By Emma Castleberry
Molly McCurdy first laid eyes on a dulcimer in Branson, Missouri. “I was intrigued by its simplicity and beautiful sound,” she says. “I was able to play a simple tune with very minimal instruction. There were a variety of shapes, sizes and woods, so it was hard to choose just one. I knew then that I was in love.” That was in 1976, and it didn’t take long for McCurdy to learn to play the fretted string instrument. Then, her uncle inspired her interest in building dulcimers. She purchased a dulcimer-building kit and enjoyed it so much that she began custom building the instruments in 1985. “We had a woodshop at the time, so I bought another kit and cut similar pieces from wood I had on hand and learned to build them from scratch,” she says. “My former husband instructed me on using the woodshop equipment. I loved the smell and feel of working with wood, learning how different woods behave and which ones sound better in an instrument.”
A traditional Appalachian instrument, the shape of the dulcimer and the arrangement of its strings allow for single-finger playing, making it a suitable instrument for small or arthritic hands. McCurdy now handcrafts and sells dulcimers out of her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she can often be found whittling away on her front porch or at the kitchen table. The name of her company, Light O’ The Moon Dulcimers, is a reference to her discovery of the craft. “When I first started building dulcimers, I was a full-time student at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, working part time and a single mother of two,” McCurdy says. “The only times I had to do my dulcimer work was late at night, hence the name.”
It takes approximately three weeks to build a dulcimer from start to finish. McCurdy first consults with buyers about their budget, any special features they’d like to include, such as woodburned designs or interesting sound holes, and what types of wood they would like to use. “I’ve had to do quite a bit of research on which woods have the best sound quality for instruments, so I’m able to guide buyers in their decision for a custom-made instrument,” she says. “I have made dulcimers with a beach theme, various animals, mountain scenes, dogwood branches and many more designs.” The purchase price of a custom-made dulcimer at Light O’ The Moon includes two free beginner lessons with McCurdy.
At 12 years old, McCurdy’s granddaughter, Ariana Brown, expressed an interest in woodworking. “I began letting her experiment with my tools until she became comfortable with them and then began instructing her on how to put together a dulcimer,” says McCurdy. Building dulcimers, and teaching her granddaughter how to do so, has given McCurdy a new perspective on the importance of traditional crafts. “Knowing there aren’t many luthiers, especially female luthiers, in this area, has given me the desire to teach the craft to someone who wants to carry on that tradition,” she says. “It’s our history, and it’s an art form that should continue on.”