Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with champion autoharp player and singer/songwriter Bryan Bowers about why he chose to play such a frustrating instrument, what he enjoys about call-and-response music and why he feels so lucky.
CP: You grew up in Eastern Virginia, and your first introduction to music was listening to field hands singing traditional call-and-response songs. What attracted you to that style of music, initially?
BB: Well, it's amazing stuff, you know? It was everywhere. I didn't realize what a treasure it was. The field hands would show up before dawn, get fed breakfast before dark and you would hear the squeak of the gate opening on the tool shed and then the squeak of the gate latch. They'd sing as they walked away from the house.
They were in the fields with hoes in hand at the first crack of light. The work went all day, from sunrise to sunset, and the singing went on all day long. The wage was 50 cents a day.
CP: Just a little bit more than journalists make.
BB: [Laughs.] There you go. The gandy dancers were the guys who were the ones who worked on the railroad tracks with pry bars and sledgehammers. The whole time they were doing that, they were singing. And as you drove down the road on a Sunday morning, you would hear call and response music coming out of the churches. Then, there was the kids. The last element of the call-and-response music that surrounded me growing up was the kids music. We had our own call-and-response songs we sang on the playground as we jumped rope and that sort of thing.
I still do them. I do two or three call-and-response songs in my shows every night, usually a children's song and a gospel song, just to honor the tradition. It's fun. People get to participate in the old-time tradition.
CP: What specifically struck you about that music?
BB: It was vibrant. It was strong and vibrant and powerful. If you go to the Library of Congress and listen to field recordings, you heard what I heard as a kid. It was music that passed away the long, hot hours of work and made them lighter because there was laughter. Some of them had double entendres. There were sexual implications that were not obvious, but to the adults, they knew what they meant. Many of us kids didn't know what the lyrics meant to some of the songs. It was just vibrant music - vibrant, vibrant music.
CP: You turned 70 last year and have been playing music for more than 40 years. Do you still find yourself as attracted to playing now as you did when you started? How has your relationship with music changed?
BB: When I found music, first off, I was shy and introverted and didn't have any idea how to communicate with people on any level, not just musically but also conversationally.
When I started playing, somehow or other, something happened. Something clicked. I resonated with it, and it opened me up, emotionally. I started being more at ease talking to people.
I used to be nervous going on stage. The first time I went on stage, I shut my eyes because I was scared. Then, one time, after I clapped, they started clapping, and I opened my eyes and realized they were looking at me and laughing and smiling. I thought, “What am I afraid of?” So I started opening my eyes.
Then, I realized I have this natural ability to communicate with a crowd, big or small, like they were my friends in the living room. It became living room music at many different kinds of venues. If I was playing a club for 50 people it was living room music, and if I played a big festival for thousands of people, it was still living room music. I never tried to make it any more than that, just stories and songs and some participatory things.
The same stuff I started with is the same stuff I do today. If anything, I have a deeper resonance with it now because I know my time is limited. I'm 71, and I'm not an idiot - I know my time on this Earth won't include another 71 years. The Bible says you're supposed to get your three score years and ten - 70 years - and I got that. Now, anything I get is gravy.
CP: Sounds like a pretty upbeat attitude.
BB: When you're 71 and you have 40 years of traveling the world with people opening their doors to you and their refrigerators and taking you to their favorite hiking spot or restaurant, and it's all because you play music, what do I have to be negative about? I'm the luckiest man on the face of the planet.
I used to daydream as a kid walking around with my BB gun. I shot everything that moved, and I used to fantasize about traveling the world, never dreaming that I would get to do just that because I became obsessed with an instrument called the autoharp. I got so obsessed with it that I became really good at it.
All the sudden, I started winning awards, and John Denver recorded a song on his “Andromeda” CD, so I had some visibility that way. The group The Dillards - the group that was called The Darlings on “The Andy Griffith Show” - heard me and loved what I did, so they had me come out and introduced me to the festival world. For about a year, I opened shows for them all over the country.
I just had this magical life. I can imagine me going as a high schooler 10th or 11th grader to my counselor and saying, “I want to be a world-class autoharp player, travel the world and have a big life.” I'm sure the counselor would have gone, “Uh uh. Let's have a little talk here, son.” [Laughs.] He wouldn't have been a happy camper. You can never design a life like I've stumbled into. There's no way.
