Mike Slone

Mike Slone… “There’s no “a” in there. We couldn’t afford the “a.” (Referencing the spelling of his last name). Lives between Mousie and Blackey, in Knott County Kentucky; 
Dulcimer Maker and Coordinator of the Hindman Dulcimer Project:

“I was born up the street here. I couldn’t tell you the building, but it was a doctor’s office. It was Dr. Barker. He delivered me, delivered my wife, and delivered our first child. 

The doctors would go out and basically just do a circuit and drive by people’s houses. I guess it was more convenient for him to get and drive around than it was for the people, especially if they were feeling poorly. 

I’ve done all kinds of things. I actually have a degree in Biology that I’ve never used for anything. I like to think of myself as a student of Appalachian culture, and I came at it sideways. 

One year in high school, back then we had teachers who would actually teach stuff instead of the test, and this teacher had something which I’ve really come to appreciate, which is an appreciation for what we have around here. So, she assigned everybody in the class to look up their family tree. I got to looking up the family tree, and this was before there was the internet so I was digging through books and all that stuff. I got to thinking about that, and running across little tidbits and stories about my family. That was almost 40 years ago, and ever since then I’ll go through phases where I’ll get into the family tree research, every 10 years or so. That started me on the path to really appreciating the culture here. 

Then I went off to college. The only place I could afford to go to college was Alice Lloyd. Alice Lloyd just furthered that because, at that time, and I’m sure it’s still like that now, they didn’t specifically teach it but there was the tradition of value to the stuff around here. That really reinforced it. I got out of college, got that big fancy degree and got a job in the Post Office. And after that, through WMMT I got involved with Appalshop. You talk about some place that really appreciates the culture here. It just solidified the whole thing. Sometime back there when I was at Alice Lloyd, I made a dulcimer in a class. It was one of those easy added classes. It was one night a week and you come out with an A and a dulcimer. I made one then and that was in the early ‘80s. In the early ‘90s, somehow I got inspired to try making dulcimers again. 

I bought a table saw. I had a power drill and a sander, and that was about it. And it didn’t cut it. I made three or four, I’ve got one left, I gave one to my daughter, and I don’t know where the others are and I’m not going to look for them. It just didn’t work. During that phase, I had the pleasure of meeting Homer Ledford, the well-known dulcimer maker from Winchester. Two and a half years ago I saw this little news piece on the Internet. John Trusty was the Executive Director here then and he was talking about wanting to see Hindman once again become the center of dulcimer making. I had just finished up a carpentry job, so I thought; I’ll just go try again. I came down and signed up and the dulcimer thing just snowballed. People would come in and tell us stories.

The mountain dulcimer has a long history here in Knott County, dating back to 1871. A man named Uncle Ed Thomas, as far as we know, made his first (lap) dulcimer then. A lot of people copied his pattern, one them being a man known as Jethro Amburgey, who had a distant cousin named Jean Ritchie. Jean, in the late 1940s went off to New York City and introduced the mountain dulcimer to the world. 

The goal of (the Hindman project) is to re-introduce the mountain dulcimer to the people of this area. It had pretty much died off here. We want to bring it to the attention of those folks here that we own that heritage and it is important to us and to the world at large that Hindman be known worldwide for the mountain dulcimers. We’re collecting oral histories, we’re doing building workshops and we have a dulcimer festival once a year. We have a wonderful little mini museum exhibit here with pretty much the history of the instrument all contained in one display.

The most common shape in the world that Hindman is famous for is (the dulcimer) shaped like an hourglass. Someone in one of those dulcimer books that came out in the ‘60s said, and it even read like in a bashful voice, it’s shaped like a lady. 

It’s a quiet-sounding instrument, at least the traditional ones are. Nowadays they make them a lot bigger. A lot of modern dulcimer players try to make them sound like guitars, but the old, traditional dulcimers are quiet and lonely sounding. It’s more of an instrument to sit out on the porch in the evening and play those old tunes on, rather than to play square dances. 

A traditional dulcimer from this area has three strings. There was a tradition around Galax, Virginia, and nowadays, modern dulcimers usually have four strings. The Galax dulcimers had four. But most of the old ones, especially from this area, only had three strings. And you only play one string. 

The tuning pegs are wooden pegs. They’re like fiddle pegs, basically. A lot of people don’t like them. They are hard to tune, and if not done correctly, tend to slip out of tune at inopportune moments. They look better. That’s the whole look of the dulcimer; those wooden pegs. 

