There are no iPods, iPads, stereos or amplifiers here. It’s just a circle of friends, balancing on their laps pieces of carved, hourglass-shaped wood with frets and strings. Leaning against a back wall, a monogrammed case says it all: I heart dulcimers.
To many players, the simple folk and bluegrass instrument is making a comeback. Locally, groups gather to pluck the instruments, “jamming” to waltzes, jigs and even pop music. The Sonic Sounds, a Houston County dulcimer club that gathers weekly at Centerville United Methodist Church, launches into the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B,” singing along to the acoustic pop melody.
Dulcimer music “is becoming a little more popular,” said Laneah Maddox, of Sonic Sounds.
Many credit the recent use of the instrument in pop songs — specifically in Cyndi Lauper tunes. Still, many newcomers simply heard the instrument at shows and fell in love with it. That’s what happened when Maddox attended a festival years ago and heard dulcimer music. She immediately decided to invest in one.
“I had never seen the instrument before,” she said.
She went on to buy a few dulcimers and put the word out that she would loan them to those interested in playing. Six years later, about 15 people are part of the Centerville group, where both beginners and experienced players meet and pick. Some group members perform in public festivals, churches and other places.
The club is free, and members will teach newcomers the basics and then let them take part in the jam session. They even have loaner dulcimers for people who do not own an instrument.
The group isn’t even limited to dulcimers. While that is the most popular instrument, they encourage anyone to bring their bluegrass instrument and hit some chords. They just enjoy picking and playing a ditty.
“I’ve been at many other musical things before,” said Terry Everett, a dulcimer player who lives in Warner Robins. “Dulcimer players are the nicest people.”
Everett heard mountain dulcimer music at a local festival, and a year later she joined the local group. She enjoys playing old church hymns, which take her back to her childhood in Alabama.
“The dulcimer is just, it’s sweet sounds,” she said. “That’s what dulcimer means.”
Ron Rowland knows how sweet the sound of a dulcimer can be. As a leader of the Middle Georgia Dulcimer Club in Macon, he plays with up to 40 people at the Young American Music School. Like the Houston County group, the Macon club will loan beginners a dulcimer and teach them to strum it. Then, they hold a group jam session.
“We have such a good time playing these instruments,” Rowland said.
The group has met for the past 15 years, and it seems the unique instrument is drawing more people, he said.
“I think they’re definitely gaining popularity,” Rowland said.
The instruments are piquing the interest of people like Phebe Knowles, a Warner Robins resident who heard a dulcimer performance last year and immediately joined the Houston County group.
A former guitar player, Knowles’ favorite song to play is “Amazing Grace,” and she prefers the dulcimer because it’s less complicated than the guitar, she said.
“The dulcimer, you just put it in your lap, and it’s easier to handle,” Knowles said. She takes her seat, lays her dulcimer across her lap and loops a purple strap around her waist to hold the instrument in place. She softly strums the instrument as others chat and push their carts full of instruments, music sheets and stands.
Their instruments are different shapes and colors. Carvings of hearts, birds and other images are etched into some dulcimers. One member packs a tiny, wooden footstool; another constantly taps her feet to the rhythm of the melodies.
They flip open their song books and begin strumming the tunes of “Carolina Waltz,” “Where Could I Go But to the Lord,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
“It’s very soothing,” says John Shawhan, a dulcimer player from Kathleen.
During one song, Knowles stops strumming and taps her dulcimer, adding percussion to the sounds. Musicians slide their fingers up and down the strings, plucking and strumming. The last note is played, and they nod their heads in satisfaction.
“Let’s do one more,” Shawhan says.
Meeting times and other information for both Sonic Sounds and the Middle Georgia Dulcimer Club can be found on the North Georgia Foothills Dulcimer Association website at www.ngfda.org/satellitesgrid.shtml.