Two Kentucky musical instrument makers honored with special arts award
There’s a special award given out to Kentuckians who design and create certain musical instruments. It’s the Homer Ledford Award and it recognizes talented luthiers – or stringed instrument makers - for their contributions to the craft and service to Kentucky music communities.
Arts reporter Cheri Lawson traveled to Georgetown and Lexington to meet the recipients of the 2023 Homer Ledford Award.
In the music room, at his Georgetown, Ky. home, where fiddles line the shelves of a large cabinet, Tommy Case points out a certain plaque hanging on the wall. It’s the Homer Ledford Award. Case is proud but appears shy about receiving the award named for a man he knew, master luthier and musician Homer Ledford.
“It’s very humbling because I mean there’s no way that I would ever accomplish even if I had two lifetimes what he did,” said Case.
The 76- year-old Case received the award because of his craftsmanship as a luthier for two decades. The award also honors Case for mentoring apprentices in the art of lutherie through the Kentucky Arts Council. Five of the violins he crafted are lined up on his dining room table. He holds up one of the musical instruments and says maple is the preferred wood used for the sides and back of a violin.
“There’s a mechanism, a recipe for the cuts that you make. And then again you use small chisels to carve out the wood. These pieces, the fingerboard is made out of ebony and that’s either from India or Africa. It’s really nice looking. It’s hard and as you use the instrument it wears less with your fingers and the strings,” explained Case.
Playing an Irish waltz on one of his violins Case said he’s especially proud of these last two he crafted.
“ Every time you make one, you know, you try to make changes, you know, in the amount of carving that you do, the thicknesses of the top and the back to make them have a better tone,” reported Case.
The Homer Ledford Award is sponsored by the Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology at Western Kentucky University, the Kentucky Folklife Program, and the Kentucky Arts Council. It honors excellent Kentucky luthiers for their contributions to instrument making and service to area music communities. Brent Bjorkman, director of the Kentucky Folklife Program says the award is typically handed out every two years to one Kentucky luthier. He said because of COVID there was a hiatus. So, in March he presented awards to two recipients, Tommy Case of Georgetown and George Wakim of Lexington.
“They’re a very unsung group of people who really help make music get forwarded throughout regions, throughout different genres and bluegrass genres and classical genres. People that pick up a musical instrument owe a lot to these people who have the dedication to create these instruments,” said Bjorkman.
Luthier George Wakim is playing an instrument called the oud. Wakim is known for making Arabic wooden pear-shaped instruments as well as violins and percussive instruments. He moved to Lexington from Lebanon in 1984. As a musician, he performs with a Flamenco-Arabic band in Kentucky. He said receiving the Homer Ledford Award was a humbling experience.
“I almost felt I don’t deserve it. Knowing and having shared a stage with Homer Ledford at the Folklife Festival in Frankfort. Knowing the man and knowing his capacities, knowing his meek and modest spirit. It’s an honor,” said Wakim.
Wakim started making instruments because of his passion for playing and his interest in creating the best possible sound.
“I’m left-handed, right-handed violins didn’t cut it for me. I wanted to experiment and try things. It’s where I keep my heart and eyes and my whole being on the line to be all I can be,” explained Wakim.
In Wakim’s Lexington living room musician and luthier, Art Mize enjoys playing a tune on one of Wakim’s right-handed fiddles.
In 2007 Mize was the first recipient of the Homer Ledford Award and said he was overwhelmed by the honor. Forty years ago, at age 19, Mize played fiddle in a band with Homer Ledford.
“I just have delightful memories of Homer as a performer. He was humorous and a great model for a shy 19 -year-old to see someone just claim the stage and have fun with it. That was sort of the hobby on top of the instrument work. He made over 6000 dulcimers in his lifetime,” said Mize.
Mize has worked with both 2023 Homer Ledford Award Recipients. In 2013 Tommy Case apprenticed with Mize. And now Mize and George Wakim sometimes collaborate as luthiers.
Art Mize imagines that he, George Wakim, and Tommy Case will continue perfecting their skills in the art of lutherie.
“There's this sense that you can always improve. Right? And there’s always more to understand and more to learn. Because the way a violin works is ultimately very mysterious. Lots of parts that come together to create a tremendously magical effect,”
Every two years in March the Homer Ledford Award is presented at the Kentucky Crafted Market at the Kentucky Horsepark in Lexington.
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