Mountain traditions are firm in central Kentucky

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Dulcimer sound key to music festival

By Becca Owsley

Hardin County plays host to the Traditional Music Festival for the 19th year this weekend. The centerpiece of the festival is the mountain dulcimer and musicians say it remains a relevant instrument because it is easy to play and the tunes are familiar.


“The mountain dulcimer was born out of a desire for an instrument that had a drone sound or a similarity to the bagpipe sound as many of the Appalachian ancestors would have remembered from Scotland and Ireland,” said Pam Story of the Heartland Dulcimer Club.

She credits Kentucky-born musician Jean Ritchie for making the instrument popular in the 1940s. Ritchie also published the first major dulcimer instruction and repertoire book in 1963, she said.

“Since that time, numerous dulcimer clubs have formed across the country, as well as dulcimer makers,” Story said.

Kevin Shank, a music instructor at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, said one of the reasons the dulcimer remains popular is that it is easy to learn to play.

“Someone can pick up a dulcimer and within minutes be able to accompany someone singing or playing a melody,” Shank said. “The indigenous music of our area of the country lends itself well as a style that sounds great when accompanied by a dulcimer.”

Musician Martha Richard of Boston, Ky., who is instructing and performing at the festival, said the instrument is accessible and easy to learn, even with a limited musical background.

The music is pretty and a part of the musical traditions of this part of the country, she said.

The songs are old time fiddle tunes and a part of the everyday music brought to the area from European ancestors, she said. Songs played can be as varied as gypsy tunes and church music, she said.

While the instrument has remained a part of the folk song, Richard said, some musicians use electrified mountain dulcimers for a rock sound. One performer in this weekend’s event sometimes does that, she added.

While the sound is heard from time to time in pop music, it remains a part of traditional folk music, she said.

Richard also found it’s an instrument and style that’s easy for musicians to get together for a jam. The Hardin County area serves as a central location for musicians in this style to get together and play, she said.

The Heartland Dulcimer Club has been a part of sustaining that tradition in the area. The club formed in 1994 and the Traditional Music Festival has continued each year from that time, Story said.

“Our club was involved with the legislature passing a bill in 2001 that declared the mountain dulcimer the official musical instrument of Kentucky,” Story said.

She said the club remains committed to keeping mountain dulcimer music alive for musicians and for the community through education, instruction, performances and entertainment.

The Traditional Music Festival begins at 7 p.m. Friday with a jam session at the Ramada Inn in Elizabethtown.

Saturday begins with registration at 8 a.m. at the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center at John Hardin High School. Workshops on the ukulele, hammered dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, bodhran, folk harp and tin whistle begin at 9 a.m. and continue through the day. A student workshop also is offered.

Workshop registration is limited.

Susan Trump, Butch Ross, Andy Young, Chattering Magpies, Doug Berch, Nancy and Frank Clark and Martha Richard perform a round robin style concert kicked off by The Heartland Dulcimer Club at 7 p.m. Saturday. The concert also includes members of the youth orchestra of the Music and Arts Center of Cultural Learning.

Events are free but donations are appreciated.

For information, go to www.heartlanddulcimerclub.org.

Becca Owsley can be reached at 270- 505-1741 or bowsley@thenewsenterprise.com.