The Sounds of Woodwork

 Woodworking is instrumental in retiree’s life

By Cheryl Fiscus Jenkins // Photography by Warrie Denis

The strings resemble a sound often heard in the backwoods of Tennessee and quietly calm the most hectic of days. Boasting a personality of softness and grandeur, the detail of each instrument tells a musical story and brings pleasure to the ears.
With names such as Cherish and Ark, handmade dulcimers fill Mike Crute’s Franklin home as he molds and shapes the wood for various pitches. He made his first dulcimer in 1987 from a kit he purchased in the Smoky Mountains and has since crafted 100 or so instruments, mostly from scratch, for friends and family.
Crute calls himself an amateur dulcimer maker, but workmanship of the instruments speaks volumes, along with awards he’s acquired at the Johnson County 4-H and Agricultural Fair. He became musically inclined at age 12 and besides the dulcimer also plays guitar, harmonica and panpipe.
Music and woodworking are hobbies that helped transition him from a lengthy productive career in newspaper advertising to a more laid back retirement. Crute retired from the Daily Journal in 2014 as a senior account executive.
“What I like to do is to experiment with design, shape and sound,” he said. “I like working with wood. It is relaxing.”
The term dulcimer means “sweet sound,” and Crute displays that expectation as he strums favorite hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” He plays dulcimer and guitar at Victory Baptist Church of Whiteland, where he and his wife, Sherry, are very involved longtime members. He enjoys occasionally playing with other musicians there, including his granddaughter on violin.
Friend and Victory Baptist Pastor Mark Felber said the dulcimer brings excitement among the congregation when played during special musical presentations. Church goers take note of its soothing sound.
“Because it’s such an unusual instrument, everybody just sits up to watch because it is so unique,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sound. He plays it very well.”
Crute tells a story about creating a dulcimer named Humility that was supposed to be his pride and joy with its rich walnut wood finish and presumed great sound. Defects and issues in creating it became a problem, though, so he strived to salvage the project and make the most of its instrumentation.
“About everything that could go wrong went wrong,” he said. “I use this sometimes in church to remind me that I’m not playing for myself and to be humble.”
Dulcimers come with a variety of strings, shapes, sizes and sounds. Some have a higher pitch and others lower. They can be tuned seven different ways, Crute said, and made with several types of wood. They can also be plucked, struck or played with a bow. Inlays of snowflakes, hearts and crosses make his instruments even more unique.
Some of Crute’s creations resemble a banjo, often called a dulcijo. Another one is called a friendship dulcimer where two people play the instrument together while facing each other. The hammered dulcimer is always a popular pick with a small mallet striking the strings.
Sherry enjoys her husband’s hobby and prefers a rich dulcimer sound. They were both enamored upon initially hearing the instrument while vacationing in Tennessee.
“Keeps him off the streets,” she said.
The panpipe is Crute’s newest musical interest, recently reciting “How Great Thou Art” on it. He also enjoys more secular tunes such as “Red River Valley” and “The Sound of Silence.” Instead of making more instruments now, Crute wants to become more proficient in playing — learning pieces by ear rather than by reading music.
Relaxing tunes, often played by Crute on the porch in the evening while Sherry reads, brought the couple through his difficult battle with cancer four years ago and stressful work days during his career. Though he doesn’t sell the dulcimers, he enjoys knowing friends and family have them to play in places as far away as Australia, California, Chicago, Arizona, Kentucky and Hong Kong.
Family friend Jayne Yount has known Crute since childhood and reacquainted with him and Sherry over a shared interest in dulcimers. Yount’s late spouse, Eddie, had bought her one some time ago, which she is now learning to play. The Franklin resident appreciates the workmanship going into each dulcimer. She cherishes the Swedish door chime Crute made for her with Needham Elementary School carved into the wood, honoring her many years as a teacher there.
“He’s just so kind, giving and fun loving,” Yount said. “He’s such a talented craftsman and musician.”
After spending 40 years alongside the Crutes serving in the church, Felber agrees.
“Mike is a very kind, thoughtful man who loves to serve others,” he said. “He very much has a servant’s heart.”
The Crutes celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary this summer. They have two children and 11 grandchildren. Together, they have a collection of fun items such as lighthouses and uniquely detailed tea pots and cups. A Swedish door harp chimes as people enter their home.
The house features woodworking projects with tables, cabinets, a grandfather clock and a couch among the many creations. Sherry decorates the items with cushions and quilts, which she loves to sew.
“We’ve always kind of worked together that way,” Crute said. “This has been an outgrowth for my love of woodworking.”