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Friend for Life

Bryan Bowers calls on songs to ease the heavy load


Bryan Bowers and friend
  • Bryan Bowers and friend

Thirty years ago, when he was living out of his truck and storing his possessions at a friend's house, Bryan Bowers lost everything he had in a flood.

"The only thing I had was my yellow truck, my shirt on my back, my pants on my butt, my wallet, and one autoharp that I'd taken with me," Bowers told The Indy last week.

With the encouragement of his friends, he sold a song to John Denver and made friends with the Dillards, New Grass Revival, and The Seldom Scene. He has been a national treasure and a mainstay on the folk and bluegrass scene ever since, reinvigorating the autoharp and ensuring the legacy of the instrument first popularized by the Carter family.

Bowers spoke to The Indy from his home north of Seattle, near the Canadian border, in what he calls a "fairyland ... 30 acres of old-growth forest with a salmon stream running through the middle of it, a hidden valley with hills on both sides and no neighbors."

When not touring as a solo act or joining friends on stage at the country's premiere acoustic music festivals, he settles into the magic of his environment. "It's very quiet. I go get in my boat and go crabbing, come back and play tunes after eating a big slug of Dungeness crab."

Indy: What do you consider your coming of age experience in musical terms?

BB: As a kid I sang call-and-answer music on our farm in Virginia. I'd listen to the field hands and railroad guys sing and I'd go off with them and try to copy what they were doing. Even slow, it was still very powerful. The next pivotal day I had in my life after all the field hands and the railroad guys, was when a guy sat me down one day and he put on Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar player, Robert Johnson, and Lord Buckley. I've never been the same since.

Indy: Who was Lord Buckley?

BB: Lord Buckley was a rap guy who died in the '50s. He did these raps in this kind of hip, irreverent black/white mix. He had an amazing mind and an amazing voice. To listen to his voice is like listening to a band. He'd take the story of Jesus and it became "The Naz," And Shakespeare became "Willy, the Shake." It would just kill you.

Indy: Did he influence your love of storytelling?

BB: I got that from being a kid in Virginia. The farmers, they didn't talk real fast like car salesmen or insurance salesmen. They talked kind of slow and laconic. And they talked with their eyes, and a raised eyebrow and a hard look at someone and a look away like a cutaway, like a cut-eye they called it. There was a lot of conversation that was occurring facially in conjunction with this laconic, seemingly slow kind of speaking. But buddy row, if they caught a rookie, they're ready right now to stretch this truth a little bit, raise an eyebrow to one of the other fellows in the circle and see how far they could take the rookie before the rookie knew he'd been had. They liked to stretch it.

Indy: Did you ever encounter any comparable musical tradition to what you were exposed to as a kid in Virginia?

BB: No. Not in all honesty. Nothing that struck me that hard. In the '50s and '60s, I started to play music in college. Man, I went off the scale. Grades and a beautiful wife and a beautiful young son and academic scholarships and all the rest, none of it had me as tuned in to what life can be all about as music. I was obsessed. My wife, meanwhile, was in picket fence gear. She wanted me to be doing the picket fence trick. But I was ready to go and play everywhere and anywhere at any time. The consequence was that we split the sheets and I came out West.

Indy: Were you exposed to much autoharp playing as you learned the instrument?

BB: I developed my own style. I wasn't trying to copy anybody. I was playing for hours and hours a day. I jerry-rigged a knob on my steering wheel so that I could actually play the autoharp and get paid for driving the mail around to the outlying areas. Six hours a day I was playing the harp while I drove with my knees. I was nuts to play.

Indy: How did you develop your unique finger picking approach to the autoharp?

BB: It was just a defense mechanism against going electric. I was a street singer at the time, getting my chops together on the harp. I was singing in the Pikes Place Market and in the bars and the church coffeehouses and the little $5-a-night-and-all-the-cheeseburgers-you-can-eat kind of pass-the-hat joints. People were always saying 'Too soft, too soft. Why don't you get an amp?' I had three finger picks on that I'd seen Mike Seeger with, two on the index and the middle and then a thumb pick. But then I thought, well, gee, if I could learn how to put picks on the other two fingers maybe I could get more sound and not have to get an amp. I played with it all the time and never got it figured out till probably a year later.

Indy: Can you describe the technique of using multiple fingers to combine rhythm, melody and harmony all at once?

BB: Every line that I play, I add it on like a mortar guy would lay up a pile of bricks. I always start with just the rhythm chords. Then I learn the melody chords, with just the thumb only, no fingers at all. I won't even use my fingers till I can play the melody with my thumb. Then I start putting the melody in with my middle finger and having the thumb be just an octave below it. Then I put in the index finger and do a low harmony. Ring finger, do a high harmony. Little finger, do a fifth harmony. But I do every one of those one at a time before I add them in sequentially.

Indy: So even though it's not a conscious thought process, there may be five different thoughts playing out there at one time.

BB: Oh, easy, yeah. In addition to the thought about the vocal. Aren't we lucky to have brains? Our brain is an amazing thing.

Indy: How would you characterize your impact on broadening the identity of the autoharp?

BB: I think it was the realization that I didn't need all those chords. I started experimenting with taking and making a multiple key instrument into a single key instrument. I opted to go for playing perfect in one key. Pure scale. And I started using fine tuners on the autoharp, because I'd seen fiddle fine tuners and I thought that could work on an autoharp. I am still obsessed with playing in great tune. I feel like every night when I step out, it's not a given, it's not like I'm the Yankees. I gotta earn it every night.

Indy: Your new album, Friend for Life, is almost entirely traditional songs. How did you pick the songs to include?

BB: There are certain songs where you only hear a couple three notes, and immediately you go back to, 'Oh, my Uncle Ben taught me that one,' or 'Oh, boy, my sister, Judy..." you know? That's how I picked the tunes.

Indy: The album, and the title song, really reflect your love of music and your love of song.

BB: Well, I got no in between. It's either songs that are heartfelt and I can sing and really believe in, or it's silly. I got a big silly button.


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