The autoharp aficionado arrives in glenwood
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” Musician Bryan Bowers still sounds shocked about the best review of his career. It happened decades ago when he stepped off stage at a music festival. He saw “Mother” Maybelle Carter looking at him. She reached out her hand and placed it on his chest.
“I never wouldda dreamed I’d ever hear such music from an autoharp,” she said.
No one does ” and that’s the beauty of the funky little stringed instrument.
For about the last 40 years, Bowers has been one of the autoharp’s leading men, making people believers in it all around the world. He’s brought his downright friendly stage presence to countless bluegrass festivals and played house parties and children’s events. He’s performed with folks like Emmylou Harris and the Dillards. John Denver even recorded his work. In 1993, Bowers was inducted into the Autoharp Hall of Fame, as its first living member to boot.
And he’d love to say this all began as a rational endeavor. But that, he joked, just isn’t so.
As he tells it, “When I got into the autoharp, I became obsessed.”
He was around 29 at the time and living in Richmond, Virginia. A singer all his life, he’d taken up guitar a year earlier. A doctor friend of his was showing him his vast instrument collection when Bowers spotted the autoharp. At first, he was only mildly curious. But as soon as the fellow started to play, that all changed. The rich, stringed sounds hit Bowers profoundly.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard a harp played in tune,” he said. “And I was stunned.”
He bought his own autoharp at a junk shop the next day.
He could hear songs in his head but couldn’t play them yet. So he just kept plucking away feverishly at his harp. At the time, he worked at the local paper, where he delivered proofs of ads to customers. He realized all those hours wasted in his car were ones he could be practicing. Instead of quitting his job, though, he mounted two “suicide knobs” (illegal little balls that help with quick turns) to the bottom of his steering wheel. From then on, his workday consisted of him driving with his knees ” and playing his autoharp with his hands.
“I made a quantum leap,” he said, “and in less than a year, I became really, really good.”
As he recounted all the years that came after that, Bowers was thankful and totally joyful. He described his unique, finger picking style, the 1,000 songs he’s written and all those places he’s been. He chuckled hard and told stories and went off on tangents. His words kept returning, however, to the sheer beauty of his instrument.
When you play it, “it’s like your own little concert hall. It resonates in your ear and your chest,” he said. “It’s a beautiful, resonant feeling.”
Yes, he’s certainly still in love.
After many years in one job, he knows it’s easy for people to hem and haw about their work. He’s got tons of friends who do so. That’s why he counts himself lucky.
“My take on the world is completely opposite,” he said. “I’m ecstatic every single day.”
He’s amazed he’s able to do something that matters so much to him. He gets to shock people into enjoying an instrument he cares so deeply for. Perhaps best of all, whenever he’s at “work,” he feels completely comfortable in his own skin. While you’d never know it, he admitted to being a former shy, introverted guy.
“Music just opened me up like a can opener,” he said.
Perhaps that’s why, tonight, he won’t have any stage fright. In fact, he’s only been scared while performing once, and that was the first time he ever played his harp for an audience. It was only a year after he’d taken up the thing, and he was so frightened that he shut his eyes tight in front of the coffee shop crowd. When finished, he finally opened them, and he looked out on tons of smiles and applause. He realized then all he had to do to succeed was be himself ” and play a mean autoharp. His shows, in turn, are loose and fun and madly popular. They revolve around traditional fiddle tunes, gospel, originals and even a Beatles offering or two. He tells stories and does call and response songs with the audience. Basically, he just has a great time.
“I try to live good and thick and strong,” he said, “and bring good music to people and be joyful.”
Sounds like a pretty good gig, doesn’t it?
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