Music is an integral part of my life. Ever since I sat down at our brand-new piano at the age of nine with a simple song in front of me, I have been making music in one form or another on five, hopefully soon to be six, different instruments (piano, organ, guitar, dulcimer, ukulele and hopefully I can nail down the bowed psaltery). It is inevitable that my love of music finds its way into my stories. In my first series, The Texas Hill Country series, my characters either sang, danced well, or played an instrument. But I wanted to take it further than that. So when I was thinking about writing a second series, I decided to set the stories in the world of Appalachian mountain music and bluegrass music and have as my centerpiece a bluegrass music club in Bristol, Tennessee, with my characters the professional musicians performing there.
Kylie Richards, the heroine of ‘Mist’, plays the mountain dulcimer. I play the dulcimer-not as well as she does, but I do play it. I bought my first dulcimer in the summer of 2012 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The vendor was demonstrating how to play one and it looked interesting, so I sat down and gave it a test run. I was hooked! I bought one on the spot and brought it home to San Antonio, where I found a tiny but thriving dulcimer group called the Riverpickers. The mountain dulcimer is the only instrument that was ever developed in the continental United States and is a bit deceptive in that at first it seems easy, but playing it well requires a great deal of skill. Normally a dulcimer is held flat on one’s lap or on a table in front of the musician and played flat like a steel guitar. I have several I play this way, but I also have a ‘music stick’ or banjo dulcimer that I hold like a banjo or a ukulele. Most dulcimers are made by specialty luthiers, and they are hard to find outside Appalachia or the Ozarks. Some of the characters in ‘Mist’ play the hammered dulcimer, a large triangular instrument played by hitting the strings with small hammers. I don’t play one of those and have the utmost admiration for those who do! I also have Kylie’s amputee brother Cooper Barstow playing a bowed psaltery, an instrument that can be played one-handed. It’s another instrument that is deceptive in that it’s laid out like a piano and would theoretically be a quick study for a pianist, but that again requires skill and practice to play well.
A good musician can play anything on a dulcimer (either kind) or psaltery, but the music that’s made for them are the old folk songs and ballads that were brought over by the English and Scots that settled Appalachia and passed these songs down as the years passed. I was careful to have my characters play actual old mountain songs to the point that I had my Riverpickers music book on my desk as a ready reference. Most of the music in that book is hand-written, as much of the mountain music has never been formally written down or published. When I needed a song for my characters to play, I would ask myself ‘What are the characters doing with the music?’ If they are accompanying the young cloggers, I have them play something that would be suitable for clog dancing, as opposed to singing a love ballad. However, I was also careful to have them play other kinds of music as well. The Barstows sing and play bluegrass, which developed in the 1940’s as a musical genre and is an outgrowth of the old mountain music, and my musicians are seen playing modern songs as well.
As the Smoky Blue series progresses, my characters play other musical instruments and perform in other genres. In ‘Smoke’, classical violinist Francesca Giordano hides out with The Barstows and plays fiddle with them when she isn’t wowing audiences in symphony halls. Leilani Mahuiki brings her ukulele and her Hawaiian music to Bristol and finds love in the hills of Tennessee in ‘Evergreen’. ‘Indigo’ banjo picker Timberlynn Barstow sticks mostly to bluegrass and her sister Caitlyn writes country hits in ‘Mistletoe’. ‘Emerald’ heroine Trish Dyson pole dances to just about anything sexy and ‘Violet’ heroine Karen Gregory plays in a youthful bluegrass fusion band. Upcoming heroine of ‘Ruby’, Lexi Barstow, sings bluegrass and in a bit of a departure, ‘Amethyst’ heroine Taylor DeWitt is a heart surgeon. Several of the heroes in these stories are also musicians or working in the business.
So what of my future characters? Will they also be musicians and singers? Most definitely! The Durango St. Theater series is already in the works. It will feature the actors, directors, musicians and movers and shakers of a San Antonio community theater group performing Broadway musicals. Music again will be the heart and soul of the heroes and heroines I love to create.