Bobby Sweet to open Guthrie Center's Troubadour Series with concert, exhibit of his handcrafted violins
In a mountain cabin, disembodied violin parts in various stages of finish hang like wash on a line — backs, fronts, necks, scrolls. These are works of art and love handcrafted by Sweet, who has scattered wood shaving curls in hotel and dressing rooms from California to Carnegie Hall. The musician has been carving precise curves and elegant f-holes from maple and spruce to whittle away downtime hours while touring with Arlo Guthrie's band. When the violins are completed, he plays them on stage and for friends, or sends them out into the world, reluctantly, with his blessing.
On Friday, June 1, to open the Guthrie Center's annual Troubadour Series in Housatonic, Sweet will share his craft and music in concert with his BSweet Trio, featuring Arlo's son, Abe, and Pete Adams. He will also exhibit selected violins and the musical skills of 14-year-old classical violinist — and Sweet instrument owner — Joey Driscoll, who will perform a short solo concerto by Jean-Baptiste Accolay.
A Berkshire hill town resident, Sweet is a singer/guitarist from a long line of music makers — strummers, pickers, bowers, one and all. Violin playing goes back six or seven generations, he said: "I have a scrapbook about my great-grandfather talking about his grandfather fiddling for kitchen dances."
When Sweet was a little kid, he recalled his grandfather, Dan, had 10 or 12 violins hanging in the corner and was always "puttering and working on them."
When he turned 18, Sweet received one of his great-grandad's fiddles from Dan, and taught himself to play it. "I always loved the look, feel, smell, shape of a violin," said Sweet.
A woodworking enthusiast, Sweet built his first violin over 30 years ago at age 20, using a circa 1700 Stradivarius' "Golden Period" template.
"It was playable and looked a little rough," he recalled.
It took five years before he completed another, refining his skills in the process.
Not so many years ago, a chance encounter at Dream Away Lodge in Becket reignited this creative spark. Alex Koffman, a Belarus violinist visiting from Chicago, borrowed Sweet's instrument and was smitten by its sound. How, he asked, does someone with no formal training build this class of instrument?
Sweet was inspired to return to his passion. Starting in 2015, he carved three more violins during Guthrie's 18-month Alice's Restaurant 50th Anniversary tour, keeping meticulous travel and fabrication notes as he criss-crossed the country, lending new meaning to the phrase, "Made in America."
Over time, his handcrafting skills have matured like a fine instrument, gaining deeper focus and patience.
It takes Sweet around 200 hours to turn blocks of wood into something ready to varnish. The neck and body are shimmering tiger-striped figured maple, its thickness measured to the millimeter. The front is lightweight spruce with dense ebony and rosewood fittings. Fine outlines are achieved through purfling, thin sandwiched inlays of dyed and natural woods.
A lot of mystique has built up around the process since violin making reached its pinnacle in Italy 400 years ago, Sweet said. "They nailed it, and the rest of us are just trying to figure out how they did it."
He is now working on his 10th instrument, but has only recently allowed one to be sold. "I'm just building violins for the sheer joy of it," he said.
After four years of studies, Driscoll, who lives near Woodstock, N.Y., had outgrown her student violin. She was trying different instruments when she stumbled upon the Sweet violin earlier this year in a Great Barrington store.
"It really spoke to me," she said. "I loved the big sound and tone of it and how, no matter where I played it, it always sounded beautiful."
Playing classical violin lets her "escape into a different world," she said.
It's really no surprise to Sweet that he is making these fine instruments in such a humble setting.
"That's the funny thing about the Berkshires," he said, "there are people tucked away doing all kinds of amazing stuff."
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