- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

To say that Bryan Bowers cuddles up his 6-foot-4 frame to his instrument is an understatement.
Most people simply place the instrument on a table and strum. Mr. Bowers tucks his instrument an autoharp right over his heart.
"It's a great pleasure to put an autoharp over your chest," says Mr. Bowers, who performs at Baldwin's Station in Sykesville, Md., on Wednesday. "It gives you a sense of oneness with the instrument. You shut your eyes and you can just disappear into the music."
Most people consider the autoharp something of a cross between a toy piano and a harmonica easy to make sounds, but not taken all that seriously as a vehicle for real music. But then, not everyone has heard the autoharp played by Mr. Bowers.
"It's a very seductive sound," says Mr. Bowers, named by Frets magazine to its "First Gallery of Greats" along with Chet Atkins and Itzhak Perlman. "It just draws you in."
Similar to a zither, the autoharp is undergoing something of a resurgence these days, thanks in large part to Mr. Bowers. He has helped bring the instrument into the mainstream. Autoharp festivals are gaining in popularity, and popular musicians are including the instrument's sounds in their own arrangements.
He first heard the autoharp when he was in school in New Bohemia, Va. But there were other kinds of music that made more of an impression on him. "I heard lots of music as a kid," says Mr. Bowers, who grew up surrounded by the songs of black gandy dancers. "There was always fiddle music and gospel, and I had an aunt who sang."
Mr. Bowers married and went off to college, but always felt that something was missing. It turned out that the missing thing was music.
"I kept hearing music in my head that I could not play with my fingers," he remembers. "I was dreaming music at night. I just couldn't get enough."
Then there was the time he went over to a friend's house and started listening to records. "It turned into one of those days that you never forget," he says. "He put on Ravi Shankar, Robert Johnson and Lord Buckley. I was never the same after that."
Then, finally, after taking up the guitar, he heard an autoharp. "I had heard the autoharp before," he says. "But I had never heard it played like that, in a musical manner. I was just stunned."
Since that moment, Mr. Bowers became obsessed with the autoharp. He moved to Washington state and worked on his technique during an all-night session sitting on the beach. At daybreak, he could play, but his strings were rusted.
"I learned that lesson quickly," he says ruefully. "I'll never do that again."
During the 1970s, Mr. Bowers played the autoharp in clubs, at festivals and at other venues around the country. In the D.C. area, he achieved renown as the opening act for Emmylou Harris, Steve Goodman, and Bill and Taffy Danoff.
He has written a few songs,including the phenomenally popular "Berkeley Woman," which John Denver made a hit of after the Danoffs introduced the song to him.
Still, Mr. Bowers is aware of his limitations.
"I'm an autoharp player," he says. "It's not like it's some mainstream thing."
Through the years, though, Mr. Bowers has effectively redefined the instrument. He experimented with changing the woods, using alternate tunings and formulating new fingering techniques.
At one point, he even switched the chord bars.
"I had to relearn the whole repertoire," he says with a laugh. "I had to teach my hand to play all over again."
At the same time, he perfected a single key tuning that allows him to play double the notes with a sort of 12-string guitar effect.
With his five-finger technique, he can play melody, harmony and rhythm all at the same time. Single keying also means that he'll be accompanied by a half-dozen autoharps for any one performance, each tuned to a different key.
Mr. Bowers can spend hours tuning his harps before a performance. Indeed, he likens the time he spends tuning to the nearest he can come to a meditative state.
"I tune each harp three times," he says. "At that point, it's in the hands of a higher power. I've done all I can do."
On Wednesday, he'll be performing many of the songs from his latest album. "Friend for Life" is a compendium of mostly traditional songs, pieces like "Red River Valley," that act as triggers to childhood memories or connections to relatives long gone.
Not all the songs are traditional, though. Mr. Bowers co-wrote the title song with longtime friend Mr. Danoff. He includes several songs by contemporary singer-songwriters.
"I just look for the tunes that make me laugh or cry," he says. "That's the kind of stuff I'm interested in."
By the time the evening is over, it's likely that the audience will have done both of the above.

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