had an obsession with the archetypal myth of Persephone and Hades, and her bloody pomegranite seeds that take her back to the earth’s surface in the springtime. Ron told me to play it on the dulcimer which opened up to my voice and settled the lyrics. I brought it to Chris on guitar but he also suggested I play it on dulcimer. That’s how we recorded the song Snakes in the Snow. With the bagpipe drone of a dulcimer running through the gorgeous chaos Chris Brown and Kate Fenner and Jason Mercer and Pete Bowers made with their instruments.
I don’t pick up the dulcimer enough. Guitar is my daily injection. But when I do play it, it speaks to me with a deep and sweet conversation of the Old Time music. Music that I didn't hear in my immediate home but felt it all around me. Now I understand, that music was in the large trees I used to lay under, the transparent blue mountains I watched while my parents carpooled me, the rich smell of the green grass. It was everywhere. As I grow older, I notice I cleave to the things that brought me comfort as a child, maybe in an attempt to let the unfettered memories heal me. The Old Time music possesses that capacity. Making music has made me understand how I have always been a part of it even though my life history would definitely show otherwise. Although I don't go back that much, the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Mountains where I grew up, , the feeling of that place runs through my body. It makes me feel calm and contented, focused with a purpose, like that guy looked who I saw making dulcimers when I was a kid.