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Ancient tones for young ears


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How one musician found peace through building hammer dulcimers

Jerry Read Smith Photo by Travis Kircher

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, March 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a journey of faith. Today we meet a folk musician who set out to build the perfect hammered dulcimer—and in the process, found Christ.

Recent WJI graduate Travis Kircher is now a WORLD associate correspondent, and he brings us the story


TRAVIS KIRCHER, REPORTER: The sound of these sanders and bandsaws in this cluttered tool shop in North Carolina are music to the ears of Jerry Read Smith.

JERRY READ SMITH: So we just start from rough lumber. The backs are made out of tulip poplar. The soundboards are made out of either Quarter Sawn Sitka Spruce, or Quarter Sawn African Sapele, or Quarter Sawn Western Red Cedar or a combination of two of those.

Each hammered dulcimer, hand built.

The result is much more musical, as you’ll hear.

Smith describes himself as a former hippy. He grew up listening to The Beatles. But today his shop and home are filled with a very different kind of music.


The hammered dulcimer is a unique instrument … it sort of looks like the inside of a piano. It’s played by striking a series of strings … with a pair of small hammers.

AUDIO: [Dulcimer Playing] 

 SMITH: It’s like, ‘Why does this guy do this?’ I make a musical instrument that’s been around for three or four thousand years. I make it in a modern style.

Smith says he first fell in love with the hammer dulcimer in 1974, when he was a student at Warren Wilson College.

SMITH: I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just go down to the student union and see what’s going on.’ And when I got outside the door, I heard music inside and something was different. I didn’t know what it was.

But it kept him in his seat. Smith says he didn’t move the entire hour-and-a-half until the concert was done. And when it was over:

SMITH: I just said, ‘I gotta have one of these things.’

So he had to turn to the Smithsonian for a set of plans and get to work. He’s quick to admit the first hammer dulcimer he built wasn’t much to look at: plywood and cement nails.

But he dropped out of college to make instruments full time and hone his craft. He soon found success…not only as a builder… but as a performer at weddings, parties and church events. But stage fright kept him from enjoying it.

SMITH: And the part that bothered me the most was when they clapped. When they clapped I thought, ‘Oh God, don’t do that. I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve to be applauded. I mean, I’m just up here doing the best I can, you know? Please!”

But amid success Smith suffered loss. His father died of cancer, and his best friend died in a motorcycle accident. He says he learned the news of his friend’s death during a concert in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

SMITH: She said, ‘Waldo’s dead.’ I really believe that was the best concert I ever played in my life. I couldn't believe it. My best friend. But I came back and I played and I had absolutely no performance anxiety at all. I was just playing for him.

As Smith explains it … he came to understand success wasn’t enough. He didn’t have peace.

Raised in a universalist church, he struggled with who Jesus was. But that began to change one Sunday morning at a Kentucky craft fair, in a conversation with a vendor.

SMITH: I said, ‘What is the big deal with Jesus? I mean, come on! He obviously seems like an awesome guy and all that, but what is the big deal?’ And he just said, ‘Jesus is the bridge.’ And as if it was a movie, everything dissolved around me right then, and I went, ‘Oh. I’m trying to reach God. I’ve been trying to reach God my whole life, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t reach Him. Jesus is the bridge to God. Jesus is the reason – He’s the Way!’

That’s when Smith says he first understood who Jesus is, and it changed his perspective on everything. He now sees his work as worship.

SMITH: Whatever gifts I have are a gift from the creator of the universe. It’s not because I’m cool. It’s not because I’m smart. It’s not because I’m talented. I’m a bozo just like everyone else on this bus. I’m just a bozo that God has blessed.

Now 72 years old, Smith isn’t slowing down. He wants to perform more. But first, he’s looking to hand off the instrument-making side of business to someone younger.


ZACHARY HAMILTON: You begin with lumber. You’ve got hardwoods. Typically we start with domestic hardwoods.

Zachary Hamilton is Smith’s apprentice.

ZACHARY: And then we’ve got to mill them down to usable sizes to make the soundboard. We’ve got to make the back, pinblocks, endrails, lateral bracing that goes inside of it, and other structural components that you need.

Hamilton began working for free. He just wanted to learn. Smith later hired him, and now Hamilton hopes eventually to purchase the shop and take over from the master.

SMITH: I said, ‘you’re gonna build better instruments than I’ve ever made, no question about it. I mean, I’m gonna teach you everything I know, and you’re gonna take it from there.’ You know, it’s kind of like a relay race, right? You hand the baton off. And I guess he believed me. I mean, he’s still here.


In other words, passing the baton. Or, maybe, passing the hammer to a new generation.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Travis Kircher, in Asheville, North Carolina.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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