Path Home Shows 2017 Show Archive June 2017 Show 1726 Dulcimer: A Distinctive Sound

Dulcimer: A Distinctive Sound

Master Works owner Russell Cook -- and many other multi-instrumentalists -- believe the dulcimer is by far the easiest instrument to learn.
Dulcimer: A Distinctive Sound

Dulcimer: A Distinctive Sound

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Master Works

Lone Star State Dulcimer Society

Show Details

Show 1726: Dulcimer: A Distinctive Sound
Air Date: June 25, 2017



Rob McClendon: Well, the hammer dulcimer is played around the world. It is a distinctive sound that can trace its origins back to antiquity. But in this country, it was the folk revival of the mid-20th century that breathed new life into its rich full tones. Our Blane Singletary introduces us to an Oklahoman who has made the dulcimer his life work.

Blane Singletary: It’s a sunny afternoon with music ringing through the air at the 36th annual Lone Star Dulcimer Festival.

Russell Cook: If you ask any multi-instrumentalist -- guitar, banjo, fiddle, all that other stuff -- every last one of them will tell you this is by far the easiest instrument they’ve ever learned.

[Music: Ode to Joy].

Blane: That’s Russell Cook of Master Works Dulcimers.

Cook: Older folks, we don’t want to take on a giant learning 20-year process. I want something I can go home and start having fun with tomorrow.

Blane: While dulcimers tend to attract an older demographic, Russell has had a long history with this instrument.

Cook: I was 23 years old, just graduated from college, brother-in-law invited me to Mountain View, Arkansas, to that first ever dulcimer festival in ’79. But when I got Mountain View, all these great players, some from Michigan and other parts of the country were there. I was overwhelmed by the voice of the instrument and the people that were gathered there. I’d never been to a folk festival before.

[NATS: music].

Blane: And that would be the first of many festivals to come. He learned quickly and by 1981, won his first national championship. He would go on to record several albums, all the while perfecting the craft of making these instruments.

Cook: You gotta have something to build, you gotta have a design, you gotta have a sound. And I think that’s been a big part of the success of Master Works is not that I’m so good at any one thing, but I’m a musician and a craftsman. So I was working not just for something that worked or something that was beautiful to look at, it was the sound that I was totally focused on.

Blane: From his first dulcimer, made from an old, broken and abandoned piano, to his special Russell Cook Edition hammer dulcimers, Master Works instruments are enjoyed by musicians and music lovers the world over.

Cook: I think it started off as Master Woodworking or something like that, not just Master Works. And they asked, “Why? What does that mean?” I said, “Well, I wanna be a master of the work that I do, and I wanna be about the work of The Master while I do it.” So Master Works suits us.

Blane: That group of three craftsmen started in 1991 in Estes Park, Colorado, and by 1994 moved to a business incubator in Russell’s small, rural hometown of Bennington, Oklahoma.

Cook: So that’s how we first wound up here at Bennington. But we kept an office and a showroom and did our shipping from Arlington, Texas. Well, we had very few retail customers there, we were shipping them everywhere they went, or I was going to festivals. Well, this is sort of silly, so we built our own place here in 2000.

Blane: Despite its remote location, thanks to modern technology, this rural business has a global reach.

Cook: The internet and UPS, you can live on top of a mountain, you can live on a beach, you can be anywhere, out in the middle of nowhere here in Bennington, Oklahoma. It’s wonderful, it’s beautiful, it’s a great place to live, and UPS actually comes by here every day, you know. So whatever I build, you’re gonna find it on the internet, or you’re gonna hear it on a recording or meet someone that’s playing it at a festival somewhere.

Blane: Today, Master Works hammer dulcimers are seen as some of the best elite, performance-quality dulcimers on the market. And Russell says that’s because they focus on the quality of each instrument they produce, not the amount they can produce in a year.

Cook: We’re not an intense, hurry up and get it done kind of a place to work. This is a real touchy-feely, accuracy first, quality and perfection as much as humanly possible. Then we’ll work on the speed later. It’ll come with practice, y’know, and that’s worked out well for us.

Blane: It may take a lot of time and hard work to craft one of these instruments, but it’s a pleasure to enjoy one and its unique voice.


Cook: The voice is just different than any other instrument in the world. My brother-in-law says there’s just something ancient inherent in the sound of a hammer dulcimer.


Cook: I’ve just got a stack of letters and emails in abundance from folks that just, from the CDs that I’ve recorded and from the instruments that we’ve built for them, how it has changed their lives. Literally changed their lives. People in general, and I firmly believe in this, you know, God created us, he gave us air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, but God is not just about the essentials. He wants to make us happy. So he invented music, gave us the gift of music to enjoy. You might not die without it, but you’re not the same person without music of some kind in your heart, in your life. It’s arguably, you know, one of the most beautiful things that so many people are missing out on.

Elizabeth Kinney: Rob, congratulations. You’ve made such an impact on so many people’s lives, including mine. I will never forget getting the opportunity to be on camera for the first time. You knew when to challenge, when to push us to dig deeper. Thank you for your years and your support in influencing me.

Kela Kelln: It’s incredible just how far technology has come. I cannot thank “Oklahoma Horizon” enough for giving me my start in television. I will always cherish the memories made with the “Horizon” team, and I wish everyone the best of luck.