As the glass entry door closes, the noise of downtown fades. I clomp up time-worn wooden stairs to the new Hillmusic space in the heart of Chapel Hill. Franklin Street marks the northern boundary of the University of North Carolina campus, packed with stores, places to eat, and two movie theaters. Where it crosses Columbia Street is the functional crossroads of town and gown. Our shop is a half block downhill at 113 North Columbia Street, upstairs above a high-end stereo store. We share the garret with a leather craftsman named Stu Martell and, in some weird synchronicity, we all use European style one-word names – Soundhaus, Leatherworks, Hillmusic. In 1978, Chapel Hill still called itself a village, even as national chains began to encroach on the local shops. I loved having the Record Bar and the Intimate Bookshop half a block away.
Stu’s door is already open, a whole skin of deep brown leather draped over a worktable which almost fills his room, wedged under the steep original roof, and lit by two small dormer windows. Take away two incandescent bulbs and it could be 1850, or even 1750 – just hand tools and a master of his craft.
“Good morning,” scissors in hand, he smiles and keeps cutting. I return the greeting and step in for a moment – the alluring smell of fresh leather rings me like a Zen bell. What a great way to begin my work week.
Key in the padlock, I open the black raised-panel door and light up my domain. Antique display cabinets and a brass hand-cranked cash register add a little elegance to the garret vibe of the town’s first violin shop – only I can see the slate roof shingles behind our storage shelves. Six of our nicer violins rest side by side on green velvet, inside a glass display, probably once in a general store out in the country. Other violins peek out of open cases or hang from rawhide loops on the wall. Cellos are cradled on stands. My bow rehairing bench in front of a large window is strewn with an assortment of knives and hand tools far more delicate than Stu’s.
Pinch me. How did I get here? Less than two months ago I rehaired and repaired bows for the most prestigious violin shop in Philadelphia. Despite working all day in a small room with one craftsman who smoked cigars, the other cigarettes, and being a militant non-smoker myself, I enjoyed my work. I had abandoned an academic career in musicology, happy to give up writing exhaustive inquiries into some obscure aspect of music history. I liked working with my hands, mind engaged at a physical level, attending to the details of how to return a bow to being a fresh tool for an accomplished player. Problem was, I never interacted with those who owned the bows. My place was upstairs in that tiny space, at my workbench. Until, on vacation, I spotted a violin-shaped sign under a huge Daniel Boone statue in Hillsborough, lettered with one word, “Hillmusic.” Curious, I found a music store tucked between antique shops – half violin shop, half guitar and banjo store, with a charming owner in round wire rim glasses who slowly saw an opportunity. His name was Nowell, and he regaled me with stories of classical violinists and mountain fiddlers. Our conversations continued at his house, and by Saturday he enticed me with the prospect of opening my own branch of Hillmusic in Chapel Hill. This rekindled my dream of escaping bustling Northeast cities to the more laid-back South, place of my birth.
After Nowell found a place to rent, I gave my notice and planned the move. On my first morning in North Carolina, I went to the DMV to replace my Yankee license plate and driver’s license. We painted the retail space a color like aging parchment to highlight the beautiful wood of old instruments. While painting the long brick wall, I stepped off the ladder right into the tray of paint. Laughing, we knew that commercial-grade carpet would soon cover my footprints. Remnants of that carpet were later glued to the walls to cushion fretted instruments hanging from nails. Certainly not what you would expect in a fine violin shop, yet fitting for a Southern shop that sold all types of stringed instruments.
Back through a doorway, the fretted instruments hang on the walls or on floor stands – new C. F. Martin guitars, Gibson and round-back “tater bug” mandolins, and open back banjos, some looking as old as the hills they came from. Nowell taught me just enough to demonstrate for a customer. I learned to strum two chords on guitar and the beginning of “Old Joe Clark” in clawhammer style on the banjo. On mandolin, I could easily find a tune, with strings the same pitches as violin, but I never got comfortable with frets, which seemed like obstacles to me. On hammered dulcimer, I used “Golden Slippers,” an old minstrel song long a favorite in Philadelphia at the Mummers Day Parade, where hundreds of four-string banjos strummed their way down Broad Street every New Year’s Day in the freezing cold.
