Renowned autoharpist Bryan Bowers performs in Frisco
IF YOU GO
What: Performance by autoharpist, singer and storyteller Bryan Bowers
When: Tuesday, Aug. 25, from 7 p.m. to 9:15 p.m.
Where: Frisco Historic Park Chapel, 120 E. Main St., Frisco, CO 80443
How much: $20
More info: All proceeds benefit Friends of the Dillon Ranger District. Seating is limited to about 50 people, and tickets can be purchased at the door or reserved online at fdrd.org or by calling FDRD board member Wayne Haley at (970) 262-7749.
For more than 40 years, Bryan Bowers has been renowned for his talent on the autoharp, an instrument popular in bluegrass and folk music and most famously played by “Mother” Maybelle Carter and the Carter family.
Bowers pioneered his own eclectic style on the string instrument, added his singer-songwriter and storytelling talents and became a veteran on the festival circuit, including Telluride Bluegrass.
He will play at the Frisco Historic Park Chapel on Tuesday, Aug. 25, at 7 p.m.
Friends of the Dillon Ranger District volunteer and local real estate agent Kerry Gibson arranged his performance, and proceeds from his show will benefit FDRD, the nonprofit partner of the local Forest Service that mobilizes volunteers for trail projects every summer.
“Bryan and I have been friends since the early 70s,” Gibson said. “What I personally love about his music is how he builds a song and a feeling on an autoharp.”
Originally from Virginia, Bowers first took up the guitar as a young man in the late 1960s.
“When I started playing music, people started seeing my softer side,” said Bowers, who stands 6-foot-3 and about 250 pounds. “Music just opened me up like a can of tuna.”
He learned flatpicking and played slide guitar for about a year, and then, one night, he stumbled upon a jug band party down a cobblestone alley, where a skilled autoharp player let him try the instrument.
“I got obsessed about it,” he said. “It filled up my life and everything changed.”
Bowers bought a used autoharp the next day and soon started playing in bars and busking on streets.
The instrument, descended from the ancient lyre, is most similar to a Central European instrument called a zither. Autoharps typically have 36 strings stretched across a flat wooden box, but Bowers plays one with 44 strings.
“It resonates over your chest, and, when you put your left ear against the side of the harp, you hear it like you’re in your own little private concert,” he said. “You can’t get a guitar to do that.”
After the autoharp was invented in Germany and brought to the U.S., he said, it was sold in the Appalachian mountains to Scotch, Irish and English people. There, the instrument was called the mountain piano, if someone played well, or the idiot’s delight, if they didn’t.
The instrument takes about an hour to tune to play an hour of music, he said.
“The work is not playing the show and telling stories and singing songs for people,” he said. “The work is driving the long miles and doing the tuning. That ain’t the show. The show is gravy.”
LAUGHING IN A LIVING ROOM
Besides bluegrass and folk music, expect to hear Celtic influences at Bowers’ show.
“Scotch and Irish — oh my god, my heart beats fast,” he said. “I’m just emotionally moved by Scotch and Irish music.”
He has collaborated with mandolinist Sam Bush and banjo player Courtney Johnson, of New Grass Revival; and, in 1993, Bowers was the first living person inducted into the Autoharp Hall of Fame.
“That’s what my mother would call a lefthanded compliment,” he said.
He said for 44 years straight he spent about 270 days a year away from home. Then about two years ago, he’d had enough.
Now 75, Bowers spends a week or two a month performing, teaching autoharp at workshops and coaching people to sing in keys best suited for their voice.
The rest of his time he spends on his 30-acre property of old growth forest and a salmon stream in Sedro Woolley, a small town 90 miles north of Seattle, where he enjoys crabbing, hiking and picking wild mushrooms.
“I still write all the time,” he said.
About a quarter of his material is original while the rest are traditionals, and he intersperses songs with instrumentals and storytelling.
He tells long stories, short stories and stories that make his audience chuckle and cry, and he’s been a featured teller at the annual National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee.
“I’ve always been emotionally driven,” he said. “I don’t view myself as having much emotional ground between laughter and tears.”
His Frisco show will be family-friendly and all acoustic, he said. “I’ll be singing and playing for you just like it’s a living room.”
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