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Making and playing handcrafted dulcimers is Wolfe's passion

By Kristy Wolfe
Freelance Writer

The Appalachian Mountains have always been known for the musical sounds which are filled with stories and traditions. Sounds from handmade instruments brought families and neighbors together in various settings ranging from corn shucking to square dances. Communities would find themselves in one home sharing stories and songs. The people tapping their toes and laughing over a good story knew the true meaning of socializing.
Today the sound of handmade instruments is a fading art. Those who knew the stories and the songs so well are becoming rare. With the passage of time, the younger generations are allowing the traditions that accompany the Appalachian music and the art of making such instruments to slowly slip into the night of forgetfulness.
But on a little back road in the middle of nowhere, the sounds and stories can still be heard. In the eastern part of the Tennessee mountains, you can find Jason Wolfe occasionally picking out those sweet Appalachian sounds and telling stories that he learned from great craftsmen and storytellers who crossed his path as a young child.
During the winter months, a 12-year-old Jason watched with an eager heart as his grandfather, Ellis Wolfe, picked out the faithful hymn “Amazing Grace.” Ellis noticed the desire to learn and soon had Jason playing the hymn. By summer he had learned to pick out several simple children’s songs and other hymnals, such as “Skip to My Lou” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” During the summer of 1987, Jason met a man he would never forget.
Just across the Tennessee line into North Carolina in the Stone Mountain area lived a man known for his traditional Appalachian music and, even more so, for his storytelling. Stanley Hicks was known for cutting up and telling stories. Above all, he had the skill of making those around him feel like they had fallen back in time where days were long and life was filled with the simple pleasures of family and friends.
Stanley quickly made a big impression on the 12-year-old and soon had Jason picking out mountain favorites on the dulcimer. Every Sunday Ellis would drive his grandson some 40 minutes through mostly mountain dirt roads to take lessons from Stanley. Ellis and Stanley had a long-standing friendship which started from exchanging of patterns for dulcimers and mountain tales. As Stanley got older, Ellis built dulcimers for Stanley. For Ellis, no one could teach his grandson any better than his long time friend.
Catching on quickly, Stanley was impressed with the youthful Jason and soon had him playing at various locations including several alongside Stanley himself. For Jason, the highlight was playing on stage at the Broyhill Music Center at Appalachian State University in 1989. Just five months before Stanley passed away, Jason took stage with Stanley and long time Appalachian musician, Frank Proffitt, Jr.
After the passing of Stanley, playing on stage did not stop for Jason. His next few summers were spent hitting the roads to hit the stage. Now 14 years old, Jason began to play on the local stages such as the Fiddlers’ Convention and Trade Days in Johnson County, Tennessee. Heading down the roads, Jason and his grandfather found themselves at places such as the Carter Mansion Celebration and Jonesborough Days. Jason even appeared playing on spotlight programs such as “Cable Country” and USA Network’s “In A Minute.” Together the grandfather and grandson team was also featured in the book, “The Keepers,” written by Robert Isbell.
The love for the dulcimer soon became deeper than just playing the beautiful mountain instrument. Spending time in the woodworking shop with his grandfather was not unusual for Jason. He had spent many hours watching his grandfather build dulcimers and banjos as well as other mountain crafts such as the Gee-Haw Whimmy Diddle, Whirligigs and Limberjack Dancing Dolls. Ellis was known for his skills with wood. He had built a bit of everything from houses to cabinets and even extravagant grandfather clocks. But it was the dulcimer that captured Jason’s eye. To him it was as beautiful to make as it was to play.
In the winter of 1990, Jason with the help of his grandfather, began to embark on making his first dulcimer. Made from walnut with a redwood top, it took six months to finish. As a show of accomplishment, it would never be sold. The second one was made from walnut with a butternut top which he quickly sold. Both dulcimers were built with the help of Ellis. Jason depended on his grandfather throughout the building of both dulcimers. Then as it usually goes, life happens when you are busy making plans. Jason soon graduated and began college and his time in the shop slowed down. Most of his work at home was spent farming.
In 1994, Ellis had a stroke which weakened him and his ability to work in the shop. Although his health improved, he was never able to build another dulcimer. During the early ’00 years, Jason often talked about wanting to resume the life which once had rumbled through the shop. He wanted to start due to the fact that his grandfather’s health was declining. In December 2009, Ellis became ill after a terrible snowstorm beat down on the East Tennessee mountain, and on December 26 in the late hours of the night, Ellis passed away. Jason was more determined than ever to continue the legacy that his grandfather was once so passionate about.
This would be his first dulcimer without any assistance from Ellis so Jason began slowly to read over the old patterns and cut out the first pieces of walnut. This was to be not only unique due to it being the first after 18 years, but it would also be unique because it would contain a butterfly pattern which had never graced a Wolfe dulcimer before. Building it for his wife, Jason began many long evenings of work on the creation. Each day brought more progress as he shaped the pieces into the beautiful work of art. In the final stages, the dulcimer was fitted with the frets, sanded, and then the varnish was added until it shined. The final step of placing the keys and strings completed the journey that took six weeks.

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