The wood steps serve as my doorbell; I can hear customers coming long before they step through the open door. With our varied inventory, I am alert to their first words, so I know which “hat” to put on.
“Need some finger picks.” Most likely for a guitar or bluegrass banjo player, certainly not for old-time banjo played clawhammer style, solely with fingers and thumb.
“What do you have in steel guitars?” This eliminated the nylon-string classical guitars and could prompt a search for an old Silvertone or Gibson, or even the newly reissued scallop-braced Herringbone HD-28 from Martin.
“I’m looking for a fiddle,” was harder. Either be laid back and ready to talk mountain fiddling or establish my credibility when faced with a professional classical player using that affectionate term – even Itzhak Perlman refers to his beloved Stradivarius as his fiddle.
If they brought their current violin, it was easier for me to help them step up in quality. If not, I’d get them talking about what they wanted, then encourage them to pick out a violin by looks or maybe price range. After tuning it, I would cradle it in two hands, presenting it to the player as if it was my precious baby, which it was. Some would immediately play a fast, technical passage, or a scale. Others asked for a stand to prop up some sheet music.
The shy ones asked me to play it first. If so, I would play a slow scale from the lowest open string up the fingerboard far into the treble range, letting each note resonate fully. Then a faster arpeggio starting on the same bottom note, so they could hear the tonal qualities change as the pitch rose. It was desirable for each register to have a distinct tone quality, but not too different. The tone needs to blend from low to middle to high notes. If you play hard and dramatically, does it “go with” how it sounds when sweet and soft? Next, I’d play something familiar and short, either a fiddle tune or a classical excerpt, depending on the customer, to help them relax a bit before I handed it to them.
What they liked or didn’t like about the instrument guided my choice of which violin was next. Sometimes their words and my ears did not match. I can’t forget the time someone asked for our darkest sounding violin. I immediately bragged about my personal favorite, rhapsodizing about its deep, rich velvety tone. The player hated it. He quickly handed it back with a look of disgust that hit me in the gut. I offered progressively brighter sounding violins and was perplexed when he chose the opposite of his request. At least he persevered past my apparent mismatch. That interaction helped me remove my personal opinions from those highly charged moments when I took down a violin, tuned it, and presented it to a player. I began to give more silent space to the customer’s optimistic anticipation, kept my mouth shut, and let the visual beauty and voice of each instrument speak for itself. Stepping back to watch and listen, I sought clues. Were they being carried away, or distracted? Did their eyes close in reverie, or just concentration? Was magic happening?
I was amazed at how many players climbed our stairs just to check out the new “bow guy.” Some had no intention of buying anything, just came to see what I had to offer. I did not impress the guitar and banjo players, but violinists who brought a bow needing attention were glad to find someone who offered expertise and prompt service. For those not ready for a rehair, I could replace a worn eyelet, leather thumb grip or glue a simple crack. One by one, my satisfied customers spread the word among both classical and traditional players that I knew what I was doing. I did not mind being called the bow guy.
What my technical expertise bought me was priceless. The isolation I felt in the big-city violin shop was dispelled and any remaining childhood fear of inadequacy dissolved as I helped my customers. With Nowell tending the Hillsborough store, this Hillmusic became “my shop.” My confidence rose as I became a valued member of the community, sought after for advice, whether someone needed a guitar, strings, or a violin. No longer a student or an apprentice, I had found a profession that satisfied my hands and my soul – and it even encouraged the spread of music in the world.
