Updated: Jul 18, 2022
Several people have asked how I was able to write a biography of someone whom I had never personally met, so this last of three posts will provide another example of how a writer can utilize contemporaneous documents to help him or her learn about a subject. (See this post for an earlier example from a handwritten postcard by David.). If you missed the first and second post on the use of the Frets interview for research, click on the respective links above.
This third of three posts on a 1988 Frets magazine interview with a 35-year old David Schnaufer was written by George Gruhn (of Gruhn Guitars) and Walter Carter (of Carter Guitars)
Because it appeared in Frets just a few short years after David moved to Nashville, the first, obvious inference to make is that once David moved to Nashville, it didn't take long for those in the music business to take notice relatively fast. That's not to say that David himself was an "overnight sensation." He spent a decade prior to moving to Music City playing seven days a week--day and night--with other players across the country, in contests and at festivals, and when he was alone. After moving to Nashville, he had three priorities to continue this life journey of his: he sought out work in restaurants to start earning money immediately to live and eat, while, at the same time, he looked for small gigs around town to work for tips and to be heard by people who knew music. Lastly, he was determined to meet the Judds or their producer Bret Maher because he was certain that the key to unlock the door to the music business was to work with Naomi and Winona Judd, the mother-daughter singers who were contributing to an a renewed popularity of acoustic music during that period. That particular desire was fulfilled just ten months after arriving in Nashville thanks to his dogged pursuit of Maher and the Judds.
As mentioned in parts 1 and 2, the Frets interview reveals more than initially meets the eye and allows a researcher to draw inferences with relative certainty.
The first inference suggests David's early recognition and growing reputation (along with Alison Krauss's); each of the two separate interviews are housed in the "Discovered Talent" section of this magazine, well-known by the many professional acoustic musicians in Nashville. Another inference we can draw: both George Gruhn and Walter Carter are listed as co-interviewers. George Gruhn had founded the renowned Nashville music store Gruhn Guitars in 1970; Walter Carter, an author, spent ten years as Gibson Guitars in-house historian. Along with his wife Christie, would go on to found the fine instrument store Carter Vintage Guitars in 2012.) That two such experts steeped in music history and business stepped up to interview this new musician in town indicates he was not just one of the talented among the thousands who come to Nashville annually to try and make it in the music business; he was exceptionally talented, and his musicianship impressed those who were accustomed to working with the best of the best in the world. Indeed, as John Lomax III had written in 1985 in his book, Nashville: Music City USA,
Music Row is a tightly knit community where everyone knows everyone else .... as in any
small town dominated by one industry, the business is clannish, suspicious of strangers,
and riddled with nepotism.... very few people ... make quick progress in the music industry....
They may feel Music Row is a closed shop, open only to those born and bred within the system....
David's relatively quick success at being recognized by Nashville's music experts is even more remarkable given that his instrument was the mountain dulcimer. A tag line in the interview says it all: You'd have to be crazy to try to earn a living as a studio dulcimer player, wouldn't you? George Gruhn told me that David was one of the most ambitious musicians he had ever known; Crazy? Not at all; he was uniquely talented, hard-working and determined to succeed. These character traits are reiterated in the article's introduction of the story of David's desire to self-produce his first major performance to introduce the dulcimer to Nashville:
He felt he could enhance the public's image of the dulcimer by playing in a setting normally reserved for
classical music, and so he approached Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music [to inquire about
renting their 280 seat concert hall.] They rebuffed him numerous times until he showed up with his
dulcimer and played Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." They allowed him to rent the hall.
That story tells us how persistent David was, with a laser-like focus on his goals. A quick scan of the introduction for adjectives used to describe David and his talent include: highly motivated, "industry-rattling", slight, soft-spoken, a "character with scraggly hair and beard, round wire-rimmed glasses and a Texas accent. He and his instrument could easily win a Least Likely to Overpower-a-Room-with-Music Award." Inference: people who met him for the first time would underestimate him, and, yet would be astonished once he demonstrated his skill on a dulcimer, an instrument also prone to being underestimated as a back woods, cabin-bound instrument.
Other adjectives such as: amazing, versatile, and virtuoso included buzz by reviewers who heard him before ever seeing him and who mistook him for "a hot guitar picker"; it was David playing a dulcimer. Chet Akins found David so impressive, he would later offer to play on his albums gratis; his music skills were eclectic; he is described as one with instrumental prowess ... a dedicated and persistent performer.
The introduction ends with evidence of David's expert knowledge of dulcimer construction and capabilities, and his generosity: he acknowledges and point readers to contact information for Bonnie Carol, the luthier who made his dulcimer; Lloyd Baggs, the maker of his dulcimer pickup; the McSpadden Dulcimer Shoppe in Mountain View, Arkansas; Sun Hearth Folk Instruments in Pennsylvania; and Folk Roots dulcimer luthiers, in Felton, California. It's quite telling that for inspiration he recommends The Russell Family, a 1960s album before he mentions his own newly minted Dulcimer Deluxe album. His driven personality focuses on the dulcimer before his own success, and intrigues because of his humility and a generous spirit.
One the interview begins, more clues about him emerge. I didn't know that [the dulcimer] was supposed to lie flat on your lap until I saw a book. Inference: at least some of his learning was self-taught. Ample other evidence would confirm that. [Dulcimer playing wasn't like trying to play a guitar.] You could just play the dulcimer and immediately it sounded good. And it was easy to play melodies on it. Inference: Impatient perhaps? Was he impatient for something to make him feel competent quickly? The first thing I picked out was ... "Ruby Tuesday". Inference: David states he knew nothing about Appalachian music or the dulcimer's origin when he started. But this tells us he was a fan of the rock/blues Rolling Stones. He describes his pre-national championship win years: I had played an awful lot those two years. I lived in my car and played the dulcimer all day, all night, every day. I didn't know very many tunes, so I really honed in on "Golden Slippers". Inference: David was at times poor, but did not allow it to keep him from achieving his goal. Again, much of his education (but not all) was auto-didactic. He was determined, tenacious and had an unflagging belief in the importance of honing his skills. I didn't know anything about the folk scene or the folk circuit. I'd work construction for six months, and then travel for six months finding every dulcimer player I could. Interference: again, a conscious goal setter . A hard worker, a determined planner, a dreamer, a learner. What isn't overtly stated in the interview is that he started wanting to be a songwriter, and had been looking for an instrument to help him do that. He stayed true to his desire to write songs, but his determination to develop into an expert player reveals something else about David, a certain kind of flexibility and willing spirit to follow where the dulcimer would take him.
And, boy, as you learn in Pluck, did that that partnership between player and dulcimer ever take him places! Given these personality traits revealed in just one source, is it any wonder that he did make it so quickly once he got to Nashville? From this writer's perspective, the Frets interview was an invaluable resource that reinforced many others that suggested that key character traits that I would find in all stages of David's life. Many other character traits from hundreds of other sources would round out the picture more fully. And that's how I began to get to "know" a man I never met so that I could write about his life.