Dulcimer Funfest fosters new connections while instilling a love for the instrument in younger generations

EVART – The parking lot outside of the  Osceola Fairgrounds this week revealed an array of license plates hailing from almost all 
50 states. From Alaska to Virginia, and even Canada, thousands of attendees came 
to Evart for the 42nd Annual Dulcimer Funfest to make new connections with other musicians and pass on skills  to younger generations.

“I’m seeing a younger crowd at the festival this year than I have in years past,” said Sherry Wood-Stieg, a member of the Osceola County Fair Board and festival volunteer. “You walk around and you see a lot of kids and adults in their 30s and 40s. The festival has always been family-oriented.”

Scores of musicians camped out for the week-long festival, which continues through this weekend. While the festival always draws many returnees, it also serves as a place for experienced musicians to hand down skills to first timers. Whether it was meeting new friends with similar musical interests or teaching beginners how to play, the festival encompassed the friendly atmosphere that keeps participants coming back.

“What I have been hearing from the people who have been coming through is that the Dulcimer Funfest is the ultimate,” Wood-Stieg said. “They say it is top of the line compared to other festivals around the country…It’s amazing that we have something here in Evart thought of nation-wide as ultimate.”

Wood-Stieg added the festival entertained visitors this year from states across the country, including Nevada, Mississippi and California.

The Funfest once again attracted a number of repeat attendees, including those who first met at the festival. Matthew Dickerson and Scott Freeman met at the Dulcimer Funfest in 2012. They are both National Hammer Dulcimer champions, Dickerson winning in ’12 and Freeman in ’99. Now they play together at the festival, performing on Thursday night.

It was not uncommon to see musicians demonstrating different instruments for each other and gladly answering questions, as well as spontaneous jam sessions.

“I like having the opportunity to play with other people,” said Mel Dorries, of Metamora, who owns Hurdy-Gurdy Crafters with his wife, Ann. “They never shut you out if you happen to be playing an instrument other than a dulcimer. They’re very welcoming.”

Dorries first began playing and building hurdy gurdies eight years ago. He remembers a colleague, David Smith, instructing him on how to improve the first hurdy gurdy he built, giving suggestions on how to ease tension on its fretboard, bridge and wheel.

“You’re introduced to new instruments and new people. You’re learning on a variety of levels,” Dorries said. “It’s a wonderful place up here.”

While many people came to the festival to form new connections, others came to keep memories alive. Bill Crooks, of Grand Rapids, has been coming to the festival for 20 years with his late wife, Sidney. Though Crooks does not play the dulcimer himself, he enjoys the music. The instrument was his wife’s pastime.

“My wife and I enjoyed the food, going through the vendors, and building relationships with the teachers we’d meet at the festival and stayed in touch with,” Crooks recalled.

Crooks’ wife met instructors Dan Landrum and Rick Thum at the festival and would keep in contact with them throughout the year.

“We normally came with our motor home and stayed the whole week of the festival,” Crooks said. “She passed away in May. She is the one who introduced our grandchildren to the dulcimer.”

His wife got dulcimers for their grandchildren, Emma, 11, and Will, 9, when they were younger. The children have been coming to the festival with their grandparents for the last five years.

“Being at the festival reminds us of her,” said Crooks’ granddaughter, Emma. “It’s lots of fun playing the dulcimer; we like doing it. I like the music. A lot of dulcimer music is fast and fun to play. And you can transfer it to the piano.”

Crooks plans to continue to bring his grandchildren to the festival.

“I see it as an opportunity to carry on her legacy,” Crooks said. “I want to encourage (Emma and Will) to play as long as the desire is there.”

The festival is a place for professionals to mingle while encouraging young attendees’ love for the instrument.

“If young people don’t take up the dulcimer and embrace it, it’ll die out,” Crooks said. “I’m doing it for that reason.”