My transformation from Yankee Classical violinist and music historian to laid-back Southern retailer and fiddler continued with a buying trip to the mountains. I had already observed how smooth Nowell was with customers, always warm and easy going. He could charm about anybody into buying an appropriate instrument, without them feeling pressured. Unseen, there was quite a strategy session going on behind his wire rims. He could come across as the trusted father figure, your best pal, an innocent hippie businessman, or an expert in just the area you happened to love. His relaxed playing style focused on the tone of the instrument, whether it was banjo, guitar, mandolin, or violin. No one ever felt threatened by a showy demo.
As a veteran of old-time music festivals and winner of some blue ribbons on clawhammer banjo, Nowell knew many folks in the Appalachian Mountains. He knew which players collected instruments, and which would sell some if they got their price. As we pulled off the Blue Ridge Parkway into the dirt driveway of one such violin collector in the North Carolina mountains, he cautioned me to say very little and, if I played a violin I really liked, to not verbalize my interest. Only after we were back in his van did Nowell explain the method behind what I observed. He introduced me as his new bow guy. The collector then laid down a passel of bows, which kept me busy over on the side, looking for nice workmanship and silently testing them for straightness and strength.
Most of the violins were hanging sideways at eye level, the bridge of one close to the back of the next. Through the dim light in that country living room, Nowell scanned for certain traits. If he spotted something interesting, he’d take a violin over to a table lamp for a closer look. Hints of the expertise of the maker or country of origin could be found in the volute of the scroll, the height of the arching, the shape of the corners, even the overall length of the body. Fake labels were so common that peering through the f hole to the left of the bridge to read the scrap of paper glued inside was one of the last steps. Any major flaw would spur a rejection: a crack under a foot of the bridge; a repaired neck joint; signs of refinishing. The collector watched Nowell’s face intently.
“What’s the story on this one?” Nowell finally broke the silence.
“My neighbor’s daddy played that one for Saturday dances.”
“Any idea how it got this crack?” By bringing up a flaw he knew he could easily repair, Nowell was setting himself up for later price negotiation. He was careful not to disparage any instrument, especially after the asking price was revealed. He hung each one back up reverently, keeping his poker face intact.
The ritual continued down the line, occasionally interrupted when Nowell asked me to play one. This served several purposes. I’d get to try out a bow I was interested in; he’d get to hear the tone from across the room. And both men could search for a “tell” on the other’s face. How much did the collector value this violin? How much did Nowell want it?
After close to an hour, there were six violins on the table, along with four bows. Individual prices were spoken, confirmed with a nod, nothing written down.
“$1500 for the bunch.”
A scrunch of his face conveyed Nowell’s response. He did not make a counteroffer. After a brief pause to seem nonchalant, he removed two violins from the table, grabbing another from the wall. He had planned this maneuver. By taking away two that he knew the collector valued, he slid into the mix the one he really wanted all along (without ever closely examining it). As an added distraction, he took out of contention the least interesting bow I had chosen.
“I can go $900 for these.” His outstretched palm swept leisurely over the table.
I imagined wheels in the collector’s brain spinning, trying to re-calculate after the switch.
“I’ll take $1000 even.”
After paying and indulging in some pleasantries about fiddle music in North Carolina, we stowed them safely and headed down the driveway. Nowell explained that, only ten minutes into our visit, his eye was caught by that violin. Even on the shadowy wall, the soft quality of the varnish and the elegant corners spoke to him of a fine Italian maker. It was by far the nicest violin in the room, and he slowly formed his strategy for not revealing that secret to the collector. The less the collector knew about masterful European violin making, the better chance Nowell could again strike gold in these hills. This particular violin did not turn out to be Italian, but still could be sold for several times what he had paid for the whole lot. And we had some nice instruments we could fix up and sell to fiddlers or violinists for four hundred to a thousand dollars each. Add in the bows and we did very well indeed.
