The dulcimer a traditional instrument? Not so, says Michael Futreal, a multi-instrumentalist who pushes the boundaries of how people typically view this Appalachian folk instrument. Futreal speaks about growing up as a self-taught musician in North Carolina, his free-spirited approach to the dulcimer, and about his band Twang Darkly.
In a few sentences, how would you define your music?
Picture this recurring scene from Twang Darkly shows: someone who has been listening to us for over an hour will come up to us during a set break and ask, “So…what kind of music do y’all play?” I’m always struck dumb by the question. I usually manage to answer something along the lines of “cinematic Appalachian roots rock” or “new-fangled mountain music.”
Here’s the real deal though: in attempting to create new music that I would like to hear, I try to keep myself open to discovering other related music that I want to play. And it really does feel more like discovery than a purely willful act of creation. The Muses are broadcasting on all frequencies, and I can tune into a few of their stations on the broken radio of my rambling Truckaluck. When I stay with the signal long enough, sometimes something magical remains to me through all the rain and rust. These days, I record that stuff as soon as I can, or I just play it for the band and we take it wherever we can.
Futreal performs charango, dulcimer, and other instruments—all in the same video.
Who do you consider to be your earliest musical influences? How did growing up in North Carolina and in a musically inclined family shape your first experiences with music? What is the biggest impact of your earlier influences and experiences on your music today?
My brother Andy taught himself to play guitar over the course of my childhood. There weren’t lessons and there were few, if any, how-to books—there was just a guitar. He had an acoustic, but he was primarily playing electric rock like Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult, and Jethro Tull, and that seemed perfectly acceptable to him. I remember him playing Mike Post’s TV stuff like the theme from Magnum PI—he’d create complete arrangements on the acoustic guitar for some of those TV themes. So as I grew up, he was demonstrating that music was something that you could do, not just purchase.
We grew up in Warsaw, a tiny town in eastern North Carolina—the 1970s and 80s for me. Taking charge of our own experiences was paramount because, well, there wasn’t much to do otherwise. We had no cable TV; we had books, records, a basketball goal, some lawn mowers, and four TV channels. Our parents would take us to Raleigh and we’d hit the giant flea market (comics and records!), the mall, and maybe a movie. I wanted to recreate everything that was important and enjoyable out of those excursions. I made silly movies with our 8mm camera. I created comics. It was inevitable that I’d eventually want to start making music too, and that wish took hold as I started to notice how much Dire Straits and Springsteen were speaking to me as I transitioned into those angst-filled teenage years. Love, desire, romance, blues, mojo—you name it, and I could have all those things through music in a way that I couldn’t pull off any other way.
As it happens, Springsteen and [Mark] Knopfler were very self-consciously experimenting with American folk music traditions, and this dovetailed nicely with the increased time we were spending in the North Carolina mountains. We’d travelled there nearly every summer as I grew up, but we started going a lot more as I got older. As we’d haunt folklife museums, craft guild shows, and any odd store we’d come across, I’d encounter a lot of Appalachian dulcimers (though not nearly enough actual music). By the end of my senior year in high school, we’d actually moved to Asheville. Before starting college that fall, I got my first dulcimer with some money my grandmother had left for me. As I was already playing guitar and harmonica, I set up a crude, bounce-based recording system using two cassette recorders, hoping to do stuff along the lines of what Springsteen had accomplished with Nebraska.
Music by Twang Darkly, Futreal’s band, accompanies video footage from his family’s early vacations to the North Carolina mountains.
Another piece of the puzzle, I think, comes from my oldest brother, Bill. Knowing I was interested in blues and folk stuff, he wisely told me to seek Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Wolf’s the Real Folk Blues was a revelation to me. And Hooker N Heat—oh my god! How could anything so completely off-the-hook—so clearly performed without any plan—be so fabulously dead-on kick-ass? As usual, I wanted to be able to do that sort of thing too! It turns out to be a lifelong project, of course.
You started out playing harmonica, and would sometimes practice in the woods. What was this experience like? Do you still try out new instruments in this type of setting?
I used to take a Walkman into the woods and play along with Springsteen and Howling Wolf cassettes, because: a) you really can’t play harmonica so quietly, and b) when you first start, you really can’t play so well. So this was simply my best option for letting loose without driving everyone else crazy, and not the more enlightened communing-with-nature that it might seem. That said, I love the woods, and love to hike. I generally enjoy the birds and rustling leaves more than my own sound though, so I try to keep the mojo down low!
I really don’t do this sort of thing now, as the new instruments I’m inclined to try are often variations on instruments I already play to some degree. My wife is pretty used to strange sounds emanating from my side of the house, in any case, and she mostly doesn’t mind. I do wait for her to leave before I give that lamentable bamboo saxophone the business though.
Futreal on harmonica (his first instrument), dulcimer, and electric guitar.
When did you shift to the dulcimer as your primary instrument? What is it about the dulcimer that led you to make the switch?
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a primary instrument, but I’ve certainly decided to allow myself to focus more on the mountain dulcimer without regret. My older habit had been always to move on to something out of my comfort zone. For instance, if I was feeling pretty good about my dulcimer playing, I’d try to focus on recording more banjo or what have you. I like to learn, and I like where coping with uncertainty pushes you.
The thing I love most about the dulcimer is the way you can surf the tension between the open droning strings and the limited notes available on the diatonic fret board (the dulcimer is missing frets, such that only a major scale plus a flat seven can be played on a given string). The interplay of those patterns across the strings shapes your expression similarly to the way a rule-set applied to poetry (e.g., writing in sonnet form) fosters an altered state of creativity.
“Devil’s Stompin’ Ground”
Demonstrating the range of what a dulcimer can do.
