High Point Museum exhibit honors luthiery

"The Luthier's Craft" shines as a solitary room richly inlaid with Blue Ridge musical culture.

Gleaming beneath the High Point Museum’s golden ceiling spotlights, one hand-fashioned cigar box guitar dangles from a hook, without so much as a glass barrier to protect it.

With three spare strings stretched across a rough-hewn neck and a Brick House brand cigar box for a body, the guitar blares out hands-on history when touched with a strum. Its quirky found-object character and freewheeling, anyone-can- play vibe is one of the key appeals of The Luthier’s Craft: Instrument Making Traditions of the Blue Ridge exhibit at the museum.

A three-string guitar made from a vintage Brick House cigar box.

Like the hardscrabble instrument, The Luthier’s Craft display expresses a luthier’s vision of Appalachian music through a virtuosic catalog of history and instrumentation. While the traveling exhibit — on loan from Mount Airy’s Museum of Regional History — finds its temporary home in a single room at the High Point Museum, to peruse that small space is to experience full immersion in the form.

Luthiery refers to the precise art of crafting stringed instruments — from wooden blocks to silky musical mediums. Besides the cruder cigar box piece, the labyrinthine display houses many forms of Blue Ridge string instrument — banjo, fiddle, guitar — in varying stages of construction and deconstruction.

This fiddle represents the multiple stages of a luthier's craftspersonship.
This fiddle represents the multiple stages of a luthier’s craftspersonship.

While angular display panels mirror the mathematical precision required in expert luthiery, attendees can sojourn through melding streams of sonic bliss emanating from assorted corners. Rather than creating a cacophony of clashing sounds, this multi-speaker approach to sound presentation fosters an atmosphere of bustle and exuberance. It’s easy to imagine a barn-raising and contra dance spilling into the quiet afternoon.

At a listening station honoring Mount Airy radio personality Ralph Epperson, patrons can hear the kind of authentic roots music that Epperson played on his WPAQ radio show “Merry Go-Round” from 1948 until the early 2000s. Around the corner, a push-button mechanism allows listeners to order up examples of four traditional musical styles: old-time, bluegrass, ballads, and religious music. Still another loops footage of master Blue Ridge luthier Audrey Hash Ham conversing with North Carolina native and PBS “Folkways” host David Holt.

Yet the focus of The Luthier’s Craft remains firmly on the human faces of Appalachian music-making — the luthiers themselves.

The Luthier’s Craft weaves a narrative of personal passion and connection that serves as a conduit for both the luthier’s vision and their means of knowledge transmission. True to traditional music’s preservational ethos, an individual luthier learns the artistry of instrument- making from an elder luthier and hands down that wealth of knowledge to an apprentice of their own.

Master luthier Albert Hash’s story inaugurates a close-up view of the zeal and joy that become a part of learning the skillset. The exhibit quotes Hash relating an anecdote about his path toward the profession.

“My fiddle-making began back in the depression days when there wasn’t any money to buy one with. I was just a lad, 10-years old, and I had to have me a fiddle. So I had to make it or do without,” Hash remembers.

After Hash turned out his first hand-hewn fiddle prior to World War II, he made more than 50 more fiddles during his lifetime, as well as dozens of mandolins, banjos and other traditional Blue Ridge musical instruments. After a stint in a torpedo manufacturing plant during the war, Hash settled in Lansing, NC to work as a blue-collar machinist for Sprague Electric Co. In his spare time, though, Hash fashioned his daughter Audrey’s tender hands into the expert tools of a luthier.

Now a master luthier in her own right, Audrey Hash Ham boasts her own prodigy of an apprentice, Chris Testerman, with whom she founded the Albert Hash Memorial Band. Their initiative serves to teach and encourage school-age kids in the art of traditional Blue Ridge regional music.

Audrey Hash Ham and Chris Testerman mull over their shared traditions — luthiery and music.
Audrey Hash Ham and Chris Testerman mull over their shared traditions — luthiery and music.

Both Albert Hash and his daughter Audrey, as well as Testerman, hail from the Round Peak area of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which spans towns and counties across the North Carolina and Virginia border. Guitar maker Wayne Henderson, whose work figures prominently in The Luthier’s Craft, lives in Grayson County, in Virginia, while banjo craftsman Johnny Gentry makes his home across the state line in Surry County.

Michael Scott, the curator of education for the High Point Museum, pointed out that “we are not that far outside the Round Peak region of music here in the Triad.” That’s why the High Point Museum takes pride in featuring a traveling exhibit that highlights “the growth in our appreciation of North Carolina’s musical heritage,” he said, citing the distinctive Piedmont Blues style as a Triad iteration of the very lineage that the exhibit seeks to document.

There’s a glaring absence in the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History’s take on The Luthier’s Craft — only one person of color features in the exhibit’s historical photographs. This void strikes a note of discord with the written story the exhibit tells by way of its display panels — the text describing Blue Ridge musical history repeatedly acknowledges the debt Appalachian rhythm and song owe to African-American musicians’ tuneful influences.

For example, the clawhammer style of banjo playing — a strike-and- strum, rather than a picking, method — traces its early roots to African musical techniques.

As a medley of North Carolina and Virginia skills, sounds, and music-making traditions, The Luthier’s Craft approaches profundity — but leaves much to be desired in terms of profiling non-white cultural influencers. Perhaps that unevenness reflects the state of Blue Ridge traditional music in 2016, but the existence of organizations like the Music Maker Relief Foundation leaves that proposition in doubt.

A panel titled "Tools of the Trade" reveals the minute precision a luthier's craft requires.
A panel titled “Tools of the Trade” reveals the minute precision a luthier’s craft requires.

As for the music itself, and the luthier-crafted instruments that play it, the result of The Luthier’s Craft is unalloyed beauty.

For more information about upcoming live performances and luthiery demonstrations by Johnny Gentry (banjo), Wayne Henderson (guitar), and Chris Testerman (fiddle), visit www.highpointmuseum.org. The Luthier’s Craft exhibit runs through Dec 17th at the High Point Museum.