Our next stop was in Round Peak, at the home of the banjo maker Kyle Creed. Nowell was a different person. It was clear he honored this man thirty years his senior. And Kyle appreciated Nowell’s years of efforts to preserve traditional playing styles, both banjo and fiddle. While teaching economics at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, Nowell sought out nearby older players to learn their tunes and their styles. When he discovered that some local women in the fabric arts were planning a gathering to help preserve mountain traditions of weaving and quilting, he suggested including music as well. At the first Augusta Heritage Arts Workshop in 1973, crafters and musicians studied with top practitioners of fading traditions. That success led to years of summer workshops. In 1981, the college took over the management and began to expand the offerings, later adding a year-round Augusta Heritage Center to the campus. Thousands of musicians have benefited from these annual gatherings, now in many styles beyond the original old-time.
Kyle and Nowell sat in two old cane-bottom chairs and played tunes. Both were equally comfortable on banjo and fiddle. They switched instruments occasionally, going from tune to tune without a word. This was far beyond my playing level, so I listened from a sofa. I relaxed into enjoying my private concert, when I realized I was witnessing the ancient tradition of a master passing on his art. Nowell adjusted his playing to reflect Kyle’s phrasing, absorbing this local dialect of Appalachian folk music. When Kyle slipped an obscure tune among the familiar ones, I saw a change in Nowell’s face. He cocked his ear just a bit, mind trying to encode it into his memory, to be shared with others at a future jam.
Kyle sometimes passed a different banjo into Nowell’s hands to play. His earlier career as a carpenter and sawmill owner inspired the use of local woods in his banjos. After proper aging, maple, cherry, and walnut produced a variety of different looks and tones. Kyle also experimented with dogwood and apple, unusual woods for instrument building. I already appreciated the quality of his open-back banjos and now had the privilege of watching a craftsman show off the fruit of his labors, knowing full well that Nowell and I would find his babies good homes. And I had a story to tell. Customers in the know were shocked when I mentioned I had met Kyle Creed in his home workshop. After all, he is credited with popularizing the short-scale banjo fretboard now preferred by clawhammer banjo players around the world. By slightly reducing the vibrating length of the strings from nut to bridge, he could set the bridge closer to the center of the head. This encouraged the head to vibrate more purely as a unit, accentuating the lower overtones for that mellow tone desirable for old-time. In contrast, bluegrass banjos position the bridge a bit closer to the rim, strengthening the upper overtones for that bright penetrating tone so crucial to bluegrass.
After witnessing such reverence for craft and playing, I was silent as we headed to our last stop, humbled by Nowell’s social, musical, and negotiating expertise. We entered a roadside antique shop. As he snagged a couple of pocketknives, I looked at old oak furniture. In my time in North Carolina, I had come to appreciate the grain and figure of oak almost as much as the curly maple favored by violin makers. I looked at a fiddle, found it badly cracked, and put it gently back down in its old wooden case. Nowell was playing a mahogany-back Gibson guitar which sounded nice to my ear despite a couple of noticeable top cracks. He reached through the sound hole to see if the cracks had been properly repaired with wood cleats. Yes. This would make an inexpensive and great-sounding first vintage guitar for somebody. We also left with a prewar Gibson mandolin, an “A model” with a round sound hole, its mellow tone a perfect complement to an open-back banjo. We both had plenty of repairs and set-up work to do on our new finds once back in the shop. It was an immensely satisfying day, with its lesson in the art of horse trading. I doubt any big city violin shops had such a colorful way of acquiring inventory.
The quality and variety of instruments in my shop beckoned an interesting assortment of customers. Sometimes an old-time jam would break out, bringing business to a halt, or a singer-songwriter would preview an untested song with a new guitar. I loved when I got a visit from Dr. Philip Bromberg, a medical doctor at UNC Hospital and a very expressive violinist. One day he played a complete movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, from memory, while I sat at my workbench. Nobody else came up the stairs. The phone was silent. An audience of one, I felt like royalty with a command performance in my palace.
