Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina


Jim Trantham

Jim Trantham: The skill behind the sound
By Michael Beadle

A pile of sketchings, wood carvings and small, green maple leaves lie scattered across one of Jim Trantham’s workshop desks.

Working alone upstairs in a building separate from his house, he’s busy on a design for one of his latest hand-crafted dulcimers. Immersed in that creative zone, there’s no telling how long he’d be up there if no one disturbed him.

“I’m obsessed,” he declares. “I can’t turn it loose. I like to get obsessed, really get into it.”

Part of the satisfaction in making instruments is that you never arrive at perfection but create things along the way, he says. “You’re looking constantly for better methods,” he says. “That’s part of the fun — the challenge to make a new design.”

Making banjos, guitars, autoharps and dulcimers, he has orders in all 50 states and nine foreign countries.

A singer, instrumentalist, instrument maker and music historian, Jim Trantham has packed a great many talents and interests into seven decades of a fulfilling life. Born in Swannanoa in 1931, Trantham moved with his family to Haywood County when he was 6 years old. His love for music came early through church songs, but he also found fascination with ballads from relatives in Swannanoa.

His mother’s sister, Lillian, and her husband, Melvin Briggs, sang traditional mountain ballads — Lillian on guitar and Melvin on banjo.

“And I was just intrigued,” Trantham said. “They were doing the gosh-awful, tragic ballads.”
The stories of murdered women and lost loves were actually old English and Scottish ballads reworked a bit to have a local mountain feel.

“And to a child, I thought it was something that happened just across the cove,” Trantham said.
Devoid of animation, the ballad singers would report just the facts and never the motives for why such horrible things happened. Unlike the lyrical love song, ballads are more involved with the story and not about feelings, Trantham explained.

“It’s a newspaper article, but you’re only given headlines,” he said.

In medieval England, these songs survived and were made famous by being printed as broadsheets and sold on the streets. Long before radios and television, the isolated communities of Appalachia entertained themselves with these ballads.An original Scottish ballad called “Ditch of Briars” tells the story of a wealthy man whose daughter falls in love with a servant boy. Putting an end to the forbidden affair, the girl’s two brothers kill the servant secretly and fling him in a ditch of briars. The girl later dreams of the incident and goes to the place where her love was killed. She sees this and kills herself in the briars.

“Pretty Polly,” another well-known ballad, tells the story of a forbidden romance styled after Romeo and Juliet. Trantham came across a great Appalachian ballad collection from Cecil Sharp, who had toured Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee between 1916 and 1918. Sharp gathered ballads from local communities including Haywood County.

Trantham’s interest in music goes far beyond ballads. Baptized with church songs, he served as music director at various churches for 25 years. He started playing the trumpet in sixth grade and performed in his high school’s band and chorus. Later in college, he helped form a jazz band
called The Dixie Darlings that played all over East Tennessee, at basketball games and for civic clubs.

In the late 1960s, he accompanied a friend to perform at the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, founder of the festival, invited Trantham and his friend to play on stage in front of several thousand people.

Playing his dulcimer and singing the ballads, “Pretty Polly” and “Little Margaret,” Trantham took “Best of Show” at the festival and won many awards in the following years. A regular at the the Asheville festival and Haywood County’s Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, Trantham later became a judge for the Asheville festival and won “Best of Show” performing with his son Doug and grandchildren, Emily and Adam.

In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Trantham toured colleges in east Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky to sing ballads when folk music was in great demand. These days, the interest in ballads seems to be dying out, he said. “People want something quick and easy,” he said. “It’s mostly a novelty now.”

In the late 1960s, Trantham began making mountain dulcimers, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that he started producing them for sale. A co-worker bought the first dulcimer, and Charles Beall, now a retired state representative, bought the second one. Gradually, Trantham learned the techniques to make other instruments. Without an instructor, he learned the craft through books. Ed Presnell, one of the most famous dulcimer makers, also passed on some woodworking tips,
Trantham said.

Today, he uses modern guitar methods to make mountain dulcimers by giving them a similar hull and lining strips like a guitar. Generally, he uses walnut and cherry for the back and sides of the instruments and Alaskan spruce for the soundboard. Searching for wood in local newspaper ads, he looks to find wood that a farmer might have cut up years ago and stored in a barn for decades. The aged wood is the coveted materials for making musical instruments, Trantham said.

And sometimes, he is lucky enough to find the jackpot. He has been able to use the lumber from a felled red spruce for about 30 years now.

“You’re scouting all the time,” he said.

Now in retirement, Trantham plays and makes instruments at his own pace. “A whole lot of it is what I want to do now,” he said. “I enjoy building, but it’s the music that drives me.”


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