Jerry Rockwell is a Mountain Dulcimer builder and musician. His latest album is Tapping at the Edge of Paradise. Here is BT Fasmer’s interview with this amazing artist.
BT Fasmer: You have been a mountain dulcimer player, teacher and custom builder since 1970. How did you first become interested in the mountain dulcimer?
Jerry Rockwell: I can remember the time very clearly, as if it happened yesterday, though I think it must have been sometime in 1969. My roommate at college in Plattsburgh, New York, had a couple of recordings by Mimi and Richard Farina, on the Vanguard label. As I listened to those amazing tracks I was immediately drawn into the drone of Richard’s dulcimer. There’s something very primal and essential in the sound of Richard’s dulcimer, and the rhythms were incredible! Mimi’s guitar playing was very powerful as well, and the combined dulcimer and guitar had a synergy that everyone could feel. Right after that, I went on a search to find a dulcimer. I was pretty sure I could handle playing it, because I was already playing some blues and rock guitar
BT: Tell us about your inspirations. I guess they have changed over time?
Jerry: Yes, they have changed quite a bit over the years. Probably the first wave of inspiration was from the world of guitar: George Harrison, BB King, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and a few others of the mid 1960s. The next wave was more folk and folk-rock inspired: Fairport Convention, who I heard in their “Angel Delight” quartet line-up, and then Steeleye Span, who just blew me away when I first heard their “Parcel of Rogues” album when it first came out! It was the Steeleye influence that really got me going towards the English folk, Irish traditional stuff and so on. The third wave may have occurred in the Spring of 2006, when I got turned on to the Kirtan of Krishna Das. These days, I don’t do much singing of any kind except when I’m trying things out in my composition and improvisation, but the circular, trance-inducing quality of KD’s Westernized Kirtan is very much a part of my meditative improvisations today.
BT: Listening to The Blackbird and the Beggarman album, I can’t help thinking that the dulcimer seems like a great instrument for Celtic music? Tell us about this album.
Jerry: The Blackbird and the Beggarman was recorded and mixed from about October 1993 to July 1994, and it originally appeared on the Wizmak label, a small Hudson Valley studio and label operated by Tom and Geri White. I feel totally blessed to have such an interstellar cast of musicians on this project: Pete Sutherland was the executive producer, and played fiddle, keyboards, midi guitar, and acoustic guitar, and arranged many of the pieces as well (sometimes–right on the spot–he would write me an unusual countermelody for guitar or dulcimer!!). Niles Hokkanen played some mean mandolin and mandola parts, and he was central on The Little Beggarman and my original Brown’s Trace Suite. RP Hale did some amazing Clavichord work on several tracks, and Ken Lovelett’s percussion shines on several of the tunes. Ron Ewing (another Ohio dulcimer builder of some renown) played the harmonic arpeggios on Song of the Chanter, and provided some great dulcimette rhythm backup to the medley of jigs (I played mandolin on these).
All in all, that was one incredible project: I pre-produced a bunch of my own sketches on a Yamaha 4-track cassette recorder, and mailed them back and forth to Pete Sutherland to get his feedback and ideas for parts. There weren’t too many folk CDs available back then, and at least one folk DJ told me that B&B was in rotation at his station in Michigan.
BT: As an instrument builder, do you get attached to the instruments you make?
Jerry: Probably not in the way that many musicians get attached to a specific one-and-only guitar or mandolin, or something. This is hard to explain in so many words, but I bet that other instrument builders who are avid players can relate. I feel that my building is always moving forward, and I have this underlying confidence that I will ALWAYS be able to make a better-sounding dulcimer! (I wish I had this same confidence in my musical performances!) So I don’t think that I have ever built an “irreplaceable” dulcimer!
BT: Do the audience respond differently when they learn that you have built the instrument that you are playing on?
Jerry: That is a very interesting question. Approaching the question from the building part of what I do, I may have some experience that will help answer this. I did many annual 17-day runs at the Ohio State Fair in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, showing my dulcimers and selling my cassette albums. I would actually be building some dulcimers right behind my table, and the BIG connection I had to make was that it was, in fact, ME who is the builder of the dulcimers displayed on the table. Nobody noticed that there was a Jerry Rockwell listed as the artist on the cassettes. Now this was a much harder connection for the average person to make: “This guy actually builds his own dulcimers and makes albums with those same instruments!” I think when that connection is made, I have gained a customer, or a fan, or a listener. When I perform I don’t usually talk much about woods, dulcimer acoustics, because it is not a very entertaining subject, unless the audience consists of a bunch of woodworkers! Going into the future, though, I might consider emphasizing my building in the promotional materials for a concert.
BT: You are also a music educator and have written instructional texts about the dulcimer. Is it hard to learn to play this instrument?
Jerry: That is a GREAT question! The mountain dulcimer has to be one of the friendliest, most welcoming instruments anywhere! The 3-string configuration is very common, and 4-strings are mostly set up with a doubled melody string, so essentially it is a three course instrument. For the most part, when you are tuned in DAA or DAD, there are very few “wrong” notes! It is a mostly diatonic instrument, meaning that it basically plays a major scale for you. Celtic music is mostly diatonic, so this is one of the reasons it fits so well on the dulcimer. The other factor in Celtic and Appalachian music is the drone, and the dulcimer–particularly in the most traditional styles–uses the bass and the middle string ringing out an open drone while the melody string carries the tune, often using a noting stick to slide up and down the length of the string.
