Bryan Bowers plays the autoharp; a box-like instrument held to the chest, one hand strumming, one pressing buttons attached to chord bars that mute all the strings but the chord being played.
“When I was a kid, they had autoharps in the schools. But, I never saw them in very good tune and often times they were missing strings and the teachers didn’t know how to play them.” It took a while, but Bowers eventually fell in love with the angelic ring of this little mountain instrument.
Bowers grew up in rural Virginia surrounded by the call-and-answer of field hands and Gandy dancers, singing his own versions of these songs while skipping rope with the neighborhood kids. “The field hands would come in the morning before dawn and get fed breakfast,” he says. “You’d hear them start singing before they even got to the field. They were working sunrise to sunset; 50 cents a day was the wage.”
An internationally recognized storyteller, Bowers shares much of the imagery and sounds from his childhood. “The Gandy dancers came down the railroad track and they’d do call-and-answer singing to,” he says. “I used to sit up on the railroad bank and watch the guys work. They’d work as a team, pulling them rails off and setting them off to the side with the big prize bars and they’d pound the spikes back in after they’d put the rocks under the ties to get them level. They’d pound them back in rhythm, all of them hitting the spikes at the same time, one guy calling and the other guys calling back in the answer line.”
Call-and-answer music was everywhere in Bowers’ youth. “The Churches were loaded with call-and-answer music. On Sunday morning particularly if you went on a drive through the countryside you’d here call-and-answer music pouring out of a lot of different churches. All different denominations but they all had that basic ingredient.”
Bowers always sang. As a junior in college—after years of singing all his early rock favorites on street corners with friends—everything changed. “I saw a guy playing the harp and he played it in tune. He played it pretty and I said “damn.” So I went and bought one the next day just on a whim, never dreaming it would become my life’s work. But then I got completely and totally obsessed with it.” Practicing for 16 to 20 hours a day with his Autoharp attached to the wheel of his mail delivery truck Bowers tirelessly strived to make the music he heard in his head. “In those days I could play about 5 percent of what I could conceive. Now I can play about 50 or 60 percent. I’m going to be dead before I get 100 percent.
“As the only living person inducted into the Autoharp hall of fame after Mother Mabel Carter, Sarah Carter and then Kilby Snow the Mountain Railroad Man, Bowers feels the practicing may have paid off. “I’m better than I was by a long damn shot.”
Bowers’ newest album is a culmination of more than 40 years spent touring as a professional musician. Sam Bush is all over The Bristlecone Pine, as is Tim O’Brien, Alan O’Bryant and Pat Enright from the Nashville Bluegrass band. “All those guys have been encouraging me through the years.”
Bowers is on another busy tour, heading off to dates in Scotland and England then returning to make his way around the United States through the summer and fall. “I’m starting a new deal. For years I’ve flown to areas and then got a rent a car and done a few weeks, and then I turn it in and fly home,” he says. “But, I’ve got a sweetheart named Mary Boyd and I’ve got a little dog with big Yoda ears. And, this Thanksgiving I hit a deer at 75-miles an hour and totaled my car and got some black and blue bruises on my chest and everything. And, I finally decided to buy a rig instead of the Subaru station wagon I’ve been touring in, that I could take my sweetheart and my dog in so I can have more of a life. I’m 67-years-old. I want to have more of a life.”
In his brand new Dodge Sprinter Van he’s pretty sure he’s found the perfect one. “I’m going to be taking every curve in the road, and rise and fall on the hills. Mary sings a little harmony with me just for fun. And, we ride along and laugh and sing and pet the dog.”
Bryan Bowers w/ Blue Sage @ The Outer Rim, 996 S. Redwood Road, Sunday April 27, 8 p.m.