Thursday, August 24, 2006

Remembering David, the Dulcimer Champ

A good friend of mine, dulcimer champion David Schnaufer, has died.

David discovered the dulcimer in an Austin music shop in the early 70s. It was love at first sight. Within a very short time, he became a virtuoso, and later moved to Nashville where he brought this nearly-forgotten instrument into the mainstream. He performed with the best: Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, The Judds, Chet Atkins, Cyndi Lauper, Kathy Mattea, Linda Ronstadt, Santiago Jimenez Jr., and Townes van Zandt, to name but a few. David was amazing.

I first met him in North Texas in the mid-70s. We met through another long-time friend of mine, Jim Bentley. The three of us hung out together a lot. David was always playing his dulcimer. The sweet sounds that came from that old-time Appalachian instrument when he touched the strings provided the soundtrack for many good times.

I moved from North Texas to Austin in 1978, but still saw David occasionally whenever he was in Austin. In the early 80s, he showed up on my doorstep (it was always a surprise when you saw him, as he rarely used the phone) and handed me his first record, Rosie’s Arms. He said he had been to Nashville recently and had gotten to know Chet Atkins. He had decided to move to Nashville, he said.

The next time I saw him he was on television. He was a guest on Nashville Now. It was the first of many television appearances. During this time, David also toured with the Everly Brothers and received a Gold Record for his performance on The Judds’ Heartland. His career was so successful it became hard to keep track of his many accomplishments.

Meanwhile, I had started publishing my comics. Some time in the early 90s I drew a surrealistic picture of Billy the Kid with a third eye. It appeared on the cover of my book Surreal Western Comics. David saw it and called me. He was in a band now, the Cactus Brothers, and they loved the image. Billy the Id, they called it. They wanted to use it on posters, t-shirts, and the cover of their upcoming album. They also wanted me to create a promotional comic book for the album.

Next thing I knew, their manager, John Lomax III, was arranging for me to fly out to Nashville so I could get to know the band, attend their performances, discuss the project, and just have fun.

It was the first time I had seen David in several years and we had a lot of catching-up to do as we drove around Nashville, getting high. “This town is a marijuana paradise,” David said. “The music industry is fueled by the stuff.”

We drove past the Ryman Auditorium. David told me had recently performed on the legendary stage in a music video with none other than Emmylou Harris. David was very happy as he described other things he had done, people he had gotten to know. Then he said, “I showed Garth Brooks one of your comics and he loved it, man. Loved it. Garth Brooks is a fan of yours!

A fan? It seemed like a bit of an overstatement, but I didn’t mind hearing it. David and I were grinning from ear to ear. His enthusiasm was infectious and of course we were high. We were the Kings of Music City. Liberty Records was releasing David’s album and I was doing the cover. Wow!

Back at David’s apartment, he showed me his collection of antique dulcimers. One was Civil War-era. Then he showed me his custom-made electric dulcimer.

An electric dulcimer. I was amazed. And I hadn’t even heard him play the thing yet.

It was a great weekend. A lot happened, more than I can list here. And when it was over I went back to Austin and got to work colorizing Billy the Id and creating Cactus Comix. Liberty Records paid me well.

Later that year, during the South by Southwest Music Conference, the Cactus Brothers performed in Austin at La Zona Rosa. I went to see them. When the night was over, David walked with me to my car, we shook hands, and I drove away, never imagining it was the last time I would see him. Or talk to him. As I said, he rarely used the phone.

David told a lot of good stories. One story in particular stands out in my memory …

It was the 70s. He was attending an outdoor folk music festival in West Virginia. It lasted three days and was a good festival, he said. But he was disturbed by something. Throughout the festival, he was followed by a woman. She never approached him, never said anything, just followed him. Then she would disappear. But, in a little while, he would look up and there she would be again, staring at him. It gave him the creeps, and to make it still creepier she had a tattoo on her arm which read “Property of Death.”

Finally, on the last day of the festival, David saw a biker striding towards him. The guy was big. He was also missing his nose. Where the nose should have been were two large holes, giving his face a skull-like appearance. And on his jacket was his name: “Death.”

Death got right in David’s face and stared at him, not saying a word. The only sound was the air whistling in those big nasal holes of his. David stared back, petrified. After a long time, Death turned and walked away.

When David told me this story, he laughed and said, “I stared Death right in the face, and he walked away.”

This morning I got an email from John Lomax III with the subject line: “He made the dulcimer rock!” An email from John with the word “dulcimer” in the subject line could only be about David. But the use of past tense made my heart sink. I opened the email, hoping I was wrong, and read the following:
R.I.P. David Schnaufer
9/28/52 - 8/23/06
He brought the dulcimer into the 21st century. Even played solid body ELECTRIC dulcimer. His videos of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Fisher's Hornpipe" introduced thousands to one of America's few indigenous instruments.

John also included a couple of links. One link was to an article about David written by John's son for today’s Houston Press, the other was an obituary that will appear in tomorrow’s print edition of the Tennessean. I read them and learned that David was diagnosed with lung cancer last June. Chemo and radiation were tried, to no avail. Yesterday he died.

The summer started with Jack Jackson’s death. Now it ends with the loss of David Schnaufer. Another great Texas spirit has left this world, leaving me with an empty feeling, but also happy and honored to have been his friend.