Doug Naselroad, Master luthier, Appalachian Artisan Center in Knott County. Hindman, Kentucky:
“Naselroad, that's an old German name; it’s probably a corruption of it. I have a dual citizenship. I live in Hindman, right here where we sit on Main Street, and I also have a little farm up in Clark County where I go back to on the weekends.
I was born in Mount Sterling. I moved back and forth a whole lot, looking for opportunity; Dayton, Detroit, Philadelphia, Frenchburg, Ashland, Oregon; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; lived several years in the hill country of Texas, and Branson, Missouri.
I love Kentucky. It’s home and it’s hard to get on with folks some places. I wouldn’t single out any place in particular, but there’s a little voice in the back of your head when you're off some place like South Texas, it’s [saying] this ain’t home. People [in Appalachia] are easy to understand, people are easy to relate to, they feel a lot like family when you’re dealing with them. Honestly, Hindman in particular is a great town, they treat you like family here, some of them are.
In Ashland, I worked as a commercial artist. I had a gig playing music on the weekends. I did odd jobs to save up to buy a car. We published a cartoon book, I did two comic books, I’ve worked as a wine steward; I’ve worked in the saw mill; I’ve sold used cars; I’ve tended bar; I’ve been a computer tech; and I’ve actually been a luthier with Collings Guitars in Austin, Texas, and I’ve worked for a bunch of music stores.
When I started forty-six years ago, there was no such thing as luthier training, or at least no place I knew of. I was mentored under people like Homer Ledford and ‘course I learned a lot from Collings when I was out there. I love the creative dynamic of it.
You start with a chunk of wood, and you end up with a song. I mean that’s magic, it really is! Every kind of instrument you make, it’s different, but when the music starts coming out of it, you feel a kind of a joy that a lot of occupations don’t really give you. We like to put on a radio show once a month. I have some friends down here, we’re songwriters, we all get together, you know, throw music back and forth. Most of it, the only people it gets played for is each other, or our radio audience if they can listen in to WMMT.
(Learned to play) from a girl, started me off with some chords, learning how to play old folk music and country music when I was fifteen. She was so purty and nice I thought I’d make her a guitar. So I kind of started both about the same time. I don’t know what ever happened to her, I don’t know what happened to the guitar. First one I made.
Thanks to the interest of my apprentices, I’ve got a wide variety of stuff that we’re making. I’ve got guitars, mandolins, banjos, canjos, dulcimers, ukuleles and the Hindman dulcimer. ‘Course I’ve always made guitars all along. So right now, I’m working on a ukulele for the Chairman of the NEA. I’m building a couple of mandolins and a big flat top bluegrass guitar. I just finished a ukulele last week for John Trustee. Little bit of everything.
(I like playing) the guitar, because when I get a steel string guitar finished I can ring it out a little bit. I’m getting a little bit better playing the ukulele and I really, really am fond of the dulcimers. I don’t really consider myself to be a player on much of anything but the guitar. And I’m not very good at the guitar, but it’ll do.
Chet Atkins always tells this story about hearing this feller, when he’s going up in an elevator and he hears this music in the elevator, and he’s listening to this feller and this feller is all over the guitar; and he’s thinking “Man, I’ve got some competition now, this guy is good.” As he gets higher and higher up he’s ready to step off the elevator; just as he does he realizes that it’s an old recording of him. He said, “Then it sounded terrible again.” The psychology of that whole idea is such a truthful thing. I don’t mind playing for people, I have a lot of fun, it feels good when I’m doing it, but Lord spare me from having to listen to myself. Played back I don’t ever feel like I did it right.
Music and Appalachian culture go back, they’re inseparable. I think it’s because of the culture evolving in such a solitary, kind of a quiet place. Appalachia is a place where you want to make contact with people, and you want to stay close with your friends. Socially, music used to be really, really important. People used it as a reason to come over to one another’s houses, for a frolic, that kind of thing. I know it goes many generations back in my family here. In fact, I’ll tell you how far music goes. Back in our immediate genealogy, we found out when we first started doing research, that one of the first people to ever bring a dulcimer, the first record of a dulcimer ever coming into this state was through the Cumberland Gap, by a fella named Eli Boggs.
It comes from middle European instruments, like the scheitholt. The scheitholt is a German instrument that in old German translates into something like stick of firewood or stick of wood. It’s just a straight little thing, we had one of them out there a while ago. We believe it was carried into the mountains by Moravian circuit preachers. You know the Brethren, people that rode from mountain community to mountain community; maybe had a church service every couple of months.
