Starry Lullabye

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

Today, dulcimers come in all shapes and sizes -- peanut-shaped models, triangles, graceful ovals and rectangular contraptions often called Tennessee music boxes. They usually have three or four strings and sound like a cross between a mandolin and a guitar, but sweeter, more fluid and more droning than both. The word "mellifluous" comes to mind.

It's popped up in rock from time to time, most famously in the hands of Brian Jones as the lead instrument in the Rolling Stones cut "Lady Jane." Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Peter Buck of R.E.M. are also known to bust them out from time to time, but for the most part, by the '50s, the dulcimer seemed on its way to extinction. Original freak-folker John Jacob Niles and a few Appalachian musicians such as Jean Ritchie, the Proffitt family and Bonnie Russell were keeping it alive, but it seemed as though it had been drowned out by screeching fiddles, twanging banjos and loud guitars.

Schnaufer bought that dulcimer in Austin and took it with him to Alpine, where he was studying geology at Sul Ross State University. One of the things Schnaufer loved about the instrument was how easy it was to get started playing. Like Texas Hold 'Em poker, it takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.

His studies soon fell by the wayside. "I couldn't get away from the dulcimer," he told fellow dulcimer player and former Houston cop Jerry Wright a few years ago. "I'd play in the morning and I would try walking back up that mountain to go to school and I'd get halfway up and I would turn around and run back down. I didn't know what to do with it -- I didn't know how to tune it or anything. My brother was a priest in Georgetown. So I would hitchhike from Alpine, Texas, all the way across the state for my brother to tune my dulcimer and then I'd just say, 'See ya, I gotta get back.' "

After learning to tune up, Schnaufer quit school, and after ten months of this manic practice, he entered his first contest: the National Dulcimer Championships in Winfield, Kansas. He won.

After stints in Fort Worth and Colorado, Schnaufer moved to West Virginia, where he spent four years learning old-time and mountain music from the original practitioners. He loves taking things direct to the source: Speaking on behalf of all mountain dulcimer players, he once told the Vanderbilt Register, "We play the sound of the ground we walk."

During that time he was also bombarding Chet Atkins's office in Nashville with letters and tapes of his music. Finally, Atkins's secretary told him he probably should move to Nashville if he wanted to have a real career. And that's just what he did.

By and large, Schnaufer made the move seem as easy as his triumph at the dulcimer contest in Kansas. After playing the tip-jar circuit for a few months, he was discovered by the Judds, and his career as a first-call Nashville session pro was born.

He also fell in with a loose-knit crew of singers, pickers and songwriters that included long-term songwriting partner Herb McCullough, old West Virginia buddy and national clawhammer banjo champ Vini Farsetta, singers Toni Price and Joy Lynn White, and the popular Nashville cowpunk band Walk the West. He also met my dad around this time, and they went into partnership in 1989.

White and Price would both record Schnaufer and McCullough's co-written songs -- most Houston fans of Price will remember "Sarah" and "Run Run Run" as live staples. And the Schnaufer/Farsetta duo was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen or heard. Each could simultaneously play rhythm and melody, and it sounded as if there were at least four musicians on stage.

Walk the West enlisted Schnaufer and steel guitarist Sam Poland and renamed themselves the Cactus Brothers, whose psychedelic, hard-rocking live shows are still legend in Nashville, often as not with Schnaufer's amplified dulcimer leading the way. They were signed to Jimmy Bowen's Liberty Records label, but, as usual, country radio found them too edgy, as it almost always does with bands that are authentic and talented. Poland and Schnaufer parted ways from the band before their second album, which was the band's last.

Schnaufer next turned his focus to solo recordings and dulcimer teaching and scholarship. Vanderbilt plans to continue the dulcimer studies program he founded, an achievement the childless musician regards as his legacy and his life's crowning achievement.

Well, there's that and his students. He did a fantastic job of transplanting his love of the dulcimer to the younger generation: His students included Tracy Whitney, formerly of Bare Jr., and former Thompson Twin Jan Pulsford, whose brother Nigel was a member of Bush and who also became a fan and collaborator.

Former Louisiana punk rockers Steve Stubblefield and Timmy Bryan, two-thirds of the "psychedelic, post-apocalyptic country" band Starlings TN, released two stellar albums on Austin's Chicken Ranch Records, both of which Schnaufer contributed to. The Starlings regarded Schnaufer as a guru as well as a nontouring member of their band.

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