published Friday, October 21st, 2011

Champion autoharp artist takes the stage Sunday at Barking Legs


What: Bryan Bowers in concert.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.

Admission: $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

Phone: 624-5347.

Venue website:

Skillful playing and an unusual approach to playing the often-underestimated autoharp had a lot to do with Bryan Bowers’ success, but he is quick to point out that luck had a part to play.

“I could never have planned on the life I’ve stumbled into,” he said. “I’ve just been very, extraordinarily lucky. I still love it.”

Bowers discovered the autoharp in the late ’60s through a multi-instrumentalist at a party in Richmond, Va. After years of hearing the instrument played out of tune and with missing strings, hearing one sing was a revelatory experience, Bowers said.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I went and bought one the next day, never dreaming that it would lead me around the world.”

Sunday, Bowers will return to Barking Legs Theater for the first time in more than a year to share songs, tunes and stories.

Unlike many performers who strum the autoharp exclusively as a form of vocal accompaniment, Bowers distinguished himself decades ago by playing the multistringed instrument more like a guitar.

Whereas many artists stick to simple chords, Bowers’ playing mimics the right-hand technique of fingerstyle guitarists, picking out melody, bass and rhythm lines simultaneously.

This virtuosic flair on an instrument some perceived as simplistic quickly made a name for the Virginia-born artist.

After relocating to Seattle in 1971, Bowers, now 71, attracted the attention of the bluegrass band The Dillards (aka The Darlings of “The Andy Griffith Show” fame), who were taken with his technique and used him as an opening act for a year.

During that period, he was introduced to acoustic instrumental greats such as Sam Bush and the other members of New Grass Revival, some of whom he still has working relationships with.

Bowers won the readers poll in Frets Magazine five years in a row, so many times he was no longer considered eligible and instead was inducted into the magazine’s Gallery of Greats.

In 1993, he was the only living artist to be inducted in the inaugural year of the Autoharp Hall of Fame alongside members of the Carter Family and folk artist Kilby Snow.

Growing up, Bowers said, he could never have conceived how being introduced to an instrument could so thoroughly shape his career, but fate works in funny ways. “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the planet,” he said.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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