In teaching the hymns, they would need some sort of little rudimentary musical instrument that they could take with them. We think that’s probably the genesis of that style of instrument and then of course, good ole’ Appalachian creativity nurtured it into the instrument we know today. We know there’s a simple version of the dulcimer that comes up out of Virginia. Again, we’re going back to our family history there. In 1871, right here in Big Doubles, out toward the Letcher-Knott County line, I think it used to be all Letcher County, a man named James Edward Thomas created a very specific style of dulcimer that is still reflected in most of the dulcimers made today. There’s a little debate as to where the origin of the hourglass shaped dulcimer was; but Uncle Ed certainly was in a class by itself back in 1871. Of course, people like Jean Ritchie popularized it to the outside world.
The banjo existed concurrently, very early on. It has African origins. George Gibson has a lot of theories about how it evolved from an African instrument. Very early in the history of America the banjo was mentioned. Thomas Jefferson talked about the banjo. The dulcimer and the banjo have some common traits in the context of Appalachia. They both can be made for little or no money. I think that common denominator is why we see so many early examples of homemade dulcimers and banjos.
There’s really not much store bought that’s in them. Even the banjos would have a groundhog skin or cat skin; they would have gut strings. We have some dulcimers here that actually have gut string remnants on them. It’s very possible that these instruments were made without one store bought item. People very often didn't have money; I wouldn’t say never but; had lots of wood, ‘cause it’s nothing but woods down here, but not much money. And inventive; the example of the dulcimer that we replicate and present to the outside world is a beautiful example of early intervention and artistry. The banjo makers were a little more crude and maybe a little less successful.
(A dulcimer) It’s got to have a good scale, the notes have to fret out in the right places. It needs to be rather delicately made in order to be loud. It can’t be made out of real thick pieces of thick wood ‘cause if it is there won’t be any sound come out of it. So it needs to be very delicate; it needs to be minimal; you don't add a lot of junk onto it that you don't need.
Then it’s just craftsmanship. You have to put it together in a way that it will be durable and it will stay in tune and have a voice. I have no idea how the things work, and I made a whole bunch of them. It’s kind of a mysterious process, you know the sound goes around and around in them and comes out.
Seems like every time you try to manipulate the sound of a dulcimer, it fools you. That being said we’ve gotten some really sweet, angelic tones out of those Uncle Ed style dulcimers. One lady insists one of the dulcimers Mike (Slone) made was anointed. So we try for that. It’s positive, whatever that means. Sometimes they’ll turn out a certain way and we reference back to that one that Mike made several times. We’ve got theories as to why it had the character it had and yeah, we work toward that. Sometimes they turn out pretty good.
Lutherie is such an involved discipline that the marketplace is pretty far down the road. I got one guy that’s been here almost three years; he’s made more than thirty instruments and he’s just now getting to where he wants to market them in a consistent way. So in that way, we’ve served the purpose of business incubator with him. Some of our apprentices who come in here they just want to make a collection of instruments; sometimes just one instrument to give as a gift or to have an heirloom to hand down to grandchildren. Everyone’s got different goals in this.
The common goal is we all want to make something that’s excellent. They’re always thrilled when they get that sound out of those instruments. Brett Ratliff has been over here making a dulcimer. I’ve got about fifteen people that have been through here. We’ve got a new guy, Brack Hayes, and he’s playing in public a lot. I think he’s making an instrument to play. More often than not, I think people are just making them to challenge themselves personally; to see if they can be a maker. It’s not easy, but my guys have really risen to the challenge.
It dispels a lot myths about Appalachian work ethics and integrity. These guys can do anything that they want. They surprise me sometimes how intense and detailed they are when it comes down to it. I’ve got one boy that just obsesses with these instruments when he’s making them. They are meticulous and perfect and the first time he offered a ukulele to someone for sale, it was gone. He sold it so fast he scared himself. He said, “I ain’t got no ukulele now. I can’t believe I sold it.” I said, “Give him his check back, Chris.” He said, “Well, no, I got to go pay insurance.” I said, “Well keep it then.” He said, “But I ain’t got no ukulele.” But my point is that his work was basically flawless. It was the first instrument that he made.
I really like helping people succeed; I like it when people who I’ve apprenticed into a skill find success. Mike’s got a career now, and honestly that’s why I come down here. I could stay at home, I’ve got a little shop up there, I could stay at home and throw things together; but to pass it on to others I’ve got to come out here and meet up with them every time they’re ready to work. I’ve really been blessed by the results there. It’s a little broken up sometimes; some of these guys they’ll work for a month or two, lay out for a month or two, come back ready to finish up. The pace of it is kind of unpredictable. The results are pretty uniformly gratifying.”