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A Most Revealing Portrait

Updated: May 19, 2022

There was hardly a piece of research for Pluck that didn't yield useful information for telling David's story. Ironically, one of the most revealing finds could also be described as the least revealing, and anyone who visits Nashville can see it.

Starting in 1991, photographer Maria von Mathiessen traveled to Nashville to shoot a series of portraits for her book she would entitle, Songs from the Hills: An Intimate Look at Country Music. Von Mathiessen's goal was to photograph country music artists in natural settings in and around Nashville. She planned to shoot portraits that would speak eloquently of America's essence via its country music heritage. She photographed many of the most well-known country luminaries during that the period, everyone from Roseanne Cash to Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn; Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins to Earl Scruggs; Jerry Douglas and Allison Krauss to Porter Wagoner and many others.

She also photographed David Schnaufer.

The majority of the portraits depict a country music personality in a traditional style, and, by "traditional", I mean the images depict most or all of the artist, including his or her face, in a setting meaningful to him or her. David's is different. You don't see any part of him except his bare arms elevating a dulcimer in the air. Yet, the setting of his portrait is full of meaning, literally and metaphorically, if you know his life story. If you understand what was very important to him as a teen, and what the dulcimer meant and represented to him as he grew into the foremost dulcimer player in the world of his time, the portrait speaks volumes.

As you take a virtual walk below to view the portrait, you'll see why his image is so atypical. I couldn't get permission from von Mathiessen's estate to include the image in Pluck, so I was only able to describe it. In the book, I suggest one interpretation of this most unrevealing and revealing presentation.

Below, I have included six snapshots from a visit to The Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. I've set up the slideshow to represent a "walkthrough" if you entered the second floor of the museum to view the portrait. Click on the first image on the left to enlarge it; then use the arrow on the right to move toward the portrait itself that is immediately to the right of the large, dark door. Note the frame, especially the top. (Unfortunately, the overhead lights are reflected in the glass of David's portrait, but you will still be able to see the presentation.)

I'm very curious to know how people who knew him personally would interpret both the image and its presentation. If you would like to share your interpretation, please drop me your thoughts at or leave a comment. And, the next time you visit Nashville, stop by The Tennessee State Museum, go to the second floor and enjoy contemplating it for yourself.


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