The shop was a community message board for all kinds of musical events. When someone mentioned that Itzhak Perlman would be playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on National Public Television’s Live from Lincoln Center, I scrambled, since I did not own a TV. A record of this piece started my path as a musician and remained my touchstone of expression. I just had to see the program. I asked everybody. A local violinist named Michael Platt, who was also a master of many fiddle styles, suggested we commandeer the projection TV at The Station, a bar in Carrboro, the other side of the tracks from Chapel Hill. He had some clout since he bartended there. He knew the evening crowd would talk right over a classical concert, so, just before airtime, we grabbed the TV from its bracket on the ceiling, took it to their back room – a railroad car – and set it upside-down on a beer keg. As a projection television, the image was reversed and mirror image. To us, he played left-handed, but at least he was not upside-down. Very odd, but soon all that mattered was the music.
Perlman impressed us with his passionate playing in the opening Allegro. I held my breath for the slow Canzonetta. Since childhood, I cherished the expressive depth of this movement and had not yet heard any recording rise to the level of my expectations. Most players seemed to hurry through it to get to the virtuosic final movement. Perlman, however, dug deep into the essence of Tchaikovsky and won me over. Magic happened. We were transported far beyond that small television in a train car behind a bar. The dramatic finale further convinced us of his wizardry; we hooted and hollered at the end. I had found a new violin hero.
The TV had a whole different aura about it as we hoisted it back onto its perch, ready for the next ACC basketball game. Some expressive corner of my soul could now relax, having finally witnessed someone swept away at the highest level of musical passion – live on television.
The magic of expression sometimes collided with history in my shop. I felt privileged to help local players like the ever-friendly Earl Wolslagel, an original member of the North Carolina Symphony in 1932. And when Giorgio Ciompi came up my stairs, I knew I was in the presence of a true maestro. He played under the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini in the NBC Orchestra, also in the 1930s. When he joined the Duke University Music Department in 1965, he raised the resident string quartet to new levels, so that when he passed away far too young, the quartet kept his name. The Ciompi Quartet still performs widely, to great acclaim.
When the touring virtuoso Elmar Oliveira was in the area to perform, someone from Duke told me that he played a Stradivarius, a violin so rare I had only seen one behind glass in a museum. When he came to visit (there were benefits to being the only violin shop in the area), he made it a point to play all of our better violins. As he was playing “my” violins, I kept staring at his case sitting against the brick wall I had painted about a year earlier.
I finally got up my nerve, and asked, “You’re playing mine; can I play yours?”
“Sure!” He smiled, and immediately walked over to his case.
As he handed the Strad to me, I fell silent, surprisingly not nervous at holding an instrument worth many times the value of my whole shop. I could never call this a fiddle. The beautiful, flamed maple seemed to glow through the lustrous oil varnish. I marveled at the grace of the body shape, the points of the crisply inlaid purfling and the smooth volute of the scroll. And to think the hands of the greatest violin maker of all time had carved this, over 250 years ago. All eyes were on me, so I grabbed my favorite bow and played one long note. I was shocked at how easy it was to play, how effortless to draw a big sound. It was as if I went to sing a lullaby and Pavarotti came out in full voice. The sound filled the room – and my soul. I was swept away, lost in a time capsule of precious fine art that also made sublime music. Time collapsed. I have no idea how long I dwelled there.
Returning the violin to Elmar in awed slow motion, I had no words other than “Thank you.” An absolute calm washed over my body as my spirit continued to soar. A deep gratitude arose for my brief visit to a world far beyond my reach, yet completely familiar. That golden tone did not spoil me for the everyday violins I set up and sold. Rather, even today, it inspires me to seek the soul of every instrument I play. Somewhere inside each of these nicely-varnished wooden boxes is hidden a treasure of expression, patiently waiting to ask a player to reach for that place where the human and the divine meet.
[This essay by Blaise Kielar won Honorable Mention in the 2022 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize and was published in the North Carolina Literary Review, Winter 2023 online issue. It has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well.]