CP: You were introduced to the autoharp through a traveling multi-instrumentalist when you were younger. What happened?
BB: There is a fellow who lives in the south who is actually a doctor. He plays half a dozen different instruments. I met him at a jug party in Richmond, Virg. It was a pretty wild scene. There was a jug band party, and here was this guy who played half a dozen instruments. He invited me out to his house the next weekend, and when I went out to his house, he played through the banjo and the mandolin and the guitar and the sitar. Then he got the autoharp out.
I'd seen the autoharp all my life, but they were never in tune and strings were missing. I didn't know what to think. The next thing I knew, he got it in tune and started playing a little melody on it with his bare fingers. I couldn't believe it. I went and bought one the next day, never dreaming that it would lead me around the world.
I became obsessed with it. I started hearing music in my head and in my heart that I could not make with my fingers. I used to dream music, obsessively. I still do that, to some degree, but now I can make a lot of the music I conceptualize. In the early days, I could conceptualize it, but I couldn't bring it forth.
I played morning, noon and night. I didn't want to do anything else but make music with this thing. By the time my friends figured out why I wasn't around any more - which was because I was in the closet playing - they heard me, and they wanted me to get in a coffeehouse. I said, “Nah,” because I was playing for my own pleasure.
The next thing you know, I was in a coffeehouse, and I realized that people could enjoy what I was doing. I have a gift for getting the thing in great tune and playing pretty melodies and writing songs.
I could never have planned it. It's just comical. When I look back at how shy and introverted I was as a child, I could never have planned on the life I've stumbled into. I've just been very, extraordinarily lucky. I still love it.
CP: That's not an instrument you often see being used as someone's primary instrument. Part of what seems to set you apart is how you play it using all five fingers rather than strumming. What inspired you to take that route?
BB: I made it up. I just made it up. I sat around and first figured out how to play single lines and then double and triple lines. Then, I started deciphering the Earl Scruggs roll and the Merle Travis roll. I started figuring out how to get the three-finger roll, and then I found myself wishing that I could be more versatile, so I challenged my right hand to do all these different things. The left hand basically plays the same chord pattern. Once I figure out the chord pattern for a song, it never changes on the left hand, but it is constantly changing on the right.
I've made it my business to stretch my right hand to do all kinds of different things. The result of that is that I won the Frets Magazine readers poll five years in a row. Then, they called me and said, “You can't compete anymore.” I said, “I'm not competing. I was never competing.” They said, “Well, that may be, but we've got a thing now where if you've won five times in a row, we put you in the Gallery of the Greats.”
It was comical. I was in there with Itzhak Perlman and David Grisman and Mark O'Connor - just all these heavy, heavy hitters. They're genius players, and I'm not and have no illusions that I ever, ever will be. But I'm a bulldog with a bone. When I get a fiddle tune or something I'm working on, I'll drive people out of the house playing it until I own it. Then, I go on stage, and people love it.
The other comic thing is that in over 40 years now, I've wondered why I was such an idiot that I picked up an instrument I have to tune for 90 minutes to play for 90 minutes. Then, in 1993, they gave me a corroboratory that I might be in the right line of work by inducting me into the Autoharp Hall of Fame. I was really excited about that, until they said it was as the first living member. [Laughs.] They put in Mother Maybelle Carter and Sara Carter from the Carter Family and then Kilby Snow, the old mountain railroad man from Virgina. All of them were posthumous; I was the first living member. It's just comical.
Besides the comedy, I'm still moved. My criteria for learning songs is pretty simple. I have to be made to either laugh or cry. If it makes me laugh, I want to learn it. If it makes me cry, I want to learn it. It has to move me. Then, I will go to work. I'm essentially lazy, but if I'm moved, then I can do the work to learn a song.
CP: That's an instrument many people use simply as a vocal accompaniment. Have you found that the instrument has greater depth than people think?
BB: That's exactly right. Many times, people will listen to the recording and say, “Good lord. How many people are playing?” Then, they learn it's just one. Then, they'll come see me and see it's just me. I've just been trying to make the music I hear in my head and my heart with my fingers. It's turned out to be something pretty special.