I’ll tell you our best shop story. My friend, George Gibson has two Uncle Ed Thomas dulcimers. George called and said, I’ve got two Ed Thomas dulcimers and one of them is in pieces. Wonder if you could repair that for me. Of course, after jumping up and down and saying whoopee, I told him yeah I think we can do that. He brought them down the next day and I happened to get snowed in up in the holler where I live. I didn’t make it in that day George came in and I came in the next day, drooling over the dulcimers. George was telling Doug Naselroad (Appalachian Artisan Center instrument studio director and master luthier) this story that the first written record of a dulcimer in Kentucky, that a man in Virginia named Eli Boggs built it for a young lady over in Eolia, Kentucky. Doug said, wait a minute George; my great, great, great, great grandfather was named Eli Boggs. So Doug told me that story, and I said, now wait a minute Doug, I’m kin to the Boggs’ on my mom’s side. So I went home and got my sister to look it up, and the same Eli Boggs is my great, great, great, great grandfather. Stuff like that keeps happening here.

We like to put it that history just walks through the door on a regular basis. 

I would have never known that Eli Boggs had made dulcimers if George hadn’t come in with that tale from Bud Phillips (Regional Historian). 

As far as we know, the mountain dulcimer is the only instrument that is totally indigenous to the United States. It’s considered to be a descendant of the German, that part of Europe, commonly called a scheitholt, an instrument that the Pennsylvania Dutch probably brought over with them. We have one of those in there in the museum we figure is at least 200 years old. As the migration down the Great Wagon Road, the Shenandoah Valley, as that happened, and probably in Pennsylvania, too. The Pennsylvania Dutch started intermixing with the Scots-Irish ancestors. There’s no separating truth from fiction when you go back that far. Everybody’s got ideas about it.

My favorite idea is that the scheitholt didn’t have an arranged fret board or finger board. Frets were embedded directly into the body of the instrument. And somebody put it, well, you know Pennsylvania Dutch, they were playing those old, slow songs, and the Scots-Irish wanted something they could dance a jig to, so they put a finger board on it so they could whack the hell out of it and get some more noise out of it without wearing the instrument out so fast. 

The lap dulcimer made inroads in the folk scene. Jean Ritchie got it started in New York, playing there. It got picked up here and there. The Rolling Stones had a couple of songs that they used the lap dulcimer in. Steel Ice Pan had dulcimers in several of their songs, and of course it made it out to the West Coast. 

Traditionally, the dulcimer is fretted diatonically. You don’t have every note in the scale in there, so much like a lot of the old-time banjo players, you would have to re-tune so you could get all the notes to your song. They stuck an extra fret in, and kept it at the same tuning and started playing chords on it and all that weird stuff. I think Joni Mitchell did some dulcimer. A modern musician is Cyndi Lauper who plays a lot of dulcimer in her stuff.

No matter where you go in this country, I think you’ll find people that are descended from people here in the mountains. During the early pioneer migrations, a lot of them would stop off here, and the smart ones are the ones that ended up staying here. You know, hillbilly jokes are the only politically correct joke you can make any more. 

We just have that sense of home and that may be the problem with a whole lot of the country. People don’t have a sense of home or belonging. We’ve got that sense of belonging here. We belong to each other and share values. 

We know who were are more than most people do, but everybody’s always searching for their own identity. That’s part of the beauty of the culture. You go somewhere else and you run into a strange person and most people think, that’s dude’s strange, kind of funny, but strange. Better stay away from him. But around here, the stranger they are, I think the more we treasure them. 

All over the country, there are probably very few people who don’t have a bloodline running back through here. I think too, even though hillbilly jokes are okay, and there’s that stereotype, they wouldn’t pay so much attention if they didn’t think there was something to this.

I guess I embrace the word “hillbilly.” It’s okay if I say it, but if you ain’t from around here, watch your tone of voice when you say it.

I think maybe one of our strengths is that we can laugh at ourselves, and embrace that, see the truth in it and on another level, resent the fact that people can’t see past that stereotype, like Jed Clampett. They wanted Jed to be the stupid, stereotypical hillbilly, but Buddy Ebsen refused to do that, and Uncle Jesse (Denver Pyle) on Dukes of Hazard. They wanted them to be the stereotypical hillbilly, but when it came down to brass tacks, they were the smartest men in the room. 

How to pronounce Appalachian? As Eve said to the snake, you get down or I’ll throw this apple at ‘cha. Anymore, when they mispronounce it, I just shake my head. I hear people around here doing it. I heard it on the radio the other day from someone I thought knew better. That’s their problem. It ain’t mine.“