Joe Collins

Dulcimers, Divinity & the Lure of Greenville

Joe Collins: Dulcimers, Divinity & the Lure of Greenville

Dulcimer master Joe Collins will be one of the instructors for Waterbound Dulcimers’ workshop in Goldsboro next weekend. But eastern North Carolina is familiar territory: he lived in Greenville from the fall of 1974 to spring of 1983, attending East Carolina University–long before he was named national dulcimer champion in 2007.

“I grew up in Troutman, NC,” Collins said. “I came to ECU originally because of their wrestling team; however, I did not wrestle long. I fell in love with academics and with Greenville. Maybe I was in love with being on my own.”

Joe Collins photo by Tom Whelan, 2019

Collins graduated from ECU with Bachelor and Masters degrees in English, and then from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity with Religious Education, and from NC State University with a Doctorate in Adult Education. But he remembers Greenville for some important first steps that would influence the rest of his life’s direction.

“I got my start as a performing musician through the Student Union-run coffeehouses in Mendenhall at that time,” Collins said. “I occasionally played guitar and sang in friends’ weddings. I was introduced to the mountain dulcimer during my senior year in college by a friend who wanted me to teach her how to play it. When I told her that I didn’t know anything about it, she stuck it in my hands and told me when I figured it out, I could show her then. She did not get it back for three years. I fell in love with it.”

“Perhaps my fondest memories of Greenville are of Immanuel Baptist Church,” he said, “which was near the dorms where I lived. I joined that church at the beginning of my sophomore year and found a home there where I was encouraged in my faith and my music. I spent many hours playing guitar and singing with the youth group there.” 

Collins said he didn’t grow up in a family that played and sang together. He got his first guitar, a Sears & Roebuck special for Christmas when he was around 12. His dad knew a guy that played and he taught Collins a few chords over a 6-week period, and then he was on his own.

“My older brother put together a good record collection,” Collins remembered. “When he was stationed in Bangkok, I listened to that collection that included Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Jeff Walker, and other finger-picking singer-songwriters. Once I found finger-picking, I pursued guitar a little more seriously, so that when I went to college, I was writing and singing songs to whoever would listen. That’s when I discovered an open stage sponsored by the student union. From there, I worked my way into coffeehouses.”

Collins originally planned to get a PhD in English and teach at the college level but said God called him into ministry in 1983. He and his wife moved to seminary and he studied three more years there. 

He explained: “Until I retired, I always saw music as an avocation. Sure, I continued to play music to support my calling and just to have fun with it, but it was not my primary thing. After 16+ years in ministry, I pursued a doctorate in Adult Education at NC State to better equip myself for my primary calling. That eventually led to joining the faculty of Gardner-Webb University for 16 years in Religious Education. I was continuing to improve as a dulcimer player and received invitations to more and more festivals where I taught workshops and performed on weekends and during the summer. I found that my training in education helped as I designed and taught workshops. To date, I have taught over a thousand workshops since my first one around 1998.”

When he first started playing the mountain dulcimer, Collins said he focused on hymns. They were his “go to” music on the dulcimer. 

“That was not true of my guitar repertoire, strangely enough,” Collins said. “Perhaps it was the ‘ethereal’ drones that made the hymns seem a natural fit. I did expand into numerous genres on the dulcimer, but it always feels good just to relax (perhaps even meditate) as I play hymns today. I find that a lot of people gravitate toward hymns when they come to my workshops. I use hymns a lot in those.”

The major difference Collins sees between dulcimer fests and other music festivals is that the people come for the instrument, not a particular style of music. 

“When one goes to a blues or a bluegrass festival, people are there for a particular genre of music,” he said. “At a dulcimer festival, one might hear old-time music in one corner, rock-n-roll in another, cajun, blues, hymns, or Celtic. People get excited when someone steps outside standard genres and plays something different on the dulcimer. That person is seen as a hero who is expanding the range of the instrument. The community is bound by the instrument, and they are like family who support one another, even when the genre is ‘not their cup of tea.’ It’s really kind of cool.”

Collins’ latest recordings include “Waltzes for Mountain Dulcimer,” released in 2020, and “A River Runs Through It,” recorded with Nancy Galambush on cello. Galambush, a Greene County resident who actively participates in the Fourth Street Dulcimer group in Greenville, the Waterbound Dulcimers, and the Flat Mountain Dulcimers, will also be teaching in the workshop.

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Originally published in the Daily Reflector March 30, 2024.