Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dulcimer Master David Schnaufer Remembered

My old friend Aashid Himons called this morning to let me know that local Nashville musician David Schnaufer had died on Wednesday, August 23rd after a brief battle with lung cancer. Schnaufer was only 53 years old. It was disturbing news in that both of us knew and respected David’s talents as well as his immense scholarship on the instrument that became his trademark, the mountain dulcimer. Aashid expressed regrets – he had planned on recording with David when he fell ill; by the time that Aashid had recovered from his illness, David had begun to succumb to his own. The two artists, like-minded in many ways and drawing, more often than not, from a common musical wellspring, never got together to collaborate on what would have been a great recording by two enormous talents.

I didn’t really know David Schnaufer well but I had met him a few times, thanks to John Lomax III and the Cactus Brothers. I first met David sometime in the late-80s, when John was working with him, producing Schnaufer’s first two recordings, the Dulcimer Deluxe (1988) and Dulcimer Player (1989) cassettes, for his SFL Records label. The two recordings showcased Schnaufer’s talents alongside such Nashville instrumental heavyweights as Chet Atkins, Mark O’Connor and Dave Pomeroy. Lomax later combined the two cassette releases on CD as Dulcimer Player Deluxe. I later had the opportunity to meet and talk with him a couple more times during his association with the Cactus Brothers.

When popular Nashville rockers Walk The West decided to take their country-leaning alter-ego the Cactus Brothers full-time, they asked Schnaufer and steel guitarist Sam Poland to join the band to bolster their already impressive instrumental abilities. The Cactus Brothers released their self-titled debut album on Jimmy Bowen’s Liberty Records imprint in 1993, touring heavily in support of the album, including Canada and Europe. Schnaufer’s contributions to the Cactus Brothers’ early sound are immeasurable, the album including a raucous rendition of the traditional "Fisher’s Hornpipe" that Schnaufer had earlier performed with the band on his Dulcimer Player album.

As I wrote in the band’s bio for the All Music Guide: "the Cactus Brothers were one of the earliest country bands to embrace video and cable television as a way to reach an audience. Videos for "Fisher's Hornpipe" and "Crazy Heart," from the band's debut album, would go on to win Bronze Awards in the Worldfest Competition in Houston in 1994. A video for the band's scorching cover of the country classic "Sixteen Tons" earned significant airtime on cable networks VH1 and CMT."

Schnaufer and Poland left the Cactus Brothers by the time of the band’s 1995 sophomore release, Schnaufer picking up his career as a one-of-a-kind session player. After all, then as now, there just aren’t that many dulcimer players, especially those that specialize in the Appalachian style that David had mastered. Through the years, he played alongside such diverse talents and Johnny Cash and June Carter, Emmylou Harris, Mark Knopfler, Linda Ronstadt and Cyndi Lauper. It is a testimony to his skills that he was one of only four musicians invited to perform at the Cash’s 25th wedding anniversary party (along with Charley Pride, Norman Blake and Bill Monroe).

Up until his illness, Schnaufer continued to study his instrument and discover new ways to play, winning several competitions at various folk and mountain music festivals. He also created an instructional video, collaborated with luthier Moses Scrivner in designing a concert dulcimer, and wrote scholarly articles on the history of his chosen instrument. In 1995, David became Vanderbilt University’s first Adjunct Associate Professor of Dulcimer, teaching students at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music.

David Schnaufer’s talent was such that he could pick out a bluegrass classic like "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" and collaborate on the composition of a classical concerto like "Blackberry Winter." Schnaufer was a unique talent, an artist of some considerable vision that had one foot planted firmly in the past and the other striding towards the future. Through his music, David helped increase the popularity of the humble dulcimer; through his work with his students, he taught the simple joys of making music. Schnaufer is the perfect example of one of the many underrated and overlooked musical talents that Nashville can boast of, an artist who never became a star but made the city’s artistic community a better place by being part of it.

Here is an excellent article on David Schnaufer's life and career [click] by the son of his former manager, John Nova Lomax, and here is a fine overview of Schnaufer's importance to the mountain music community [click].

Some of David's friends and students, like Jan Pulsford, have set up a memorial page for the artist [click] on Myspace and, finally, for those of you who would like to hear some of David's music, here are some MP3 files for your enjoyment:

(click the links to hear, right click and 'save as' to download)

The Cactus Brothers "Fisher's Hornpipe"

David Schnaufer "Here Comes The Sun"

David Schnaufer "Greensleeves"

David Schnaufer "Rock Th' Shay"