Charlie Gurreri picks up his dulcimer most nights and starts playing a tune. Before he knows it, his miniature dachshund, Abby, is right beside him. She likes being serenaded by her owner.
To have Abby near him in spirit whenever he plays at various events, Gurreri had a dulcimer custom made with sound holes in the shapes of a miniature dachshund and paw prints.
“The top part is walnut and butternut,” he said. “Butternut is a cream color. But we had it stained to match Abby; she’s black and tan. It’s a special dulcimer — it’s my Abby dulcimer.”
The 65-year-old and his wife, Debra, have played dulcimers for a couple of years now, and are both members of Duplin Dulcimers.
Barbara Strickland is the director of the musical group.
“We started in 2008 from a group in Kinston just to have extra practice,” the 69-year-old said.
“And it just turned into its own group with about 25 or 30 members.”
Duplin Dulcimers members play sacred music, old-time music, fiddle tunes, gospel and more.
They travel to various events at churches and in communities in this part of the state, and have also played at Stewfest, at Moore’s Creek Battlefield, in Bentonville, Emerald Isle and just about anywhere they are asked to play, Strickland said.
“We play ensemble music where we divide up into parts, and everybody has their own part to play, then we put it all together like an orchestra,” she said.
Strickland began playing the dulcimer in 2003, when she first saw them in the North Carolina mountains and became intrigued with them.
“I got my first dulcimer in South Carolina,” she said.
“A man was doing a workshop down there for seniors and he showed me how to play, but with a noter, a little stick you use to run up and down the strings instead of using your fingers. That’s the more traditional mountain way to play a dulcimer. Sometimes they would have strummed it with a goose or turkey feather.”
Strickland now counts 10 dulcimers in her collection.
Her most favorite is one that was made by a friend’s husband, who has since passed away.
Gurreri said playing the dulcimer is something he and his wife can do together.
“I play at home a lot, and the two of us go to festivals,” he said.
“Playing the dulcimer relaxes me.”
Sometimes when playing at home, Gurreri makes up his own music. And sometimes he takes a piece of music and changes it.
“It’s a fun instrument and I definitely enjoy it,” he said.
Nancy Sullivan “Blossom” Pittman, 69, has been playing the dulcimer about seven years.
She was in the mountains with some friends when they began playing their dulcimers on the balcony of their cabin.
“They were playing gospel music and I was sitting there crying and praising God,” she said.
“I could not read any music when I first started playing the dulcimer.”
But Strickland gave one of her dulcimers to Sullivan and showed her how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
And Sullivan was hooked. That was seven years ago.
“It was confusing at first, but something in my heart I said I could do,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan remembers her very first dulcimer. Right after she began playing the instrument, she told her husband she wanted one of her own.
Her daughter-in-law found one on eBay.
“I’ve always wanted to play something, and now I go into homes where shut-ins are,” she said.
“I love it. Not only is it for me, but it’s for others, too.”
One song the group plays has special meaning for Sullivan.
“Wayfaring Stranger” reminds her of her mother.
“The day after Christmas she died, but we had a wonderful Christmas with her,” Sullivan said.
“My husband got a CD with that song on it and I heard it for a year. Then one time I came to Duplin Dulcimers and Barbara had that song.”
Michele Tyndall, 63, has played the dulcimer since 2006.
Strickland got her interested in it on vacation in the mountains.
Tyndall got her first dulcimer from her husband.
“Randall, my husband, got in trouble is the story we tell, so for our anniversary that weekend, he bought me my first dulcimer,” she said.
“Miss Barbara taught me how to play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ on the dulcimer on the front porch of the cabin in the mountains.”
The Tyndalls regularly play together at home. He does not read one lick of music, she said, but then with the dulcimer, you don’t have to.
You’ll find Michele taking several of her dulcimers to practice and concerts.
That’s because she plays multiple parts — harmony, baritone and even ginger (a high part). The couple has a total of eight of the instruments between them.
One of them is extra special to Michele because it was bought in memory of her father.
“Before he passed away, we went to the nursing home where he was in Texas and played our dulcimers and he was so excited,” she said.
“I told Randall when Daddy passes away and I get whatever inheritance I get, it was going toward a dulcimer. So I got that one in memory of my Daddy.”
One of their dulcimers is a little bit different than normal. It’s a two-sided instrument called a courting dulcimer that two people play at one time.
“We went to a workshop and saw a man and a woman playing this dulcimer,” Michele said.
“As soon as they finished their song, he got down on one knee and proposed to her. I told Randall that I had to have one.”
Michele said playing the dulcimer relaxes her.
“As a social worker for years, it was stressful,” she said. “Playing the dulcimer is a very calming de-stressor for me.”
Strickland said the dulcimer is becoming more popular, and she feels it’s because of the ease of playing.
“It’s easy on the joints because of the way you play it,” she said. “And the music is so soothing. It’s not harsh and loud. And you can sit by yourself and just play and play and play.”