Even better, because of the weird fretboard, when you re-tune, capo, or re-string the dulcimer (I play with at least six different tunings across two different string arrangements), you get dramatically different musical possibilities. Suddenly, it’s not just sonnets, but villanelles and sestinas.
The dulcimer has also shaped the way I hear and play other instruments. When I’m playing guitar, banjo, or even gourdtar, I often employ very similar kinds of approaches, allowing some strings to drone while I pursue modal melodies and chords that work against the drones. I use a lot of dulcimer-inspired “alternate tunings.”
Sailing in the Junkyard Sea, an album you released with your brother Andy, features the oud. How did you decide to pair a North African/Middle Eastern instrument with Appalachian folk instruments like dulcimer and banjo?
I wish I could tell a good story about the epiphany that put these things together, but in this specific case it has more to do with what instruments were on hand and what happened that particular day—our only plan was to play and record whatever happened. So most of the tracks on that album, including the title track, began life as pure improvisations recorded live during two days in Cambridge, UK. Andy usually has a simple stereo recorder set up in his den, right next to a bunch of acoustic instruments, including laud, oud, and several guitars. He keeps each of his guitars in a different tuning (which I started doing myself after that session), so they really are effectively different instruments. The title track “Sailing the Junkyard Sea” happened when I randomly picked up a guitar and started playing along with something he happened to be doing on the oud at that moment. As soon as there are two of us playing, we’re drawn into some flow…and something beyond either of us emerges.
“Sailing the Junkyard Sea”
Title track from Michael and Andy Futreal’s album.
At some point, I’ll probably reconstruct the essence of my part in that recording and then unleash it within a Twang Darkly session to see where it goes. Bassist/guitarist Joel Boultinghouse and I work together in a substantially similar way, just riding the resonances that happen when we start playing.
More broadly, though, I just really enjoy unexpected combinations of instruments. From my point of view, getting too hung up on tradition and what “goes together” risks comfortably reproducing expectation at the expense of creativity. It’s not that traditional musical forms and instrument matchups can’t be creative tools, but more that I simply enjoy going sideways.
You first started playing dulcimer in an unusual style at a medieval-themed dinner in college. Since that time, in what other ways have you pushed the boundaries of how people normally think a dulcimer should be played?
Well, some folks would be quick to point out that I play electric dulcimer with free use of distortion, neither of which is “traditional.” I think the electricity brings a new layer of expressiveness to the instrument. It is easier to work with electrics in a live setup, which is part of why I do it, but I’d be needlessly limiting myself if I ignored the additional musical possibilities that the electric dulcimer offers.
I think another aspect that puts me in a minority has to do with the way I maneuver outside one of the supposedly important division within our ranks. That is, the dulcimer-playing community seems to be concerned over the distinction between traditional “drone and noter” playing and modern “chord style” playing. I’m certainly willing to play chords and chord fragments, but drones figure prominently in what I do, and I’ll often use these chord fragments as a way to play harmonized modal melodies.
“Greensleeves in Blue”
Twang Darkly’s rendition of a famous English folk song.
I’ve encountered folks who talk about the dulcimer as a “traditional” instrument and get rather defensive about how it should be handled, what repertoire it should play, etc. According to dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith, though, the dulcimer tradition only seems to date back into the early 19th century, maybe 1818 or so. Before that, there were no mountain dulcimers, but rather some folks migrating south from Pennsylvania with a different instrument, the scheitholt (a Germanic zither). Once these folks got among the Scotch/Irish people down in the Virginia Appalachians, someone broke with tradition and created something entirely new. I’ll bet that probably tweaked some of the scheitholt players. Traditions arise from change, so I figure it’s fine to be willing to try new things with “old” instruments.
The bottom line here is that I’m not too keen on arbitrary limitations based on supposed tradition. I make choices, yes, but I don’t find it too useful to believe that my choices in one circumstance mean that I’m obligated to make similar choices across the board. And I certainly don’t believe that someone else having made a choice a long time ago warrants any special consideration simply because a lot of folks followed suit so as not to “do it wrong.” Tradition is valuable, but never more so than when it provides building blocks for “new” ideas.
Of all of your musical projects over the years, what is your favorite to date? What is your latest Twang Darkly project?
I’d have to say that the band Twang Darkly itself is my favorite musical project to date. We’re building an extensive repertoire, both from our ongoing re-imagining of my older material, as well as from the outpouring of new material that our collaboration has prompted. We’re feeling out how we can perform and what our music can be.
I feel incredibly lucky to have found Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and guitar) and Troy Messina (drums). They’re gifted musicians with an almost supernatural ability to ride a groove wherever it leads. I have a very loose improvisational approach with most of our material, elaborating on the structure and melodies in whatever ways seem right on a given night. Joel and Troy are always right there with me: we’re listening to each other and feeling our way. Being part of that is like an out-of-body experience sometimes. I think, “How’re we doing this?” But this is the best part of music, being in a non-verbal resonance with your musical partners. It’s a powerful and fine intimacy to share.
I’m very excited that we’re about to embark on recording a new album. Our first collection, Live from Wire Mountain, was recorded very simply with a recorder out in front of our PA at rehearsals. For the new stuff, I’ve invested our Twang earnings into a new studio setup that can better accommodate a band. We’ll likely still record the core of the songs live, because that’s what we do best, but we’ll also be willing to do a bit of the fleshing out that a studio approach affords—things like adding a bass line to a tune where Joel and I are both playing guitar for the live version. Maybe I’ll explore more flute and such too. Who knows? We’re making it all up as we go! I hope somebody listens to this new album and wonders, “What kind of music is that?”