Most of my instructional texts and web-based articles are focused on playing chords and chord progressions on the dulcimer, and understanding how the chords are built. I have formal training in music theory and composition, and I use it every day in my own music. I love to share as much of this understanding as I can. Sometimes this can be a “hard sell” and I try hard not to force anything on people (many people come to the dulcimer without any other musical experience, and prefer to keep everything very simple, which is fine!). Actually, these days I’m trying to emphasize just playing and enjoyment, and understanding later, if at all.
BT: Tell us about the process behind Nine Meditations for Dulcimer. How was it to make a meditation album?
Jerry: I’ve already mentioned the strong Krishna Das influence. Nine Meditations came about as I was naturally developing my own personal, very informal music meditation practice. Almost everything on the Nine Meditations project is built around a very circular, often modal chord progression, usually with just three or four chords repeating over and over. This is precisely the kind of music that can be great fun to play in your own private space, but turns out to be DEADLY boring for the listener! But I think there are some aspects to this music that may save it: one, the idea that it might “draw you into the center” as it does for me as I am developing the music (the personal merging into the universal?); and two, I am consciously developing some melodic themes, and these themes are more and more prevalent in my more recent work. When I listen to contemporary New Age and Ambient music, I find myself especially drawn to the shorter pieces that have singable melodic phrases and themes. I should probably also mention that all of my recent meditation music is multitracked: I’m overdubbing one or two other parts over a bed of background arpeggios.
BT: I’m impressed by the sound on your albums (the most recent being Tapping at the Edge of Paradise). Tell us a bit about the recording techniques for the dulcimer.
Jerry: I have had a great deal of compliments, especially from musicians, about the quality of sound on both of these projects. Most of the music was recorded with a direct input into my MacBook Pro, using mostly Logic Pro X. I use my own acoustic dulcimers with a “strap-over-the-fingerboard” Bill Lawrence magnetic humbucking pickup (I made the mounting blocks myself), making most of my music “electric dulcimer” music. I think this is an important distinction to make, because there are other ways of going direct that may not be thought of as “electric” — notably the piezo pickups going into a pre-amp and then into an audio interface. (the piezo systems work off the resonance of the soundboard or the bridge itself, and they are fine for live performance, but I don’t like the recorded sound of them at all). There is nothing like the pure acoustic sound of the dulcimer, though, and on a few of the tracks: “Cuckoo Elegy” on Nine Meditations, and “Journey In, Journey Home” from Tapping at the Edge — there is a component of acoustic sound recorded simultaneously with the DI. I think you may be able to notice this with some careful listening.
BT: Your music was recently featured on Sounds from the Circle VI. What are your impressions about the New Age music genre?
Jerry: I LOVE contemporary New Age music, and I think it is a healthy, forward-looking movement. I know there has been a great deal of discussion lately about the use of the term “new age” – and whether or not it is meaningless, derogatory, both, or worse!! I must admit, that back in the 1990s, I didn’t want to associate my music with the term, mainly because I was stretching out in many directions, and most of my music was fairly edgy and experimental: some acoustic stuff and much electronic music with midi guitar synth and Yamaha fs1r FM tone module. The music with the fs1r was sometimes ambient, but it was pretty noisy and “in-your-face” — so I would not classify it as new age at all.
To me, New Age music must have some sort of spiritual, dreamy, meditative element in it. This is just my own personal definition, and as I said earlier, Krishna Das with his devotional Kirtan made such an impression on me—that it led me quite naturally to my mesmerizing trance-like dulcimer music. I’m so humbled to be on Sounds from the Circle VI!! There are so many incredible artists on this collection! Suzanne Doucet and Beth Ann Hilton do such a great job of putting this together, and it is such a monumental task with 40 tracks! A number of these compilations are among my current favorite listening: The Gathering I and II, Music That Matters (to benefit South African children), several years of Sounds From The Circle: these all are great discovery tools for me and I’ve come upon some amazing new artists this way.
BT: Today there seems to be a renewed interest in folk music and culture. Are you optimistic about the future of folk music?
Jerry: There is a huge surge in roots and Americana musics, from Appalachian Old-Time banjo & fiddle, to Bluegrass, to Cajun, to Celtic, and its hard to know where it stops. If this all comes under some sort of “folk umbrella” then so be it, but I remember a time, when I was moving from rock and blues to more folk-oriented music, that you had a term called “traditional” that was associated with “folk.” It probably doesn’t mean much today in the kaleidoscope of genres we have to navigate, but it used to point to folks that learned from their mothers or fathers or grandfathers.
Even though I play a completely handmade-in-my-own-shop folk instrument, I’m not sure how much “folk” there is in my music today, but I’m not sure that matters at all either! There are deep folk roots I’ve dug into over the four decades or so of my career–and you can definitely hear Celtic influences in many of my originals–but there are jazz elements, a Baroque device here and there, some pop and rock rhythmic grooves, and who knows what! In many ways, I consider myself a “music laboratory” because I just love to experiment with open-ended improvisations.
BT: Are you working on any new projects now?
Jerry: I’m planning out a solo acoustic/electric project now, and just sort of “inching” towards it. I will be doing more live performances in 2015, and there’s just me and my dulcimer, often with just 3-strings! I don’t do any sort of live-looping kinds of things (yet, at least!), so it is just me – solo. This is a very challenging task: to make interesting, entertaining solo music with such a delicate, subtle instrument!! But I enjoy this challenge, and I’ve been writing more Celtic-flavored original tunes, so I guess we’ll see where all this goes!
Check out Jerry Rockwell’s music on:
Featured in above picture: Jerry Rockwell and Sarah Lockard
Play Tapping at the Edge of Paradise on: