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Play the dulcimer

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In June I joined almost 200 people on a musical mission in Bardstown, Ky. We had traveled from every corner of the United States, as singles, in pairs, and in groups. Cars and RVs were packed with hammered dulcimers, mountain dulcimers, banjos, autoharps, and penny whistles.

We would spend the next five days learning how to play these traditional Appalachian instruments, and during the evening we would listen to performances and jam.

Welcome to Kentucky Music Week, where the sweet sounds of the past still echo through the rolling hills and farmland. For more than 20 years, KMW has done its part to keep the state's artistic heritage alive.

"When I first started playing dulcimer [30 years ago], there weren't that many young people playing dulcimer," says Nancy Johnson Barker, the founder and director of KMW. "But how it has mushroomed. It seems everyone is playing, or knows someone who does."

To non-Kentuckians that might sound like an exaggeration. I had never even seen a dulcimer until a few years ago when I came across one in a craft shop in Berea, Ky. (See sidebar.)

I play the piano. But I had been searching for another instrument to learn, one that I could master quickly and carry around. I thought strumming some "old-timey" music on a traditional instrument would be the perfect antidote to the frantic, work-driven pace that seems to consume all of us.

Maybe that's why America's oldest melodies are still striking a chord in the hearts of many. For instance, the bluegrass soundtrack from the 2001 movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" won a Grammy for best album in 2002. And bluegrass artists such as Alison Krauss continue to draw large, mainstream crowds to concert halls.

But more and more people are choosing to go beyond just buying CDs and attending concerts. They are picking up instruments and traveling to camps and weekend festivals throughout the US to make roots music their own.

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