Starry Lullabye

Ailing Houston-area native David Schnaufer has taken the Appalachian dulcimer to the mountaintop

Few Houston-area musicians have had careers as illustrious and seemingly unlikely as La Marque native David Schnaufer's -- a journey that took him from a middle-class childhood in a tough little refinery town on the Gulf Coast to the rugged hollers and hills of West Virginia to a burgeoning career as a Nashville musician and an adjunct professorship at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.

And he did it all with the mountain dulcimer -- an obscure, uniquely American instrument he pulled out of America's collective attic, where it had mainly been collecting dust since the 19th century. (Full disclosure: My father, John Lomax III, managed Schnaufer in the late '80s and early '90s.)

This June, Schnaufer was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer that had already spread to his brain. He underwent chemo and radiation, but it was far too late. He was moved into a Nashville hospice a couple of weeks ago, where he is being cared for by friends and fellow musicians.

Veteran Nashville music scribe Michael McCall is one of the few mainstream journalists who truly understand the magnitude of Schnaufer's career. "David's pulled off a near miracle," he wrote. "He's made a close-to-forgotten acoustic instrument relevant, and he's done it in a hi-tech age obsessed with drum machines and the latest synthesized equipment."

And as if making the instrument relevant again weren't enough, Schnaufer also redefined its possibilities. Prior to his advent, most dulcimer players kept things sweet and simple -- they used a pick in their strumming hand and often fretted with a slide, and the dulcimer was regarded as a quaint little anachronism best suited for dainty performances of hoary old Appalachian folk songs.

Schnaufer mastered that style, but also fingerpicked, flatpicked and resurrected the lost art of bowing the dulcimer, a technique that produces an eerie bagpipe-like droning sound. His technical innovations in amplifying the instrument were also vital; the main reason it had faded was that it was too quiet. Before he was done, he showed that the instrument was capable of taking on everything from Mozart to Mingus.

Along the way, he played on albums by the Judds, Johnny Cash, Michael Martin Murphey, Emmylou Harris and the recent Linda Ronstadt/Ann Savoy collaboration, while people like Mark Knopfler, Chet Atkins, Albert Lee, Cyndi Lauper, Sandy Bull, Jack "Cowboy" Clement, Santiago Jimenez Jr. and Mark O'Connor guested on his. He was once handpicked by the Everly Brothers as their opening act. And along with Charley Pride, Bill Monroe and Norman Blake, Schnaufer was one of four musicians invited to play the 25th wedding anniversary of June and Johnny Cash.

Every note Schnaufer plays is packed with emotion. On the joyful songs, his instrument sounds like it's dancing; on the sad songs, it stabs you with grief. To watch him play was to see a man who was a slave to his instrument.

"He's a musical cat," Townes Van Zandt once told me, about a year before he passed away. Van Zandt's praise was always hard-won, and he seldom co-wrote songs, especially toward the end of his career, but he made exceptions in Schnaufer's case. Their joint effort "Waltz of the Waters," which ended up appearing in instrumental form (backed by a rickety rhapsody of raspy cicadas) on Schnaufer's album Delcimore, was one of Van Zandt's last compositions.

"He's not one of these musicians," Van Zandt went on. "He just is a musical person. He reminds me of Roky Erickson that way."

Schnaufer has always maintained that every person on earth has it in them to play music. "Everyone has an instrument," he likes to tell people in his strong Texas drawl. "It's just a matter of finding it."

It took Schnaufer a longer time than most. Though as a child he played the harmonica and Jew's harp and had a deep and abiding love of the hard country music his parents enjoyed -- Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer and Bob Wills -- Schnaufer didn't seriously embark on his career until he was in his early twenties. He knocked around Galveston for a time, working as, among other things, a ding boy in a surf shop, but a four-night series of Emmylou Harris/Gram Parsons shows at Houston's Liberty Hall electrified him.

His own search began after that concert. He knew he wanted to play something with strings, so he quickly picked up and abandoned both the autoharp and the guitar. And then, on his 21st birthday, while on his way from Houston to Alpine, he spied a selection of dulcimers in the window of an Austin music shop.

This would be a fortuitous meeting, not just for Schnaufer, but for the future of the dulcimer. Before he was done, he would bring the unique instrument out of the shadows and back into the national consciousness. Today, thanks in no small part to his efforts, the dulcimer has a small but growing cult, and in terms of sheer numbers, probably more players than at any other time in history.

A descendant of the German zither, the dulcimer evolved over a couple of centuries in the Appalachian mountains. The earliest American pioneers carried the instruments with them into Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee and beyond, and since many of these people were Scotch-Irish, the evolving dulcimer took on something of a Celtic whir, the better to match the ballads, reels, hymns, breakdowns and hornpipes its practitioners played.

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