Bryan Bowers: A love affair with the autoharp

A rare opportunity arose recently while attending a house concert, as Bryan Bowers, world renowned autoharp player, made a quick stop in Edmond, OK and performed for a select group of fans. 

He’s in the Autoharp Hall of fame, and Frets magazine named him autoharp player of the year 5 times in a row, until they wouldn’t let him compete anymore, and he became a member of their gallery of greats. Alongside legends, Chet Atkins, Mark O’Connor, David Grislam and others, Bowers was shocked that he had made it to such a pinnacle of great stringed artists. During conversation, Bowers stated that is was comedy to him, as he didn’t feel justified to be in the same category. “I am a bulldog with a bone, who takes fiddle tunes and plays them until people run out of the room screaming, ‘Please don’t play that again.’”

A shy young man before he entered the music world, Bryan credits it with teaching him how to be sociable. When asked what drove him to play the autoharp, with blue eyes sparkling, Bowers spoke of seeing Jimi Hendrix twice within the same seven day period. But that wasn’t the icing on the cake. Bowers was enjoying the best musical week of his life, as he also got to see Mississippi John Hurt three times, and that is when Bowers became obsessed with open finger picking.

He then attended a jug band party in Richmond, VA where he saw a med student playing Shady Grove on the autoharp. That student handed the instrument over to Bryan and instructed him to place his hand on the bar, close his eyes, and strum with the other hand. The very next day, Bowers went out and purchased his own autoharp with no idea that this would bring him out of his shell. The instrument became his compulsion, sometimes playing 20 hours a day. Bowers began to play in coffee houses, and before long he was initiating conversations, something he had never been able to do. Bryan says, “Music got me over that. I would dream music at night, literally strumming my female partner’s back, during the night.”  

Bowers, who describes himself as a voracious reader with few math skills, picked up the “bug” at the age of 28, though he had been encouraged by his Aunt Iola to play the guitar for some tim. At a traditional folk festival in Chicago years ago, Mike Seger questioned him on who had taught him to play. But Bowers was wholly self-taught, and after three major newspaper reviews, he began to feel that he was on his way, and he had “made it” in the Mid-West.  

Bryan Bowers performs at a house concert in Oklahoma (January 2018)

Living in Washington, Bowers might be considered to have been saved by his music interest. Having struggled his entire life with his purpose in the world, the first song that he played brought a reverence to his life. He even refers to music as a holy thing. “People who do music on a high level, are some of the most holy persons in the world. Music is high on the list of things that complete me.” Bowers likes, folk, bluegrass, and he even says he enjoys opera. 

Well traveled now for 50 years, Bowers estimates that he has traveled on average 270 days a year away from home.  

Bryan Bowers, in the autoharp world, is referred to as Earl Scruggs is on the banjo. However, he says that’s just press. He does admit to bringing it out of the “toy” world, and inspiring others to play the instrument. In fact, there are now several autoharp festivals that Bowers inspired. In 1993, Bryan Bowers was honored with an induction into the Autoharp Hall of Fame, alongside greats such as Maybelle Carter, Kilby Snow, and Sara Carter. In 2006, and again in 2007, he released a couple of new recordings where his autoharp added “spice and flavor” to many of the tunes (Bristolwood Pine and September in Alaska). Bowers was part of a select group on those recordings, including Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Tim O’Brien, but one thing for certain is that Bryan strums haunting instrumentals.  

Bowers tells us that, “Bluegrass is one of the very most beautiful forms of music in the world. The core belief of magic and bluegrass. Bluegrass never lost its way, it doesn’t have to come back. It’s wonderful stuff! I listen it to while I am driving.”

Still active and performing regularly, his CDs are available at www.bryanbowers.com.

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About the Author

Pamm Tucker

Growing up in Oklahoma, music runs throughout Pamm Tucker's veins. Her earliest memory of music is standing beside her Grandma's upright, singing. "Trust in The Lord". Little did the 5 year old realize that this was the foundation of things to come. Being very active in 4-H, Pamm was elected as reporter at the age of 9 and held this position for many years. Taking extensive journalism marketing and free-lance writing classes while attending college helped to spark her interest in being a journalist. Her skills helped her acquire the position of journalist for the Northern Oklahoma college school newspaper. An Oklahoma native and no stranger to music, she has performed with the likes of Lulu Roman, Jean Shepherd, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker (no relation) Gene Watson and Charlie McClain just to name a few. Even today you can find her tapping her foot to every genre of music.

  • tomkeeney

    Bryan Bowers recorded a song called “Why I Love Bluegrass” on his 2006 Bristlecone Pine CD. He calls out all the artists that inspired him and it’s well worth adding to any bluegrass radio playlist! Here’s the link from CD Baby to that album; it’s the last track #18:

    https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/bryanbowers

  • Bowers is master when it comes to his playing. Such a great person to interview! Fun, soulful and REAL