After years spent in craft circles – from a decade touring with a famous roots band to making beautiful furniture for the Hanes family at Roaring Gap – Joe Thrift moved to Elkin to teach the craft. luthier, which he studied in England in the mid-1970s.
His students are usually violinists who are drawn to the process of making their own violins out of a desire for meaning and connection.
Student Cailen Campbell’s goal is to someday make a violin from a tree he himself cut. Thrift said violins are often made of maple for the bottom of the instrument and spruce for the top. The violin neck is often maple and the fingerboard is ebony.
“I know people who are experimenting with other woods,” like red spruce, Campbell said. “I just connected to the process. I would love to have an instrument that I knew as a tree – that would be really rewarding for me.
Campbell, who also hopes to someday make a violin for his young son, comes from Weaverville, near Asheville, for a weekly double-class session, which is nine hours of lessons in one day.
Most of Thrift’s students come from beyond the Elkin area, commuting for the day to attend class or, in Kelly Sivy’s case, uprooting and moving to Elkin to devote years to studying with Thrift. She brings her blind sheepdog, Dill, to class with her. When a classmate recently sang Irish tunes on Sivy’s first violin, Dill sang with soft howls.
Sivy, from Fairbanks, Alaska, wanted to study with a master luthier, but most programs offering this experience involved an expensive four-year college degree. Sivy is already a highly educated wildlife ecologist and was looking for a more affordable educational path. Until recently, Thrift taught his classes at Surry Community College, and Sivy was drawn to the reasonable rates to take continuing education classes with him.
Surry and Thrift have gone their separate ways during the pandemic, with Thrift seeking to adjust his student-teacher ratio in a way that meets his desire for social distancing amid the risks of COVID-19, perhaps one-on-one or to several students at the same time.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, he taught students from his home and now has a studio in the former Chatham Mill complex which is now the Foothills Arts Center. Last August, he kicked off his first full semester of classes, teaching 27 students over five days a week, sometimes late into the evening.
Among her classes is a special intensive instructional session with a student who is also a craftsman at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, and Sivy, thanks to a grant from the NC Arts Council.
His studio at the arts center, which is a collection of about five small pieces, houses a range of tools, from fine scrapers used to delicately carve wood by hand, to power tools as large as a human as the one sees in any fine woodworking. store.
Thrift grew up in Winston-Salem, where he graduated from Reynolds High School.
“My father was a pipe organ builder and my mother was an organist at the Moravian church, where my father was also choir director,” he said. “I have never been in the choir.
Thrift heard his two older brothers complain every week about choir practice, and so he opted for the instruments instead, taking the piano and clarinet.
“I grew up in a family of musicians,” he says. “I played in the Moravian Easter band every year and stuff.”
After high school, during the Vietnam War, Thrift joined the Naval Reserve, hoping to avoid deploying for the war itself.
“I decided to join the Naval Reserve, which was a huge mistake on my part,” he recalls. “I hated it. When I got off the bus at training camp and the guy started cursing and yelling at me, I realized I had made a mistake.
He worked mainly in Florida, “teaching people how to pack parachutes and handle survival gear, and I was in Guantanamo Bay for several weeks,” Thrift said.
After completing his service, Thrift traveled to Europe with friends on a shoestring budget of $ 1,000 for a month, which included his share of buying a car with his friends. They have driven 11,000 miles in that month.
Back in the United States, Thrift apprenticed at a guitar factory in Piney Creek, making everything from mandolins and banjos to dulcimers. He was part of a group that traveled playing the instruments they made at the factory, and he just learned to play them on the fly.
“Once I started playing the violin, I started wanting to know more about it,” Thrift said.
He researched famous instrument makers and players of the past.
“I was looking for someone to hire me as an apprentice, and no one had an order for it,” Thrift said of the low demand every luthier had for people wishing to buy handmade instruments.
Yet he strove to meet influential players and luthiers in the violin and violin circles, and learned through them from a school in England which taught a classical form of violin making. He wrote a letter to the school.
“I got an interview for August, and I flew to England and did the interview,” Thrift said. “I was accepted and started the following month. It was a three-year program.
“We were the fourth class they ever had and our class became the really famous class because of the people who were in that class,” he said, dropping the names of classmates who have become certain. of the greatest violin craftsmen in the world.
Thrift returned to Winston-Salem and ran a violin shop for a while. It quickly turned into repairing and selling strings, and less into making instruments. He eventually closed his shop and got a job as a gardener in Roaring Gap.
Martha Hanes Womble, who he gardened for, found out he made violins and asked him if he could make furniture too.
“Well I never did but told him I could,” Thrift said.
She would bring him an old piece of furniture, he would make two copies and she would sell them in his store. He made the parts in a makeshift store under a tarp, outside a 7ft by 14ft trailer he lived in that was on a property his girlfriend owned in Mountain Park. He used electricity from a temporary utility pole to power his tools. His girlfriend, whom he later married, is local artist Tory Casey. They’ve been together for 38 years now.
One day, Thrift visited a music store and was buying a synthesizer keyboard. He just played the instrument and “hadn’t played a keyboard since fifth grade.” Members of the up-and-coming group Donna The Buffalo were in the store at the time and they exchanged contact details. Soon after, they invited him to meet in Philadelphia, so he went.
“I go up there and it’s like an audition. I just made things up, ”Thrift said.
He got the job and went on tour.
“I had never played electric music at all,” he admitted.
He spent nine years with the group, but became exhausted after touring and returned to the Yadkin Valley.
It had been 25 years since he had worked seriously on violins, other than the occasional repair or maintenance of his own instruments or those belonging to friends.
“The good thing is that I forgot a lot of things I learned in school,” Thrift said. “I completely changed my way of making violins. The whole method is different now.
He has mixed his classical training with learnings from the accomplishments of his famous classmates, but is primarily guided by his own freewheeling artistic style. And now the thousands of miles he has driven and the songs he has played influence the lessons he teaches. It’s a different kind of show. A different scene.
His classes this semester are full.