People have traditionally thought of an instrument that the grade school teacher strums on that's out of tune with some strings missing. That ain't what this is. That ain't what I'm doing with the harp. I play beautiful melodies and counter melodies. I've won awards for my instrumental playing.
It just happens to be my main instrument. I also play mandocello and guitar, but the autoharp is the one. It's the one that really rings my bell and gives me the big charge, emotionally. Plus, I can play it while I'm riding down the road. People with big concert harps can't do that.
Before cell phones, I would put the steering wheel down on my knees, drive with my knees with the cruise control on and play. I'm a better driver with my knees than most people are with their hands. But I no longer do that because of cell phones. [Laughs.] If people see you doing that and can't see your hands hands on the wheel because you're holding an instrument going 70 mph, they call the police. So I don't do that anymore, but as a wild young man, I did. [Laughs.]
CP: In a video I saw of you online, you mentioned that you live on a big 30-acre plot in the middle of the forest. Do you find a lot of inspiration from the time you get to spend there when you're off the road?
BB: I love it. I love extremes. It's a full 180 from my busy road life, which is about filling up at a diesel station, throwing a little water in my face and keeping on driving and working on songs. I work on lyrics while I'm driving lots of times. If I make notecards of a song and learn it, I'll practice learning the lyrics while I'm driving.
Then, I get to the gigs early. I can't fake the tune. I have to get there a couple hours to get in great tune. After the show, I'm entering people's emails in my computer so I have my email list. Then, I sleep and get up early the next day and do the same thing. I'm very dedicated to doing what I do.
I'm out now for 56 days. I left on Sept. 20 and I won't get home until Nov. 16. I'm cranking it up. I do the fall tour, and then, I'll take some time off in the winter instead of sloshing around in crazy freezing cold. I stay home in the northwest where it's not too bad.
That's a long-winded answer, but yes, I'm totally inspired by the woods and the stream and the salmon in the stream and the eagles in the trees and elk and deer in the woods. I live in paradise.
CP: Do you look forward to getting back on the road when you're at home?
BB: It's two-way street. When I'm home, after a while, I'm ready to go back on the road, and when I'm on the road for a while, I'm ready to go back home. It's the old pendulum swing. The pendulum swings up and back, up and back. You get into a rhythm.
I get into a big rhythm when I'm on the road - the rhythm of driving and learning songs and seeing old friends and eating a meal and playing a bunch of songs. It's a wonderful rhythm of sharing this wonderful gift I've been given for music.
CP: What percentage of your set is comprised of original material and how much is traditional songs and tunes?
BB: I have written about 1,000 songs, and I only do about a dozen of my own songs. I'm pretty brutal in my assessment of the worthiness of my songs. I have people request songs that I've dropped, and I have to go back and refresh myself. Probably 10 percent or 20 percent of my shows are my material. The rest is beautiful instrumentals or traditional songs.
I was raised in the storytelling tradition, too. The stories were all over the place, so I love stories. I tell stories. Sometimes, they're short little intros, but they're pithy with kernels of truth. Usually, once or twice an evening, I'll launch into a longer story.
CP: Do you have any idea what you'll be playing at the Barking Legs Theater show? Do you plan ahead or are there any pieces you always incorporate into your sets?
BB: My evenings are filled with playing the music I love the most. I don't go out and practice on people. I don't play songs I'm just learning. I have to have the songs under my belt before I play them. I have a good idea of what I'll be doing.
I'll play a smattering of songs from every record and play some new material I've learned in the time since I was last at Barking Legs, which was about a year and a half ago. I know which ones are the new ones since I was there last, so I'll play those so people aren't hearing the same tunes. People need to know you're not stuck in a rut.
CP: What are you working on now, recording wise?
BB: I just finished a brand new one. The last one I did was three years ago called “Bristlecone Pine,” the tree, which can live to be thousands of years old. I had some great people playing on that one, all these great players playing on it.
I did that, and it was so good and well received that I all of sudden realized July of this last year that I was in danger of never recording again. I was worried I wouldn't be able to surpass “Bristlecone Pine,” but I thought that was dumb because I'm still growing.
I caught some crab and got some friends to take some pictures of me holding these big crabs up next to my head like they were earrings. I called the CD “Crabby Old Man.” I've got the new “Crabby Old Man,” and I've only had it for about two weeks.