The Late Jerry Wright's Interview with David Schnaufer
We were in Covington, Louisiana at the Mardi Gras Dulcimer Festival in 1997. I had just heard David Schnaufer and Steve Seifert in concert. I had just experienced some of the best music that I had ever heard in my life. People were all around David. I had asked him for an interview earlier in the day. He saw me. He walked over to the side and we sat in a couple of chairs. I had a little tape recorder. The man was so easy to talk to – after all, he is a fellow East Texan.
I have lived in Nashville, Tennessee for 14 years but I was born in Hearn, Texas. I was born in a building that is now the Western Auto – in fact I don’t even know if it is still there – that little old town has fell on hard times. I lived in Franklin a little bit then moved to LaMarque, Texas. That’s where I really grew up. My folks were from Tennessee Colony near Palestine, Texas.
I got a Jew's harp for my 5th birthday. My dad taught me how to play that and then sometime later, I started playing the harmonica. But I never was any kind of musician or anything, I just kinda made noise you know and stuff. And when I was 20, I started kinda thinking about playing music. Emmy Lou Harris and Graham Parsons play in Houston one night. And I knew – that is when I was 20 and that is when I knew that I wanted to play music. So I went looking for something with strings. I did a little autoharp, I tried that for – you know – a day. And guitar, well, I knew that wasn’t my thing. I was going to school at Sul Ross out in Alpine, Texas. I was visiting a friend in Austin one weekend and I went past a music store and the whole front was full of instruments that I had never seen before – they were dulcimers. They were $40. So I bought one of those. It was my 21st birthday so that was in September of ’73. I started playing and I went back out to West Texas and I couldn’t get away from the dulcimer. I’d play in the morning and I would try walking back up that mountain to go to school and I’d get half way up and I would turn around and run back down. I didn’t know what to do with it – I didn’t know how to tune it or anything. My brother was a priest in Georgetown. So I would hitchhike from Alpine, Texas all the way across the state for my brother to tune my dulcimer and then I’d just, “See ya, I gotta get back.” He played the guitar – my brother was the musician in the family. He was always a good clarinet player. So, he tuned it up for me – I made a couple of them long hauls and so I quit school about two weeks after I started playing music. And I went and saw my brother and that is when I started working in construction and to be around my brother so he could tune my dulcimer for me until I learned how to do it. And I just been playing ever since.
Nobody heard me play for about the first year or year and a half that I played. In 1976, I saw an ad for Winfield, they were having a dulcimer – the first national dulcimer contest. But it wasn’t the Winfield in the Fall, it was one that they had in the Spring. They had it just one year. So, I went there to listen. I was playing out in the parking lot just by myself and talking with some dulcimer people. A fellow named Roger Harris from Oklahoma City, he entered me in the dulcimer contest. I’d never played in front of anybody and so I entered in dulcimer contest and I won. I only knew three tunes but I played those three tunes for a year and a half. I had Golden Slippers down, Santa Anna’s Retreat, I had that down. I won that then went back working construction in Keller, Texas – just north of Ft Worth. Then during the rainy season, I would take off hitchhiking looking for dulcimer players. I’d find out the name of a dulcimer player, I’d call them up and go see them. Or, I’d just show up, I’m not much of a phone person. I’d just show up and say, “You wanna play some dulcimer?” So I went all over the country meeting … I went up to the Northwest – I met Bob Force and Albert DeShea and went all over the mountain areas in the Carolina and West Virginia. I chased it down, I think I knew every dulcimer player there was. Then at that same time, the first Cosby Dulcimer Festival happened. You know, that was the first convention where dulcimer players had ever got to meet each other. Most of the people were in their early 20’s so there was a lot of energy going on. That was in either ’75 or ’76 – that first Cosby – I met a lot of people and got to hear a lot of dulcimer styles from all over.
I met Bonnie Carol there and I moved out to Colorado and built dulcimers with her. We had a shop out there for three years and traveled around and played. I learned a lot of stuff from her. And from a classical mandolinist that was a friend of mine who was teaching me stuff. We ended up playing as a trio, me and Bonnie and her. We traveled the West Coast and East Coast and after that, I moved to Washington D.C. and was going to teach out there but that wasn’t going very well and so I ended up in West Virginia with Alan Freeman who I had met at a craft fair up in Pennsylvania a couple years before. My car died out on his farm and so – and he knew all the old banjo players and fiddle players, all the old time traditional players. So I got to pick with them all the time I lived out there – about four years are so. And then, I moved back to Texas a few times during that time period. I can’t stay away – I’m always going back to Texas.
I did a little EP and decided that I was going to move to Nashville. An EP is the size of a 45 rpm record but it has four songs on it instead of two and it runs at 33 1/3rd. I thought it would be perfect for folk music cause you could put four songs on it. So I did that and moved to Nashville. I had been writing Chet Adkins’ office for years cause I loved Chet’s playing. I called him up one day and I talked to his secretary and she said, “If you really want to do this, you ought to move to Nashville.” I had already been there once, I went to the Opry and saw Earnest Tubb and Kitty Wells.
So I moved to Nashville and started playing in restaurants for tips. I had always written songs so Nashville is a song town, so then I started playing with the Judd’s. They were the first people – they had just made the scene. I played the dulcimer, the second album, I played for their next four albums. Then through that, I hooked up with Polly Dunn and Kathy Mattea and Dan Steels and lots of different country artist like Michael Murphy. A lot of these people had heard me play in clubs or – I played every gig I could possible play.
And then, let’s see, then I got a publishing deal so I didn’t have to work so hard for rent. That meant that I was getting paid to write songs. So that was pretty neat. Let’s see, it’s been twelve since I’ve had – I’ve been totally making my living making music. Then I was in a rock band this whole time, a country rock band. We did acoustic kind of rock. We got a big major label record and stuff. And that all went totally crazy and I ended up living back in my car on the streets.
Then the university hired me. I played at a dinner party and the dean heard me play and he said, “I want you at our classical music school.” So I’ve been over there for three years now. And that kinda brings us up to date.
Steve’s grandmother had given him a dulcimer when he was 15 or 16 and he was studying classical piano. He was really a hard-worker, training as a musician in his early teens. His parents brought him to see me in Cincinnati. He was from Kentucky – right near Cincinnati. I was playing at an old time pickin’ parlor. He had been going to college about thirty miles from Nashville studying recording science. He was playing dulcimer, he gave up piano when he was 16. That is what he put his energy into. My friend Sandy Conatser knew somebody that knew somebody that knew him and he was just looking for somebody to play dulcimer with. So they hooked up together and had been playing ever now and then, every week or so. Then he found out that I was living there in Nashville so we started hanging out together. That was three years ago.
If you want to play the dulcimer, all you got to do is start playing. I was always told that I couldn’t play, I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t this and I couldn’t do that. And the dulcimer doesn’t - it doesn’t care about that. If you want to do it – you will do it. It is easier on the dulcimer – I still believe than more than any other instrument. I had no previous knowledge of music except that it sorta worked like a harmonica – that was about it.
Thank you, we’ll do this again sometimes and talk that East Texas stuff.
Special thanks to Margaret Wright for making the above and the Lee Rowe interview available.