Updated: Aug 28, 2022
I first heard his name when I joined the Nashville Grand Old Dulcimer Club. We live in south central Kentucky, a short hop to Nashville from the farm. We drove to Nashville once a month on Sunday afternoons to play in the club. As I got to know the members, I learned that some had been with the club since its inception in the late nineties. They told me how it started: they had all been students of a master musician named David Schnaufer, and that the club started as a way for his friends and students to play together. Whenever David was in town, they told me, he led the monthly meeting by teaching them a song, a technique or two and playing with them. (Some of the people featured in Pluck were at those early meetings.) The stories they told about David were interesting: they told of what a great player he was, how he played all kinds of music, how he was a teacher at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University ... . And they all had similar comments about his personality, whether we were speaking as a group or individually: He was the kindest person they had ever met. He was fun and he made everyone feel safe and everyone feel special, no matter their skill levels, every time they met with him.
I learned more; This Club had sponsored a Festival called "Dulcimer Day" for some years which was very popular and helped the Club attract new members. When I asked why the festival no longer existed, there were hints that there was a bigger story behind the usual answer: After David died, it continued on for a few years later, but finally, quietly, ended.
All these stories piqued my curiosity: Who was this guy who seemed so universally admired and who played with celebrities (Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Mark O'Connor, the Cactus Brothers, Chet Atkins, Linda Ronstadt, Townes Van Zandt and others)? How did it happen that he was equally happy playing with the amateurs whom he made feel so important and whom he inspired?
The club leader at the time thought the club's website needed some sprucing up. So, I volunteered. While oing some research on Schnaufer for sprucing, to my surprise I came across two obituaries about David: one in the New York Times and one in the Los Angeles Times. "This guy must have been more important than I thought." It seemed strange that the obituaries focused almost entirely on the well-known singers, songwriters, and musicians he played with, and almost nothing on the human being behind the instrument: Who was he? Where did he come from? What life experiences shaped him to be able to master an instrument like the dulcimer? What brought him to Nashville? And, more importantly, what experiences in his life shaped his character: universally admired, humble, kind, gentle, but fierce in spirit? I put those questions aside for a while, but every now and then his name would pop up and the questions would nag at me again. No one at the Club seemed to know anything about David before he arrived in Nashville; it was a mystery.
In my previous life, I worked as a communicative language teacher (primarily of Spanish) and wrote professionally: textbooks for McGraw-Hill and many teacher training materials: a method book for graduate students whom I taught; a Chinese I textbook for a former student of mine. I had written a memoir of my work in the 2008 presidential campaign that the National Archives requested. So I felt pretty confident as a writer, and had been thinking about trying to write a biography just to see if I could. I had in mind a biography of the Italian photographer Tina Modotti; I was intrigued because the little I knew about her suggested that she had a very interesting life: she was good friends with artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, an ardent political activist in her day, and worked as an actress and writer.
Meanwhile, I never found out answers to the questions about what happened before David arrived in Nashville. Then all of a sudden I decided that Ms. Modotti could wait. I would do some research to shed more light on David for the Grand Old Dulcimer Club website. I could put my writing skills to the test, and maybe even write a biography for myself to get answers to those pesky questions.