A! Magazine for the Arts

Gill Braswell holds a psaltry as he talks about instruments made in the Appalachian region. (Photo by David Crigger)

Gill Braswell holds a psaltry as he talks about instruments made in the Appalachian region. (Photo by David Crigger)

Workshop Showcases An Appalachian Tradition

August 2, 2010

*** Published July 29, 2010 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***

ABINGDON, Va. -- Between them, father and son have made over 50 wooden stringed instruments.

Both – Allen Hicks of Nicklesville, Va., and his son, Larry Hicks from Castlewood, Va. – said they got into making instruments as a hobby.

"When I started my boy was taking guitar lessons and Dad started building mandolins," Larry Hicks said. "I told my boy I'd make him one."

That was about 10 years ago, and Hicks has made nearly 40 guitars in that time.

"When I do retire, I'd love to do this full time," he said. "I have a love for working with wood – it's exciting to hear what it sounds like when you get them made."

Allen Hicks said someone suggested that he get into making instruments. He's a retired steelworker, but said woodworking is in the family – he has a 100-year-old banjo someone made, he said.

"You get two or three made, it just grows on you," he said. "You get a lot of the instruments that's real cheap and made with machinery, but we don't use machinery, we just whittle."

He has built 18 of his favorite instrument – the mandolin, one of which Capo's Music Store co-owner Gill Braswell demonstrated for the small crowd that gathered at his shop for the "Introduction to Traditional Appalachian Instruments" workshop Wednesday, held in conjunction with the Virginia Highlands Festival.

The store carries mandolins, guitars and dulcimers regularly, but Wednesday, local luthiers were on hand to discuss their work and their instruments with local musicians and the store's customers.

"They're part of our history, of our culture," Braswell said. "If we don't show an appreciation for [these types of instruments] then we might not have them around, and we don't want that to happen – to have a society where we don't have time to create things with wood and steel and see what sounds they make."

Braswell led the demonstration, talking about instruments ranging from spoons and bones to mandolins and saltries. He provided a bit of history for each – noting that many Appalachian instruments derive from the region's Scots-Irish heritage – and passed some pieces around the room before opening up the floor to the luthiers themselves.

"You know that time, lots of time, goes into these instruments," Braswell said. "And one man's hands goes into these – not a conveyor belt."

Guitar maker Keith Hurley, from Marion, Va., said having events where luthiers and customers can get together like the event Wednesday is important because people can then identify the guitar maker with the instrument, and it gives him the ability to showcase the raw materials and show the process of making an instrument.

"If they see [a guitar] in the store they have no way of associating a person with it," he said. "They can connect a face with personalities and a name."

Abingdon resident Kathy Hutson said she used to play the mandolin and currently has a dulcimer and she was really impressed to be able to hear from the people who made the instruments.

"I'm honored to hear them speak," she said. "A lot of young people are interested in this kind of music but they don't realize the people building them are in their neighborhood."

Jim Pittman, visiting family from Parris Island, S.C., said he came up to Southwest Virginia because the festival was going on.

He said he plays "at the guitar," mandolin and banjo, and he thinks there has been a renaissance of handmade instruments in the past 20 years.

"There are lots of kids here that may have been here by chance, but they may become guitar makers and mandolin makers," he said. "It is important to learn and we can convey a love for these things."