Folk Instruments

The art of building stringed instruments is called Lutherie. Dwain Wilder learned it from Walter Martin, of Roaring Spring, a little town in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. Walt is a world-famous builder of Appalachian dulcimers. He made a thousand of them before retiring at age 80.

Walter founded Sunhearth Folk Instruments in 1971. Walt had built and driven race-cars, had taught high-school shop for years, and had built the family home (which he named "Sunhearth") with the help of his father in the 1930s. Now, looking for another challenge, he happened to hear a group of folk-singers at State College, PA, and fell in love with the music. He invited them all home and bet them a keg of beer they couldn't sing all night long without repeating themselves. He paid for a lot of beer that night, but also fell in love with the Appalachian Dulcimer. It turned out there was a whole world of music right on his doorstep he'd never heard.

Now, Walt can't carry a tune in a bucket, but he is an excellent artisan, and he set out to research the dulcimer with an engineer's thoroughness. The design he came up with in a few months became the heart of the Sunhearth success. It was half engineering, half wit, and half luck. Over the first few years, he puzzled painfully though string physics, fret spacing, musical scales, and design refinements, but he built dulcimers that have a sweetness and clarity no one else had achieved. Most dulcimers begin to sound like thumb pianos up in the second octave, but Walt's just keep singing with that same sweetness all the way up to the strum hollow.

He was soon winning notice at fairs and music festivals around Pennsylvania. His son, Michael Martin joined him in the enterprise, and they began to expand into the national folk music scene. Somewhere along the way, Mike and Walt met Lorraine Lee Hammond. She was entranced by the Sunhearth Appalachian Dulcimer, and Mike and Walt were captivated by this superb dulcimer stylist and composer. Lorraine has completely transcended the supposed limitations of the instrument, and plays dulcimer blues, dulcimer jazz, Elizabethan ballads. She bows it, uses slide guitar techniques, hammers it like a piano... Soon Lorraine, Walt, and Mike had designed the famous "Lorraine Lee" model, a specially equipped AD-4 Concert Hourglass. The "Lorraine Lee" was the dulcimer that clinched Walt's place as a world-famous dulcimer maker. He has sold instruments in Europe, Ireland, England, Australia, Japan, and many other places.

As Walt's eightieth birthday approached, he decided to make a last one hundred instruments and retire at number one thousand. (He vowed to burn serial number 1000, but outraged friends and family talked him out of it. It was a gesture typical of him, though, to want to burn it.) Dwain Wilder, an old friend of the Martins', when he heard that Walt was preparing to retire, instantly decided he wanted to carry on the business. Dwain had been building very intricate ship models for twenty years, and had been kicking around the Sunhearth shop all that time, talking physics, metaphysics, astrophysics, string dynamics, and politics. Walt called him his "Number Two Son", and it would be like keeping the business in the family if Dwain took it up.

Dwain Wilder studied formally with Walt for a few weeks to catch up on the arcane little corners of what Walt knew. He and Walt mulled over the possibility of Dwain getting the Sunhearth name. But Sunhearth is so rooted with the Martin family, the name of their home--it seemed best to leave the name with them.

So Dwain founded Bear Meadow Folk Instruments, a name that reflects his bear-like good humor, as well as his fondness for the power and dignity of the black bears now returning in the mountains of New York and Pennsylvania. He is dedicated to carrying on the reputation of Sunhearth, but he has also expanded on Walter's craftsmanship. After a few years of development, Bear Meadow dulcimers have greater dynamic range and are more responsive than Walter's were. And there are the new Concert Series models, the Concert Grand Hourglass, and the Baby Grand Teardrop, and the Swan, along with the Concert Hourglass (the original Lorraine Lee Sunhearth model) and the Concert Teardrop.

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