Of all the world's instruments, none is more hallowed than the harp. The most graceful and curvaceous of the chordophones, it is routinely depicted in literature and art in the arms of angels, who pluck and caress its strings to produce beguiling, divine music.
That's heady stuff, which is why you can't really blame Dusty Strings founders Sue and Ray Mooers for concluding, in 1977, that the first instrument they should attempt to build from scratch should not be a harp. Instead, they tried their hands at a more populist music maker, the hammer dulcimer.
"People look at it now and get hysterical," Sue says of the couple's first clumsy effort. Working from a purchased kit, they dutifully followed the enclosed instructions until the urge to customize their creation became overpowering. "We pulled some paneling off a wall in a basement we were renting," Sue recalls with a wince. "It was really tacky."
The dulcimer, that is, not the basement. In 1979, that room would become the first crude production facility for Dusty Strings. A few years later, the fledgling company had five employees working downstairs. Upstairs, the couple's kitchen doubled as the staff lunchroom, orders for dulcimers were packed in the living room, and the dining room was commandeered to display their latest Dusty Strings hammer dulcimers (the company didn't get into the harp trade until 1984). "I would come home from work sometimes and just want to hide," remembers Sue, who made financial ends meet by holding down a day job. "But it was great," she says. "It was fun."
Twenty-five years and two kids later, Dusty Strings is a Seattle institution, drawing novices, acoustic-music geeks, and rock superstars alike to its roughly 3,000-square-foot Fremont store; harps and hammer dulcimers are built by a crew of 30 in a 17,000-square-foot facility nearby.
Music for the people
Sue does her best to keep all this growth and recognition in perspective. "I know Dave Matthews has been in a few times," she says of the rock star, who's a recent transplant to Seattle. "I think he ended up getting a guitar from us." In fact, on one occasion Matthews left Dusty Strings with a new Taylor 914c under his arm. It's a beautiful guitar with back and sides made of Indian rosewood, a top of Englemann spruce, and fret board of solid ebony, worth about $4,550.
Naturally the Mooers are delighted to sell a high-end guitar to a highly visible customer, but they are even more pleased when their store is filled with musical novices nervously striking the strings of a hammer dulcimer (Dusty Strings makes 11 models starting at $395) or plucking a harp (7 models from $995) for the very first time.
"Harps and hammer dulcimers are simple to learn on," says Sue. "When you play them, they sound good right from the start, which is rare for most string instruments. That's the fun of it introducing people to an instrument."
Indeed, it's that desire to spread the acoustic word ― to help people get in touch with the musical angels of their natures, if you will ― that continues to motivate the Mooers. Playing music, Sue says, is "an antidote to all the technical work people do; to sitting in front of a computer screen all day. It's akin to keeping your life balanced with exercise. There's just nothing but good that comes from it."
INFO: Dusty Strings (3406 Fremont Ave. N.; www.dustystrings.com or 206/634-1662)
You can enjoy live acoustic music almost every day of the week in Seattle. Here's a small sample of what's on tap in May.
Irish seisiún at Irish Emigrant. Leo McNamara and friends play traditional Irish music at this popular University District pub and restaurant. 9:30 p.m. Wed; free. 5260 University Way N.E.; www.irishemigrant.net or 206/525-2955.
Jam sessions at Wit's End Bookstore and Tea Shop. Enjoy informal concerts in Fremont. Musical styles vary from week to week. 7 p.m. Thu and Fri; free. 4262 Fremont Ave. N.; www.booksatoz.com/witsend/ or 206/547-2330.
Live music at Victrola Coffee & Art. A good place to hear Hot Club Sandwich, Zazou, and other string bands. 8 p.m. most Mon and Tue (check website for schedule); free. 411 15th Ave. E.; www.victrolacoffee.com or 206/325-6520.
Saturday Nights on Phinney Ridge. Catch some notables in this concert series at the Phinney Neighborhood Center. Harry Manx (May 1): This Canadian lap-slide guitarist is known for a blues style that has been compared to that of Ry Cooder. David Mallett (May 8): Acts as diverse as Alison Krauss and the Muppets have recorded Mallett's richly detailed folk songs. Laura Kemp (May 15): The Seattle native's guitar playing reveals her Nashville and bluegrass influences, and her voice is strong and emotional. 7:30; tickets from $12. 6532 Phinney Ave. N.; www.seafolklore.org/folksche.html or 206/528-8523.