Starry Lullabye

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.)


David Schnaufer

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.

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.

In addition to his musical talents, Schnaufer is sage beyond his years. I toured with him one summer -- an epic journey from North Carolina to Maine in an Olds 88 -- and hung out with him quite a bit in the early '90s. He changed the way I think about not just music but life and politics too, in ways I have now internalized so deeply that I can't really recall specific examples. His mind is both extremely thoughtful and iconoclastic. He accepts almost nothing he reads or is told at face value and has a novelist's eye for detail. And he can find beauty almost anywhere or in anyone.

Schnaufer's later recordings found him continuing to break new ground. He cut music by everyone from Bach to Charles Mingus to Hank Williams. With Nashville composer Conni Ellisor, he also composed a classical concerto for the dulcimer called "Blackberry Winter," which Olympic gold medalist ice skater Ekaterina Gordeeva used on numerous occasions as her accompaniment.

Composing classical pieces for Russian ice skaters and founding endowed disciplines at elite universities...He has come along about as far from La Marque as you can get, and yet always, at bottom, remains the same Hank Williams-loving Gulf Coast kid he was born.

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