By Jessica Mozo
If you happen to be meandering around the hills and hollers of East Tennessee near Townsend on a peaceful Saturday evening, you might hear the sweet, whimsical sound of an Appalachian dulcimer floating from the back porch of Mike Clemmer’s shop. And if you follow the tune, you’ll find the inviting little log house nestled in the Nawger Nob Craft Settlement along U.S. Highway 321, where Clemmer and his wife, Connie, will invite you to come have a listen.
For the Clemmers, it’s just another Saturday night on the Pickin’ Porch at Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop.
“It’s sort of like being in your grandma’s back yard,” Mike Clemmer explains. “It’s a free concert we have every Saturday at 7 p.m. It’s all original or real old music, and we’ve had several national dulcimer champions perform.”
From hobby to business
Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop is a dream come true for Clemmer, who quit his job in corporate sales in 1996 and began making and selling handcrafted wooden dulcimers.
“I had never owned a business, and we didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” he recalls. “We started the shop with $50 and two credit cards, and it’s been an amazing ride. God has really taken care of us.”
To date, Clemmer has built more than 3,000 dulcimers, and his instruments are owned by people in every state as well as Germany, England, Norway, Italy and France.
“It’s amazing how people will come to a little town like Townsend, stop by our shop and be so intrigued by the dulcimer,” he says.
Hand-crafted dulcimers cater to customers
Most of Clemmer’s instruments are custom-made, with the customer choosing the wood – walnut, cherry, butternut, sassafras or wormy chestnut – and other details.
“People might like daisies, angels or crosses, and I can cut that hole in it,” he says. “All my carvings and engravings are done by hand.”
One of the “only true American instruments,” an Appalachian dulcimer looks like a fiddle and sounds like a Scottish bagpipe. Its roots lie in instruments such as the German scheitholt and the Norwegian langeleik. European immigrants “used their memories to re-create it in America,” Clemmer explains.
Clemmer built his first dulcimer in 1976 and has been perfecting the craft ever since.
“It’s very easy to play, because there are no wrong notes,” he says. “People who are in their 80s and have never touched an instrument will come into our shop, and I can get them playing a song in 10 minutes. It’s very gratifying – one of those things you learn in five minutes and take the rest of your life to master.”
It takes Clemmer anywhere from two to three weeks to build a single dulcimer, and he usually works on eight or nine instruments at a time. They range in price from $350 to $900.
Inventing the Ban-Jammer
He also developed a one-of-a-kind instrument called a Ban-Jammer, which has also been really well received.
“People had been trying to get a banjo sound out of a dulcimer, so I came up with the Ban-Jammer,” he says. “People love them.”
The Ban-Jammer is copyrighted, and now they are owned all over the world. Last year, Clemmer began working on a new instrument called the Tennessee Sweetie – a dulcimer small enough to fit in the overhead bins on airplanes.
“It allows people who travel a lot to bring a dulcimer with them,” he says. “We’ve sold quite a few in the past year.”
All the instruments at Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop are acoustic, and Native American flutes and harps can be found there.
“We try to make it the kind of place we’d like to go on vacation – it’s got a homey feel,” Clemmer explains. “We want visitors to be able to pick up a dulcimer and play.”
And they do – by the thousands.
“I love people, I love music and I love woodwork,” Clemmer says. “It’s like God took all the things I love and put them together.”
Where to Find Dulcimers by Clemmer
Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop is open year-round, and Pickin’ Porch concerts are held from May through October. For more information, visit Clemmer Dulcimer’s website or call 865-448-6647.