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Autoharp Strikes Chord with Virginia Native Bryan Bowers

Bryan Bowers Band
The Bryan Bowers Band, featuring multi-instrumentalists Geoff Goodhue (l), Bryan Bowers (c) and Danny Knicely (r), will perform at the 2019 Richmond Folk festival. Photo by Jeffery Socha. 

Since its introduction in the late nineteenth century, the autoharp has been a staple of music classrooms and churches. It was designed so that anyone could pick it up and play it. Just push a button and strum a chord.  A native of Yorktown, Virginia has spent more than fifty years perfecting his own approach to the instrument that goes way beyond this basic style of playing. Peter Solomon has more. 

The Bryan Bowers band will perform Saturday afternoon from 1:30 to 2:15 at the Richmond Times Dispatch Virginia Folklife Stage at the Richmond Folk Festival.  

Back in the late 1960’s, Bryan Bowers showed up to a jug-band party.  It took place in a Virginia horse barn that had been converted to a living space. Everyone was playing and singing old folk tunes, but the thing that really made an impression on him was a person who brought out an array of stringed instruments which he played with varying degrees of skill. 

Bryan Bowers: And then he brought out the autoharp.

And that, says Bryan Bowers was the moment his life changed forever.  

Bowers:  And of course I'd seen 'em all through my childhood. 

Bowers says that several of his school teachers possessed autoharps, but they never kept them in tune. They were basically treated as toys on which they could keep time and play chords. This time, the instrument was perfectly in tune and the effect was mesmerizing.  

Bowers: I never had a clue that there was music could be made with them.

After the man’s performance, Bowers got to talking with him about the instrument. 

Bowers: ...and the final thing that blew me away - he took the harp and put it up next to my ear. 

He instructed Bowers to grasp the rectangular body of the instrument tight against his chest, press down hard on one of the chord bars and to run his thumb straight across the strings.  

Bowers: I took that thumb of mine and I strummed across that chord of that Harp that was in tune right up next to my ear and it went into my soul, man. I went, “Oh my God!,” and I went and bought one the next day and never dreamed that it would turn into my life's work. 

In the early 70’s Bowers moved to Seattle, making his living by busking on street corners and passing the hat in bars. When he wasn’t performing, he spent hours teaching himself to play melodies on his new instrument, gradually developing a unique, complex five-finger picking style. When his technique was more-or-less polished he headed East and went to the famous DC club, the Cellar Door, where some well-known bluegrass musicians - the Dillards and members of Newgrass Revival - were hanging out. 

Bowers:. So I broke out the harp and I played them the Battle Hymn of the Republic melody. 

In his carefully conceived arrangement, Bowers starts out playing simple chords and ends up with all five fingers playing different harmony notes. 

Bowers: They went crazy. They said, you're coming with us tomorrow. We’re going to York, Pennsylvania to this Bluegrass Festival.   

When Bowers joined his new friends the next day, he brought down the house. It marked the beginning of when things started turning around for him. 

Bowers: It stunned me. I'd been a street singer and didn't know what to do with myself. And all of a sudden all these sensational musicians are saying, man, that's really nice.

Those musicians from Newgrass Revival (that he met in DC and traveled with) helped him out on his 1977 debut recording, A View from Home. 

In the decades since, Bowers has been honored as one of the innovators on the autoharp. Fret magazine inducted him into their “First Gallery of the Greats” which includes iconic string players like Chet Atkins, Stephane Grappelli and David Grisman.  He also became the first living player added to the autoharp hall of fame. 

Bowers: Fifty years later, here I am: still playing still singing, still having people call and ask me to come and play. I'm honored that I've stood the test of time for fifty years to bring something worthy to people's ears and hearts.

Bowers spends as much as an hour and a half before every show trying to get his instruments perfectly in tune, in the hopes that his audience will get the same joy from the autoharp's ringing chords that he first experienced a half century ago. 

I’m Peter Solomon, VPM News.