Making people smile
These people have a passion for making people smile. They do it with their music. Known as “Heart Strings,” the group travels to local nursing homes playing tunes that range from folk to gospel music to the delight of the residents. Their instrument of choice is the dulcimer. A stringed instrument whose name comes from words that mean “sweet sound,” it looks similar to a guitar, but is played on the lap. Terry Morris is the person responsible for organizing the group. As a member of Hopewell Baptist Church, Morris wanted to become more involved with the church, so the pastor suggested he start a nursing home ministry. Morris got in touch with Mary Linhart, director of Carthage Healthcare and the partnership began. “I thought I’d go there and visit an hour each week, then it turned into a day a week, and then an hour a day.” He was soon holding church services on Sunday afternoons.
While visiting the nursing home one day, Morris was playing a bowed psaltry (an instrument closely related to the dulcimer). “A little lady asked if I was playing a dulcimer, and said I should get with this group in Rusk County. That’s where I met Brenda Clifton.” Brenda worked at a nursing home in Kilgore and had seen the Rusk County group perform for its residents. “I had never heard a dulcimer before and was fascinated by it. They asked me to join their group, but I said I don’t read music. The guitar player asked me if I could keep a beat and read numbers. If you can do those two things, you can play a dulcimer. And he was right!” In August of 2014, Morris formed a local group with Steve Sowell, Lillie Fae Nail and his mother, Barbara, and they began performing at nursing homes and local events like the Gary Festival of Lights.
Each member came with a unique reason for choosing the dulcimer. Sowell had wanted a dulcimer for about 25 years. “When I walked into a shop and heard somebody playing one, I just loved it.” Terry bought his first dulcimer in Branson, Missouri. He and Steve also own hammer dulcimers made by Russell Cook from Oklahoma who was the national champion for several years. Mrs. Lillie Fae has been playing the autoharp for 18 years. “I got my first autoharp on my 66th birthday, so don’t tell me old people can’t learn! A few years back I also played the ukulele with the Silver Strummers, a group led by Brenda Milstead.” Oftentimes, Mrs. Lillie Fae’s husband, D.B., goes with the group and plays the spoons. Barbara, whose husband is a retired preacher, joined the group because of the ministry they provide to the residents at the nursing homes. “The main thing is seeing the way they respond when we play. It’s healing for them and it’s such a blessing for each of us.” The latest addition to the group is Jane Cammack from Beckville. “I wanted to do something outside the home and decided to learn how to play. My husband surprised me with a dulcimer for our 49th anniversary, but I didn’t have anyone to teach me. Through Ms. Lillie Fae and a friend in Beckville, I was able to get in touch with Terry.”
The mountain dulcimer is an easy instrument to play. Rather than having to learn chords on a guitar, the frets are numbered and no knowledge of music is required. The group meets every Monday at Hopewell Baptist at 3:30 to practice and prepare a set of music for their next event. “We don’t do anything on a set time frame. We learn a set of music then go to a nursing home and play it,” states Terry. We don’t really want to get too busy. Everybody has other things to do, and we want to keep it enjoyable.” Terry’s wife, Mandy, travels with the group also. She sings, narrates, announces or just whatever is needed. She’s amazed at how people respond to the group. “All you have to do is be there when they start playing and you’ll see the reaction they get from the residents. It’s such an uplifting experience to have them join in with us and see their faces light up. When we went to Winkler Place, Mrs. Soape started singing and then everybody else joined in. It gave us all goose bumps. Lillie Fae played “There is a River” and they all joined in with us. We try to adapt to them and play songs they know. We’re going to have to find the music to “Turkey in the Straw’ because one of the ladies at Marion Place asked if we could play that song. We’ve all become family and we consider the nursing home our family also. Each member of the group has the same heart. That’s where we came up with the name Heart Strings because music does pull on the strings of the heat.”
The group played for a friend in the nursing home who died a week later. That friend received a blessing, but the group got an even bigger blessing. The scripture “It’s more blessed to give than receive” is never understood more. “When you give of who you really are in your heart, you receive more than you could ever give, and that scripture takes on a whole new meaning. We all feel that way and that’s what makes everybody mesh so well together. Our faith is belonging to this group. The goal is to use this as a ministry, not for our own recognition.”
To find out more about the group and learning to play a dulcimer, contact Terry Morris at 936.536.3376.