By Mike Templeton
When we at the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition talk about Appalachian music the focus is almost exclusively on the musicians and the music itself. Delving into the instruments is a topic that is most often only of interest to musicians, and it can become extremely technical. Just ask a group of guitar players about guitars and watch the argument ensue. Not only will guitar players fuss about specific guitar manufacturers, they will fuss about a specific guitar. The fact is, guitars are complex little beasts, and making them involves a complex set of variables. There is a world of technical features involved in the process, and perhaps more important is the fact that constructing a musical instrument is an art in itself. Just over the Indiana border is the Indiana School of Lutherie where acoustic guitars are made and where they teach the art of making acoustic guitars. I happen to know the Director of the school: Mike Mitchell is an old friend and former colleague from graduate school.
Mike stood out back in grad school for a number of reasons, not the least of which was seeing him pull up to school in the morning on a Harley while the rest of us chugged into school in our aging Volvos and Volkswagens. Even while studying English Literature, Mike Mitchell was working on other things. He is a writer and educator, but he is also an accomplished cabinet maker. This last skill lends itself quite naturally to his current work with the Indiana School of Lutherie. Even back in grad school I knew Mike was a woodworker, and he eventually turned his attention toward this more than pure bookish endeavors.
A luthier is one who makes stringed instruments, particularly plucked instruments like guitars. It was during Mike’s time as a cabinet builder and working in a woodworking supply store that the germ of what would become the Indiana School took shape. “A lot of the people that came into the woodworking supply store were luthiers. Since I am a guitar player, I easily connected with these people,” he explained. Mike said that a few of these people were thinking about opening a school of lutherie in Rising Sun, Indiana. This was all speculation at the time, but the idea was formed. “As I continued to hang around with these guys, the idea for the school began to take shape, and the late Dan Ross [the initial founder of the school] expressed an interest in taking on an apprentice luthier. This would be Ryan Cobb, the current head luthier. I would handle the education part of things.” After searching for a building, the founders of the school happened upon a building in Plainfield, Indiana that had been a cabinet shop. The former use of the building got them around any zoning issues they might have faced. This laid the foundation for what would become the Indiana School of Lutherie.
The school now functions on a one-on-one basis with apprentices. This keeps the education focused and ensures that they are building the finest guitars possible. Students learn the processes of building guitars by doing the work. There are technical skills involved in this process, but it is also art. Mike Mitchell described the work of the Indiana School of Lutherie as “the art that feeds the art. Many of the people interested in the school are bluegrass and old-time players—the kind of guitarists who are deeply invested in the art of playing music.” For these kinds of musicians, the sounds rely entirely on acoustic functions. There are no elaborate electronic systems to make their music sound the way it does other than their skill and the instruments they play. Because the school primarily attracts musicians from bluegrass and old-time music they remain largely focused on acoustic instruments.
Mike Mitchell’s own Appalachian background comes from both grandparents. He said his “paternal grandmother was born in Kentucky and once taught in a one-room schoolhouse, and on my father’s side, they all came from Virginia to West Virginia and have been in this country so long we cannot find the origin.” Most of his family is now rooted in Kentucky. With his background in higher education, Mike is able to manage the educational side of the Indiana School of Lutherie. He still teaches English and Humanities at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.
The Indiana School of Lutherie is still growing. They are taking things slowly to make sure the people they take on as apprentices get all the instruction they need from Head Luthier Ryan Cobb, and to make sure the instruments built at the school are of the highest quality. They have begun expanding into electric instruments with the addition of an electronics specialist and guitar tech. The Indiana School of Lutherie forms a rare component of the mosaic of Appalachian culture by creating both the instruments of Appalachian music and the skills to make these instruments. It is part of the continually shifting state of Appalachian culture the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition works hard to advance. To repeat the words of Indiana School of Lutherie Director Mike Mitchell, they make “the art that feeds the art.” Appalachian culture is a prominent feature of the art.
For more information on the Indiana School of Lutherie you can find their website at this link: https://indianaschooloflutherie.org/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.