Personally, I always thought of the dulcimer as one of those quaint Americana instruments, kind of like the autoharp. But in the right hands, an autoharp can be a joy to hear, and in Butch Ross’s (www.butchross.com) hands the dulcimer becomes a wonder to behold. It’s almost as if Stradivarius himself had come back, invented this Appalachian instrument for the first time, and then handed it over to Butch saying: Here Kid, see what you can do! And boy, what can’t Butch Ross do with this thing.
Now the dulcimer, being part of the zither family, is speculated to date back to the 17th century ten stringed Swedish Hummel’s, the late 16th century four stringed German Scheitholte’s, and even as far back as the five and six stringed Norwegian langeleik’s of the early 1500’s. Zithers, as a class, are defined as wooden instruments where the strings do not extend beyond the sound box, unlike modern guitars where the fretted neck is an extension attached to the sound box (or body). They are usually played by finger plucking or by using a plectrum, what we now call a pick. They’re unique sound comes from the drone effect where one or more strings are repetitively played in sustained sound to establish a tonality around which a piece of music is organized.
Dulcimers come in two flavors: the hammer dulcimer and the Appalachian dulcimer. They are both part of the psalterium (drone) family of instruments whose evolutionary line zenithed with the harpsichord which then slowly gave way to the piano (non-drone) family of instruments in the late 18th century. The hammer dulcimer is a large, trapezoid instrument played by striking the strings with mallets while it rests upon one’s lap or a stand. It’s smaller cousin, the Appalachian dulcimer is about the size of a nice double-decker billiard pool stick box, with its sounding board and four strings running its entire length. And it’s on this lighter, eclectically brighter instrument that Butch Ross shines.
So why so much history? Because it’s almost impossible to put into words the multitude of chordal harmonies and interwoven distonic cross-stitching one person can generate with just four strings. I saw Butch live several years ago at Luna Star Café (North Miami, Florida) and I was floored. In addition to being a master dulcimist, he is also an accomplished looper. Butch would pick up a dulcimer, play a most invigorating musical phrase, then put down that dulcimer while the looper continued repeating the first phrase, add a second phrase with a second dulcimer, and then repeat the process over and over, sometimes going through four or more dulcimers on a single song. After a minute or two of this, the walls of Luna Star were actually vibrating from the harmonic waves that were splashing around the room.
On his latest CD titled BUTCH ROSS – A LONG WAY FROM SHADY GROVE, he has compiled fourteen tracks of both covers and original instrumental compositions. Though a few tracks include accompaniment by Gary Gallier, Quintin Stephens, Steve Seifert, Ben Scoggins and Steve Brehm, Butchs virtuosity dominates this CD in every way imaginable, even on classic traditionals like Shady Grove, Goodbye Liza Jane and Sandy River Belle. Beyond that, Butch reworks traditionals like Sweet Spotted Pony by interjecting it with inspired interpolations from Lynyrd Skynyrds Sweet Home Alabama, Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London and Steve Millers Take The Money And Run. As if that weren’t far enough a stretch between purist and genius, Butch also does a brilliant solo throughout John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s 1966 classic Eleanor Rigby. And then there are the originals. What can I say? You must hear to believe.
Now, Butch Ross plays during the season in SE Florida and the Florida Keys. So the next time you hear he’s around, grab your plectrum and hop aboard the next psalterium to catch him live. It’s worth the listen.