Joshua Messick was 4 years old when his whole world changed. He was buckled into his mother’s van, she slipped a cassette into the player, and he heard the most beautiful sound of his short life.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“That’s a hammered dulcimer,” his mother said.
“That’s so beautiful. I’m going to learn how to play that by the time I’m 30,” he claims to have decided.
Now 33, Messick has built a loyal local following through his hammered dulcimer. Indeed, for two nights — Fridays, Nov. 30 and Dec. 7 — he will transform White Horse Black Mountain into a winter wonderland with his holiday soundscapes. Not only will Messick deliver some favorite Christmas classics with his ensemble (including his wife, Stephanie Messick, on Celtic harp), but he’ll also unfurl original compositions that he wrote after being inspired by winter in the mountains.
Born and raised in Houston, Messick found his way to the Asheville area six years ago, thanks to his passion for the hammered dulcimer. He’d set out from Houston on a tour that had him swinging through Western North Carolina.
“I played a concert,” he remembers, “and I’d never found people that were more appreciative of me as an artist and appreciative of my instrument. I said, ‘This is me. I’m not going back to Texas.’ That was when I was 27. I had $300 in my wallet and I moved here, lived in a guy’s basement for a while.”
Six years later, Messick regularly sells out shows in the area, and he looks forward to the White Horse concerts, when he’ll also be celebrating the release of his latest recording, Hammered Dulcimer Christmas, Volume II. This album comes as a follow-up to Messick’s first Christmas album, 2014’s aptly titled Hammered Dulcimer Christmas, whereon he performed his exquisite arrangements of “O Holy Night,” “Carol of the Bells” and other classics. Volume II is slightly more ambitious, with gorgeous interpretations of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “I Wonder as I Wander” and more.
Though these are all widely beloved holiday songs, Messick admits resisting the pull toward Christmas music for as long as he possibly could. “People asked for 20 years, ‘Josh, when are you going to make a Christmas album?’ I said no, everybody has a Christmas album. Why would I do that? … I couldn’t do it just for commercial interest. That would feel like selling out,” he explains.
Messick notes that his first holiday album came after he “hit a crisis point. I put on a totally different lens of what Christmas means,” he says. “It’s important to celebrate the good things of life, even when things don’t feel good in your life. … Sometimes, to be able to celebrate, we have to heal.
“There’s a lot of things around Christmas that can be difficult for people,” he adds, “myself included. We’re reminded of bad news, family disharmony, issues. We have to heal from those. So, really, my Christmas album — the first one — I made saying, ‘I want to reach out to the world and let you know I know what it means to hurt, but I also know what it means to experience healing through music.’ I think it’s good to celebrate the wonderful and beautiful things about life … through a season where we all get together and say, ‘OK, we’re going to celebrate these things.’ … I wanted to be a part of that.”
Next to the Christmas season and the new recording, another thing Messick is celebrating this year is the stateside release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which features his dulcimer as the signature instrument in the animated film — the first from Japanese filmmakers Studio Ponoc (the successor of Studio Ghibli).
As the studio’s all-hand-drawn animation came together, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi was determined that the film’s soundtrack feature hammered dulcimer. His search for the perfect instrumentalist brought him to Messick, whom he flew to Tokyo to record with some of Japan’s finest musicians for that nation’s most revered animated film studio.
The soundtrack is a tremendous honor and accomplishment for an artist mostly unknown within his own country. The first note in the film comes from Messick’s instrument, and one of the characters wields a magical dulcimer mallet, in honor of Messick’s work on the soundtrack.
On a recent November morning, Messick mused about the year that’s passed and the year ahead, the luck he’s had with his musical journey and his hammered dulcimer and how it feels like he’s part of something bigger whenever he picks up the mallets.
“Music is what connects everybody together in a way that really very few things can,” he says. “You can have every single different culture, background, political agenda, personality together and nobody’s asking any of those questions. We’re together. And that force of connection is really what we need. … That’s so powerful.”
WHO: Joshua Messick
WHERE: White Horse Black Mountain, 105 Montreat Road, Black Mountain, whitehorseblackmountain.com
WHEN: Fridays, Nov. 30 and Dec. 7, 8 p.m. $18 advance/$20 at the door