By LINDA DANIELS
The dulcimer is an item that J.H. Pepper knows well. He plays and handcrafts the oblong stringed instrument.
“I know them (dulcimers) from the tree. I saw my own wood,” Pepper explains. Most of the wood comes from his property in Union Grove.
“My dulcimers are different.” Pepper claims,” I put a bass bar in them. Other dulcimers just have a treble sound. Mine have a bass sound. I put a bass bar and sound bracing in it.”
The sound bracing is from side-to-side, while the bass bar extends from end-to-end, in the same direction of the strings.
The resonance from this instrument fills the room, similar to the fullness of a guitar. Pepper continues, “All expense guitars have sound bracing in them.”
Each dulcimer from his business, The Pepper Mill, is handmade and a unique creation by Pepper. “Everyone I’ve ever made sounds different.”
The construction of the dulcimer begins with cutting down a tree.
“My favorite part of the process is cutting the boards at the saw mill,” Pepper comments as he pointed to a thin long plank.
The wood is then pressed for months to let it dry and keep it from warping. Once the wood is dried, it takes over 20 hours to complete the project.
Pepper makes several styles of dulcimers, including an hour glass, tear drop, and full and modified violin shapes.
He uses various types of wood including, cedar, persimmon, mesquite, walnut, and mulberry. The cost to purchase one is $500 for the handmade instrument and wooden case.
He as even made a Courting Dulcimer, which is played by two people and was popular years ago in the Appalachian Mountains.
While courting, or dating, the young couple would sit facing each other with the instrument on their laps.
“When a boy was courting a girl they had to have a chaperone. The chaperone gave them one of these dulcimers.” Pepper smiled as he continued. “As long it was playing he (the chaperone) could go on about his business.”
Pepper has enjoyed music all of his life. As a child, growing up on the family farm, the rice-drying building was used for Saturday night dances during the winter.
Pepper liked dancing the Charleston and the Jitterbug. He also sang in a variety of places. Later after he married, he and his wife sang duets at church.
“I sang all my life,” Pepper reflects, “But did not play an instrument until 1994.”
Pepper and Shirley, his wife of 54 years, were motor homing in the Appalachian Mountains when he was first introduced to dulcimer music. He bought one and within a few days was playing 12 songs. This was the beginning of a series of travels which the couple called “Bluegrass trips.”
“We had a lot of fun looking and learning.” Shirley reminisces. “He was 60 years when he started (playing dulcimer) and didn’t know he could play anything.” He became an accomplished musician not only on the dulcimer, but also on the mandolin, guitar and banjo.
About a year after purchasing his first dulcimer, Pepper, a gifted craftsman, built one.
He has made 137 of the instruments so far. His skill has attracted the attention and interviews of local celebrities such as KLTV Joan Hallmark and Texas Country Reporter, Bob Phillips.
As he learned the history of the dulcimer, Pepper read that the instrument did not originate in the Appalachian Mountains.
“National Geographic had an article that described the dimensions of a dulcimer that was found in a tomb dating back to 300 BC.” he explained. “So I built one to those dimensions.”
“It had some sort of engraving on it that had deteriorated. They said it probably was a cat, since they worshipped cats.”
In place of the cat image, the narrow boat-shaped dulcimer Pepper created has the head of Abraham Lincoln carved on it.
Originally from Northern Arkansas, Pepper followed his sister to Texas and found a job in Dallas. Eventually he entered the Army and served from 1954 to 1958 as a Communication Specialist. He was stationed in Germany and traveled around the world teaching Continuous Wave Radio transmission and Morse code.
“I got to go to Israel.”
In 1956 he was sent there during the 48-hour war. Pepper recalled. “I got to meet Moshe Dayan.”
He spoke of the Israeli Defense Minister and who later became the Foreign Minister. Pepper continued, “He had that patch over his right eye. He would get to talking and tell something and he would flip that patch up. I reported in and they carried me right in to him.”
Although that war was quickly over, Pepper and the other members of his team were able to tour the country for a couple of weeks.
Returning home to Dallas after his time in the army, Pepper met his wife and married her two months later. Eventually they moved back to the Gladewater area where she grew up.
Throughout his career as an oilfield worker, he drove large equipment and was often called on to clean up oil spills. Now in his retirement, he keeps busy in a variety of ways, including gardening and auto restoration.
In his wood-working shop, he not only builds dulcimers but also creates and restores other wood items. He deeply values his time teaching his grandsons the woodworking skills. And of course he enjoys music.
The second story porch of his house is decorated with dulcimers and is complete with a park bench ready for people to join in on a jamming session. When possible, he attends the Bluegrass nights in Big Sandy and Mineola. Pepper regularly performs at Clarksville Baptist Church as well as on the first Monday of the month at the Gilmer Care Center from 10 to 11 a.m. He also performs on the fourth Saturday of the month from 5 to 8:30 p.m. at the Walking ‘S’ Steakhouse on FM 852 outside of Gilmer. Folk and Gospel music are the norm, but at the restaurant, some extra entertainment is added.
“I play some comedy songs there.” Pepper laughs.
Anyone wishing more information about purchasing a dulcimer or a CD recording can contact The Pepper Mill, J.H. and Shirley Pepper at 903-845-3189.