The rocky mountaineer

Butch Ross’s dulcimer rock at Taffy’s

by Tim Walker

Butch Ross—touring musician, Chattanooga resident, and lover of the mountain dulcimer—began his musical career playing a much more common stringed instrument: the guitar.   

“I came to the dulcimer backwards. I started out playing rock and roll guitar,” Ross says, “and from there, I transitioned into folk music. I became kind of a singer/songwriter. And then I got it in my head in 2002 that it would be neat to have a mountain dulcimer. I honestly don’t remember what made me think it would be, I just remember thinking it would be. And somebody bought me one as a birthday present that year. After that, it just kind of took over.”

Ross will be bringing his mountain dulcimer and unique style of playing to Taffy’s in Eaton for an 8 p.m. live performance Saturday, July 2. The mountain dulcimer, which is a close relative of the hammer dulcimer, may not be an instrument most people are very familiar with, especially in a club setting, but through his live performances and albums like The Moonshiner’s Atlas and People, Places, Things, Ross has been working hard to change that. 

“The mountain dulcimer comes from Eastern Kentucky and Western West Virginia, out of the Appalachian Mountains,” he says. “It looks like a stretched out fiddle, usually. It’s got three or four strings, and you play it by strumming it while it sits on your lap. What’s interesting about it is that it’s got a diatonic fret board, which means that it’s tuned to one key—so it’s like a harmonica in that respect. Although you can play all three strings and get all kinds of different tonalities out of it, its original purpose was one string playing the melody, while the other two strings sort of drone like a bagpipe. It was an instrument that was designed to be re-tuned constantly. On a purely theoretical basis, the instrument dates back almost to the middle ages, although the dulcimer itself is really rather young—the earliest one we know if in America was in 1790. To put that into perspective, the oldest dulcimer we know about was developed 160 years after Stradivarius perfected the violin. So in the actual scale of things, it’s really
a toddler.” 

Ross is much in demand and makes frequent appearances at music and dulcimer festivals all over the country. When it comes to his performing style playing live, Ross has a unique approach to the classic instrument he travels with. By using modern electronics pedals and digital looping effects, he is able to transform the sound of the native mountain instrument, and the result is anything but bluegrass.   

“I perform solo, especially when I’m on the road, although I have done things with bands,” Ross says. “I also use a lot of electronics and loop pedals and things like that, so it ends up sounding like a band when I’m done with it. Especially if I’m doing things where I’m looping—where I record a phrase and then layer other sounds on top of that—I’ll use effects to create bass lines and electric guitar sounds, just to get different colors and different sounds all happening at the same time.”

“I do a mix of three things,” the musician continues. “I write, and I write both songs and instrumentals. I do a lot of traditional material, as well. And I also do a lot of covers, usually of classic rock songs. I’ll do “Eleanor Rigby” and “Stairway to Heaven,” and lately I’ve been doing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” quite a bit. What I also like to do occasionally is take a traditional melody from an old tune like “Old Joe Clark” or “Nine Pound Hammer”—tunes that sometimes predate bluegrass—and then with the loops and stuff, I’ll try to create a different backdrop behind the melody that makes the song sound much more contemporary. So, I’ll match up an old tune with the guitar lick from “Sweet Home Alabama,” and it makes it much easier for a contemporary audience to appreciate the song.” 

“Stuff doesn’t stay around for 200 years if it’s not a good tune to begin with.  So I really like to do that, to kind of change the background, as it were, so people can see these great songs in a new light.” 

Butch Ross will perform 8 p.m. Saturday, July 2 at Taffy’s, 123 E. Main St. in Eaton. For more information, please visit or call 937.456.1381.

Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black t-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at

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