by Bill Weaver
It’s a beautiful but warm late summer’s day as I leave the crowded sidewalks of downtown Nashville and step inside the cool comfort of Mountain Made Music at 58 West Main Street. Although there are several other customers inside I’m quickly noticed by the folks at the register who ask if I need help.
They smile when I tell them I’ve an appointment with Bill Berg. “He’s not late yet,” one observes as they bid me to look around the store and not hesitate if I have questions. Mountain dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, bowed psalteries, and lap harps grace the wall along with guitars and mandolins. A couple of minutes later the back door opens and a man enters juggling several boxes. I introduce myself to Bill Berg.
Berg started crafting musical instruments in a place very much like Brown County. “I had a shop in Harrisburg, Illinois for a long time—the Shawnee National Forest area. It has the same rolling hills and maybe a quarter of the population.”
Berg made traditional folk instruments like the mountain dulcimer but he was having trouble getting by. “I was spending maybe three or four months on the road traveling, making them mainly for craft fairs and festivals. At that time I was married and starting a family. It was very difficult to do that. We wanted to get a stable income, basically.”
Bill first heard about Brown County while growing up in the Chicago suburbs. Seventeen years ago he finally came to see for himself, quickly deciding that it was the place he was looking for. He opened Mountain Made Music and it has been a fixture in downtown Nashville ever since.
Along with Berg’s personally handcrafted and designed instruments, Mountain Made Music carries guitars, flutes, harmonicas, banjos, and a wide variety of percussive instruments. There are also racks of sheet music, instruction manuals, and a selection of CDs. “I try to keep as many of the local musicians in stock as possible,” he explains.
Berg recently opened a Mountain Made Music in Columbus at the Heartland Center, 408 Washington Street near the Commons. The store is a collaborative effort and includes performance space which provides room for individual and group lessons.
Berg was first introduced to the techniques of building instruments while learning how to repair violins by a “master violin maker” in a large Chicago music store. “I went to one year of college and really didn’t see anything there that I wanted to do.” Instead Bill made “mandolins and a few dulcimers. I started going to renaissance fairs in the Chicago area. The mountain dulcimers were just starting to catch on at that time. They sold well so I kept on with that.”
Even though he’s been making instruments for over 30 years Bill says, “I still enjoy working in the shop, especially when I first start cutting into the raw piece of wood. What are you going to find inside that wood? I used to use a lot of exotics like Rosewood. That has dried up in the last 15 years. You can get those woods but they’re just ridiculously expensive. So I use the local woods.” Recently he was given “a bunch of wood from a covered bridge. It is white pine and probably 120 years old. That’s really nice stuff, it’s so old and so stable. Unlike a cabinet maker, who uses a lot of wood, I can get two, three, or four pieces out of a couple of boards.
“There are several things that have to be done, certain things are mathematical—spacing and that sort of thing—but I’m still experimenting with things, different designs and concepts. I’ve gone out of my way to not let myself be influenced by other makers. I’ve never tried to use anybody else’s concepts and designs. It’s hard to do sometimes, if you see something interesting,” he adds.
“What I make here to sell are mountain dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, bowed psalteries, those little lap harps, and miscellaneous harp-like instruments.” Bill likes “the independence of working in the shop.” He works alone right now except for one of his sons, who likes to help out. “The funny thing about that is when you have more people in the workshop you spend so much time keeping them occupied that a lot of times you don’t get things done you want to get done.”
I ask him if he sells over the Internet. “Some,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t make a living at it. I did sell a hammered dulcimer to a guy above the arctic circle.”
Berg also plays the instruments he makes, along with friends Jerry Maulin and Jim Wendell, in a band called The Clodhoppers. “We treat it as a hobby. It’s fun to do and a lot better than hanging out in bars. If we really ever make any money I won’t know what we’ll do with it.” The band has put its earnings so far into the production of their first CD, Still Standing. There will be a release party for the Clodhoppers CD at the Unitarian Church of Columbus.
The Clodhoppers play what they call “original acoustic porch music” throughout southern Indiana. “We get to Story fairly often and The Harvest Moon. Those are the two main places. We go to Muggsy’s in Batesville fairly often and Cuppa The Jitter’s in Columbus.” They’ve also performed in Chicago and in Madison, Indiana at Joey G’s. Information about the Clodhoppers’ upcoming performances can be found at <http://clodhoppers.home.att.net>.
Bill started playing guitar “when I was 12 or 13. I have a brother who is from the old Hootenanny era. He was a friend, and played with, Steve Goodman. [The City of New Orleans, You Never Even Call Me By My Name]. This was when they were in high school.”
Today, though, there are chores to be done and Berg is off to pick his sons up from school, or rather, schools. “They’re kind of spread out. I have a son here in Brown County High School, and I have a child in ABC Stewart School in Columbus. I have another one in the Columbus Junior High School.” Bill laughs, “It can take an hour and a half to pick up and drop them off.”
“I guess I have a simple life,” he says, grateful. “I’ve been doing this full time since I was 27. I kinda go, ‘Wow!’ It’s amazing.”