The Art of Dulcimer Kicking Mule Records KM 217
This 1981 double-dulcimer album was ED Denson's idea. His reasoning: he did what we wanted when he released Crossover, now we needed to do what he wanted. He even chose the name. Kicking Mule was predominantly an instrumental label and even though ED would eventually end up releasing more and more singing and ensemble work, the bread, butter and reputation of the label was in instrumentals.
Turns out he was right. I can still hear my friend, George Bigley's voice, “Why didn't you give me this album first?” George worked for California Record Distributors. He handled all of the non-major label record distribution in the Northwest-- hundreds of labels and thousands of titles. Building a reputation as a hot licks group and then moving into songwriting would have been a better (read: more economically lucrative) pathway for Al and I to have taken. Oops. Sigh.
This was the album, with a few more instrumentals added in, Neal Hellman of Gourd Records chose to re-release on his label ten years later. Of the several anthologies out there that include our work, all of them have tunes taken from this album. This perennial wisdom was hard won.
Dave Mathew, the engineer for Crossover had moved to Portland, Oregon to work for Spectrum studios. We figured he knew as much about how to record the dulcimer as anyone so we followed him there. Our long-time friend and musical mentor (she could read and write music!) Baila Dworsky, became our producer. That's the person who sits in the booth next to the engineer and decides whether a cut has the right tempo, feel, clarity, cleanness, vim and vigor. She knew our music well.
With Albert and I our instrumentals were the results of two virgos correcting each other on performance nuances over a period of years. They were set pieces. Every note was planned, no improvisation. That's a key concept-- having a live, exciting feel but still having every note in place and accounted for, like a symphony score. Baila got that. As a result, she also got that out of us.
The artistic success of this album lies in the fact that the compositions are not only tried, true and tight, but they also, like Crossover, step across stylistic and cultural borders. But this time it was the instrument itself that was being showcased, not necessarily the two guys who were incidentally playing the heck out of it, though that was no small part, the result of years of effort and dedication. Such as it is with any artist in any medium. We got out of our own way.
A year or so after the release of the Art of Dulcimer we put out a songbook. As she did for Pacific Rim, Baila again, an artist in her own right, transcribed our work and wrote it out in an intelligible manner so anyone could play it. ED originally brokered the songbook with Centerstream Publications who in turn brokered it to Columbia Pictures Press. It was very impressive to have a songbook out on Columbia. What was not impressive is that we never received a single dime. Not one. Wow.
There's some pretty tunes and complicated tunes and gentle tunes and wild-to-the-wall tunes on the album. It truly was the Art of Dulcimer. After all is said and done, years in passing, I note that Cornwall, Wellyn and Wabash have a life of their own. That's something. They live on. To this list I personally would add Storms on the Ocean as well as Swananoah Tunnel / Reuben's Train. They capture the dulcimer's Appalachian Mountain roots, nuanced with the Force/d'Ossche' style.
Most people never go back to discover to the origins of things. They come into the picture halfway through the reel and someone else catches them up on the plot: We played music because we had to, like breathing. We brought to it, and to the dulcimer, all of our attention. This album reflects that.