CD Review: Karen Mueller, Accent on Dulcimer: A Retrospective
by Steve Eulberg for DPN Fall 2019.
Karen Mueller’s Accent on Dulcimer is a 15-track retrospective from a storied performing, recording and teaching career. I own and listen to all of her music, but this is a masterful culling from 3 of her releases [Clarity (1993), Stillpoint (2000), Landscape of the Heart (2007)] + one new track of a courting dulcimer duet with the late David Schnaufer.
First I must say, this is an entrancing recording. The trance is such that as soon as it is the final cut is complete, I can’t wait to begin playing it all over again!
Performers are drawn to certain pieces of music which take on a particular character by the artist when arranged for a particular instrument and audience. These tunes also have a meaning in the programming of the original recording. But after a rich career of teaching, recording and performing, it is exciting when the artist has an opportunity to reveal new shades of meaning and invitation by the choice and placement of tunes in a recording like this.
A native of Winfield, Kansas (home of the Walnut Valley Flatpicking Festival) Karen is heir to a musical family tradition. Music was nurtured by her late music teacher mother and she built her first mountain dulcimer as a project with her father. Karen is known in the dulcimer community as an energetic and heart-felt popular solo performer with impeccable technique and a quick smile and a hearty laugh. It may be less well-known that she is also respected as a solid, attentive and creative ensemble player who provides the solid and driving rhythm section on guitar and bouzouki for local Minneapolis bands that are often booked to play for the Minnesota State Fair, Irish Festival Old-Time & Bluegrass Festival, and more. In the past decade she has also teamed as a trio called TriFolkal with Ken Kolodner (fiddle/hammered dulcimer) and Rick Thum (hammered dulcimer/mandolin).
A finalist in the National Mountain Dulcimer contest in 1985, Mueller won the International Autoharp Championship in 1986. After touring the US and Ireland for two decades, Karen was inducted into the International Autoharp Hall of Fame in 2006. She has also been honored with a lifesized stone carving of her playing her autoharp at the entrance to the Island Park in her hometown.
In this recording, she gathers her favorite tunes. Some include the autoharp but all feature mountain dulcimer. She explores the many moods of dulcimer, giving evidence of musical flexibility, playfulness and facility. Mueller plays a Blue Lion bass dulcimer, a Ron Ewing standard, a standard constructed from a Cripple Creek professional kit with her father, and an historic courting dulcimer.
If you like fingerstyle—she plays it. If you like an intricate (flatpicked) and uptempo, clean strumming style—she plays it. If you like solo dulcimer—she plays it. If ensemble dulcimer is your preference—she plays that, too. She handily serves up delights in several genres: traditional old-time: (Shortnin' Bread, Jeff Davis/Run Boy Run, Amazing Grace); session-style Irish (Kitchen Gal, Britches Full of Stitches); jam tunes (Found Harmonium); popular tunes (Fields of Gold, Every Little Thing You Do I Magic [Sting]); jazz (Birdland, Linus & Lucy, Sliding Down). To these she adds some beautiful original compositions (Our Kansas Traveler, Still Point, Night Flight to Dublin). Particularly delicious to me are her solo performances on bass dulcimer!
My advice? Buy this recording for yourself. And then start your holiday shopping in order to introduce others to the delights and versatility of the mountain dulcimer in hands that love the tunes and the instrument.