DAMASCUS, Va. — If Keith Powers listens hard enough, he might hear the sweet sounds of the dulcimer he played as a teen drifting through the memories of his mountain home.
He made his first dulcimer in 1973 at the age of 17. The second came along about three years later.
But, it took him more than 40 years to make the next.
Powers, 64, said retirement has afforded him the opportunity to devote to the long-lost hobby. In many ways, he’s returning to his roots, crafting the musical instruments that started his love of music so many years ago.
The dulcimer-maker believes the folk and bluegrass instrument is making a comeback.
His goal is to teach the younger generation how to make the instruments so that it doesn’t become a lost art.
“I have seen a few old-time bluegrass bands include dulcimers in their music. Even Cyndi Lauper plays the dulcimer in some of her songs,” he said.
When he’s not trying to play a dulcimer, he’s making them.
Last summer while sheltering-in-place during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the woodworker retreated to his workshop outside his Damascus home to begin a journey of creating the traditional Appalachian folk instruments.
He’s made four mountain or lap dulcimers since retirement, two of which he recently sold at a local store.
One of his first creations is a dulcimer made from wormy chestnut — rare wood that was recovered from an old house torn down in town. The top is made from spruce.
“It made a beautiful instrument, but the wormy chestnut produces a sharper tone than the ones made with black walnut. Walnut wood gives a deep, rich tone. The better instruments are made from walnut with spruce for the top,” Powers said.
He’s already planning to make his next dulcimer from black walnut and sassafras.
Some of the wood he uses is repurposed, some is acquired from customers who make trades.
The dulcimers Powers makes are truly like no others.
Using his woodworking skills, Powers adds custom features, making the dulcimers works of art.
One of his dulcimers has a carved bear in the peg head — the beginning piece of the instrument. He used wood-burning techniques to make the hair for the bear, and included carved bear tracks for sound holes on top of the dulcimer.
He affectionately named the tear-drop shaped instrument after Wilburn Waters, a regionally known trapper and hunter of bears in the 1800s.
“I had an ancestor who hunted with Wilburn Waters, and I grew up hearing stories about Wilburn Waters. He was an inspiration for my bear-themed dulcimer,” Powers said.
Another dulcimer made by the luthier is designed with dogwood flowers and the leaves provide a pattern for the sound holes.
Powers crafts what he loves.
“I love the dogwood trees in my yard and I enjoy taking photos of them,” he said.
Music has always been a big part of his life.
Powers grew up in Whitetop, Virginia, listening to the fiddle played by his father. Powers eventually learned to play the guitar and joined his father in his Grayson Highlands String Band.
The luthier recalled he took a dulcimer-making class at Sturgill’s Guitar Shop in Piney Creek, North Carolina, in 1973.
“My parents still have that dulcimer.”
This Christmas, Powers made a ukulele for his granddaughter.
“I eventually want to try a guitar, but I have more learning to do,” he said.
Balancing on his lap a tear-shaped piece of wood with frets and strings, Powers demonstrated how to pick the strings to produce a melody.
“I can play a few of the old-timey songs like ‘Old Joe Clark’ and ‘Wayfaring Stranger,’” he said.
“I first got into making dulcimers just as something to do, but I quickly fell in love with them. I’m teaching myself to play. I sit and play and come up with the notes and chords. I may be learning wrong, but I’m learning on my own.”
Giving a little instruction, Powers said his right hand picks the strings while his left hand presses the strings against the instrument’s frets.
Having the right tools makes a difference when it comes to making the instruments, he said.
“The hardest part for me probably is the frets and the spacing of the frets. There are easier ways to do the frets, but I don’t have that tooling,” he said.
While some parts of the dulcimer are handcrafted, Powers mostly uses power tools to save time and ensure greater precision. Even with the power tools, he can work 50 to 60 hours before finishing a project.
“I jokingly refer to my workshop as my laboratory. I lose all track of time when I’m there.
“Some experiments or projects don’t make it, but like Frankenstein, some live,” he said with a laugh.
His base prices for the dulcimers range around $500 to $600.