By Jason Sendaula
Butch Ross is a singer/songwriter I had the pleasure of meeting about ten years ago. At the time he was “the usual,” by which I mean a guy and a guitar and a nice voice. Since then Butch has moved from the guitar to the Appalachian dulcimer (very different than the Hammer dulcimer and that’s an article all its own). As Butch tells it, “What happened was I was a guitar player. Sometimes when you are playing an instrument for a while you get a hankering to try other stuff, mandolin, banjo, or whatever. At the time I lived with another folk musician so we already had all of that stuff and I got it into my head that a dulcimer would be a cool thing to have. And then it just kind of took over really.
“I don’t play the Hammer dulcimer at all,” he says. They are two completely different instruments. Really the only thing they have in common is the name and nobody knows for sure why that is. There are a couple of theories as to why that came about but none of them really hold water. The truth is the Appalachian dulcimer come out of the Appalachian mountains like the banjo and the banjo are the only instruments that you can truly say were invented here. Coming out of the Appalachian mountains and they didn’t write those things down so how it got its name or even how it came into being is the subject of a lot of speculation.”
From Philadelphia Butch moved to Bowling Green, KY where he achieved his Master’s degree in Folk Studies. Currently Butch is based out of Chattanooga, TN where he moved in 2007.” The dulcimer is not directly why I moved to Chattanooga,” Butch says, “but is indirectly the reason. The dulcimer led to me getting an assistantship to graduate school in Kentucky. It was while I was in at Bowling Green that I met some folks who were from Chattanooga and they were the ones who basically cajoled me into moving to the city. And I have to tell you they have a really exceptional music scene here. And it’s not the kind of place that’s not well known. It’s a little about Portland or Ashville or places like that. I really suspect that I am living in a town like that but before anybody knew about it. I think five or ten years it going to be recognized as the place.”
Considering his graduate degree in folk studies Butch doesn’t believe that it has added more of an academic aspect to the way that you approach his music. “Although I play a folk instrument, ” he says, “there are a lot of things that I am trying to accomplish as a musician that the dulcimer allows me to do. There is certainly some thought that goes into everything that I do but it is not an academic exercise. I’m not a historical recreationist. I’m not someone who plays the dulcimer to preserve traditions that are 100 to 150 years old. There are people who already do that and they do an exceptional job. I feel that my job I feel is to demonstrate the relevancy of both the instrument and the music that is typically said on the instrument in a modern context.”
After all of his time with the guitar and followed by his years dedicated to the dulcimer, we were wondering what other instruments Butch might be picking up in the future. “In addition to the dulcimer I have been playing guitar for several years, and piano. When I record albums I tend to play all of the instruments myself. And I still play all of those instruments and enjoy playing all of those instruments but right now the dulcimer is the primary instrument and do I expect that to change? I don’t think I do. I don’t know,” he says. “The instrument just works for me.”
“Although the dulcimer is his primary instrument Butch doesn’t limit himself to the styles of music it is primarily known for. “First of all, I am not exclusively delegating myself to the folk or the bluegrass genre. I definitely play folk clubs and go to dulcimer festivals, folk festivals and bluegrass festivals. But I also go to rock clubs. I did a tour of England with a British rock band. The instrument is thought of as being a part of the bluegrass genre but that’s not what I do. Part of my job is to take it from its natural environment and show it off to people who might not come across the instrument at all.”
Butch will be touring locally around Chattanooga for the summer and will next be performing in the Philadelphia Folk Festival.