Authentic and Pure: Sam Harris Brought His Mountain Music to East Carolina
Stepping into Sam Harris’ office at Parkers Chapel Free Will Baptist Church in Greenville is like cracking open a time capsule of a man’s eclectic lifetime devotion to music. Novelty clocks, a reel-to-reel player, a 1940s era record player (the small kind that will only play 45s) that he restored, a zither, and the pièce de résistance : a hammered dulcimer. With a little encouragement he’ll break out his musical saw or Theremin.
Harris grew up in east Tennessee along the Appalachian mountain chain, not far from Johnson City, in a small town called Erwin. But he left when he was 18 so has been here longer than he was there: for 33 years now.
“I was a mountain boy and grew up with a lot of the Appalachian mountain music,” Harris says, “the hammered dulcimer, the mountain dulcimer, the banjos, all the folk music.”
Harris went to Southeastern Free Will Baptist College to train for the ministry, earning a Sacred Music degree.
“The dean of the school, Dr. Lorenzo Stox, came here [Parkers Chapel] as an interim pastor,” Harris recalls. “He later left the college and came here to be full time pastor. He knew me from the college and called me and asked me, ‘Would you consider coming and helping us with our music program?’ That was in 1991. So in February 1991, I came here, and I’ve been here ever since as the assistant pastor, taking care of all the music here at our church.”
Harris is the longest tenured music pastor in Free Will Baptist churches.
“I’ve always been really drawn to music,” Harris says. “As a child I used to go out to my dad’s car and he had an 8-track player, and I’d run his battery down going out there, listening to music. I stayed in trouble with that. But I just loved music. I wanted to be around it.”
When he was 8, his dad bought a piano and Harris started piano lessons, and as a teenager, sang in the church choir.
“Until I went to college, the only instrument I really concentrated on was piano,” he says. “I did play trumpet in high school, and clarinet some. But my serious love was the piano.”
But his favorite instrument to play? The hand saw.
“Back in the mountains they’d have these bluegrass festivals around us in the summer and fall and you’d always see one or two men who could play it and it always fascinated me,” Harris remembers. “So about 15 years ago I went to Ace Hardware and bought a hand saw. I started playing. I now have a musical saw that I use.”
But apparently Harris really hasn’t found a musical instrument he doesn’t like. He deftly wields two carved wooden hammers with felt on one side and taps out arpeggios on the trapezoid wooden stringed instrument with ease. The sound of a hammered dulcimer rings out like a celestial visitation.
“I’ve the hammered dulcimer since college, from 1988,” he says. “I really enjoy that, and I bought a mountain dulcimer about 3 years ago. I’m not very good at that but I do enjoy trying to play.”
He offers practical tips, like using a Scotch Brite pad to clean off corrosion residue from the strings, and a feather boa to dust the hard-to-reach area beneath the strings on the soundboard. He describes his method of tuning in sections, rather than from top to bottom.
Harris also plays a Theremin–“an electronic device that you just wave your hands around,” he explains. “It’s a very interesting machine to play. It’s one of the only instruments in the world that you play without touching it. So you don’t have any tactile feedback–you’re just floating in space with pitch and volume.”
And of course, coming from east Tennessee, Harris plays the banjo. And wine glasses. And tuned sleigh bells, cowbells, and tone chimes–and, well, how many fingers do you have to keep counting?
“The sleigh bells are just like you would see on a horse,” he explains. “They’re on leather straps, and I’ve got a big rack that sets up. It’s about 5 1/2 – 6′ tall, and it’s got sharps and flats, you know. Every strap is a note. The sleigh bells are tuned to a note. So you grab the straps and play the notes.”
In addition to church music performance, Harris especially enjoys sharing music in the classroom with children.
“I go into a lot of schools and do the ‘science of sound’ kind of demonstrations of music,” he says. “I carry an old phonograph and things like that. I really enjoy exposing children to musical instruments that you really wouldn’t think would be a musical instrument. I’ve done everything from a classroom of 25 to full gym assemblies of 100 to 200 kids. I really enjoy doing that because the kids are mesmerized. A lot of times children will talk over some things but when I pull the saw out and start playing it, or I play the glasses, the children get silent. I think that’s wonderful that you can capture the attention of children for an extended period of time, and not use a video or YouTube or anything like that. It’s just rewarding to go in and do that.”
Harris used to live in Fountain, in a house he restored with his wife, so he played at the R.A. Fountain General Store, sometimes with his family, when his children were younger, and sometimes with Lightnin’ Wells.
“I’ve got an old player piano with rolls,” he says. “And Lightnin’ is a walking encyclopedia about all of that stuff. He used to come by the house and we’d go through some of those songs and I could hardly find any he didn’t already know. I love to hear him play the ukulele and play ‘The 12-String Rag.”’
Harris will be leading a music conference for choir at Parkers Chapel on March 24 and 25th. “Choirs have been on the decline,” Harris says. “COVID gutted a lot of church music programs. They were afraid to get together and sing as a choir. Some churches are trying to restart their choir, so this is trying to fill that gap a little bit. We’ll have 150 to 200 singers here that weekend. We’ll learn some good choir music they can use at their church.”
Does his mountain music influence his church music or the other way around? “It goes both ways,” he says. “I like bringing that style of music to eastern North Carolina. I think recently there has been more of an appreciation for mountain type of music or bluegrass music.”
Harris sums up his feelings about the music simply: “Acoustic music and mountain music just seems authentic and pure.”• • •
Originally published in the Daily Reflector March 16, 2023.