After years in artisan circles — from a decade touring with a famous roots jam band to making fine furniture for the Hanes family in Roaring Gap — Joe Thrift has settled down in Elkin to teach the craft of violin making, which he studied in England in the mid-1970s.
His students typically are violin players 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 make a violin someday from a tree he has cut down himself. Thrift said violins are often made with maple for the bottom of the instrument and spruce for the top. The violin’s neck is often made of maple and the fingerboard of ebony.
“I know of people who are experimenting with other wood,” such as red spruce, Campbell said. “I’m coming from the connection to the process. I would like to have an instrument that I knew as a tree — it would be really fulfilling for me.”
Campbell, who also hopes to someday make a violin for his young son, travels from Weaverville, near Asheville, for a double class session weekly, which amounts to nine hours of classes in a single day.
Most of Thrift’s students hail from beyond the Elkin area, commuting for the day to attend class or, in the case of Kelly Sivy, uprooting and moving to Elkin to devote years to studying under Thrift. She brings her blind sheepherding dog, Dill, to class with her. When a fellow classmate recently struck up some Irish tunes on the first violin Sivy completed, Dill sang along with gentle howls.
Sivy, of Fairbanks, Alaska, wanted to study under a master violin-maker, but most programs offering that experience involved an expensive, four-year university degree. Sivy is already a highly educated wildlife ecologist, and was looking for a more affordable education route. Until recently, Thrift taught his courses through Surry Community College, and Sivy was attracted to the reasonable rates for taking continuing education courses with him.
Surry and Thrift parted ways during the pandemic, with Thrift seeking to tailor his student-to-teacher ratio in a way that met his desire for social distancing amid the risks of COVID-19, perhaps with just one-on-one or a few students at a time.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, he taught students at his home and now has studio space in the former Chatham Mill complex that is now the Foothills Arts Center. This August, he launched his first full semester of courses, teaching 27 students spread across five days per week, sometimes well into the evening.
Among his courses is a special intensive instruction session with a student who is also an artisan at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, and Sivy, through an N.C. Arts Council grant.
His studio at the arts center, which is a collection of about five small rooms, hosts an array of tools, from fine scrapers used to delicately carve the wood by hand, to power tools as large as a human that are seen in any fine woodworking shop.
Thrift grew up in Winston-Salem, where he graduated from Reynolds High School.
“My father was a pipe organ builder and my mother was the organist at the Moravian church, where my dad was also the choir director,” he said. “I was never in the choir.”
Thrift heard his two older brothers complain weekly about choir practice, and so he pursued instruments instead, taking piano and clarinet.
“I grew up in a musical family,” he said. “I played in the Moravian Easter band every year and all that stuff.”
After high school, during the Vietnam War, Thrift joined the Navy Reserves, hoping to avoid deploying to the war itself.
“I decided I would join the Navy Reserves, which was a huge mistake on my part,” he recalled. “I hated it. When I got off the bus at boot camp and the guy started cussing and screaming at me, I realized I had made a mistake.”
He worked mainly in Florida, “teaching people how to pack parachutes and handle survival equipment, and I was in Guantanamo Bay for several weeks,” Thrift said.
After completing his service, Thrift traveled Europe with some friends on a shoestring budget of $1,000 for a month, which included his share of purchasing a car with his buddies. They logged 11,000 miles during that month.
Back in the U.S., Thrift was apprenticing at a guitar factory in Piney Creek, crafting everything from mandolins to banjos to dulcimers. He was in a band that traveled around playing the instruments they made at the factory, and he would just learn how to play them on the fly.
“Once I started playing the violin, I started wanting to learn more about that,” Thrift said.
He sought out famous instrument builders and old time players.
“I was looking for somebody to take me on as an apprentice, and nobody had orders for that,” Thrift said of the small demand each violin-maker had for people wanting to purchase handmade instruments.
Still, he endeavored to meet influential players and makers in violin and fiddle circles, and learned through them of a school in England that taught a classical form of violin making. He wrote the school a letter.
“I got an interview for August, and I flew to England and did the interview,” Thrift said. “I got accepted, and started the next 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 people who were in that class,” he said, dropping names of classmates who went on to become some of the preeminent violin craftsmen in the world.
Thrift came back to Winston-Salem and ran a violin shop for a while. It quickly turned into repair jobs and selling strings, and less about crafting instruments. He eventually closed his shop and got a job gardening in Roaring Gap.
Martha Hanes Womble, whom he gardened for, found out he made violins and asked if he could make furniture, too.
“Well, I never made any but I told her I could,” Thrift said.
She would bring him an antique piece of furniture, and he would make two copies and she would sell them in her store. He crafted the pieces in a makeshift shop under a tarp, outside a 7-foot-by-14-foot trailer he lived in that sat on a piece of property his girlfriend owned in Mountain Park. He used electricity off a temporary power pole to power his tools. His girlfriend, whom he later married, is local artist Tory Casey. They’ve now been together for 38 years.
One day, Thrift visited a music store and was purchasing a synthesizer keyboard. He was just playing around on the instrument and “hadn’t played keyboard since the fifth grade.” Members of the up-and-coming band Donna The Buffalo happened to be in the store at the time and they exchanged contact information. Shortly after, they invited him to meet up in Philadelphia, so he went.
“I get up there and it’s like an audition. I just made stuff 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 band, but burned out from touring and headed back to the Yadkin Valley.
It had been 25 years since he had seriously worked on violins, other than the odd repair or maintenance of his own instruments or those belonging to friends.
“The good thing about that is, I had forgotten a lot of the stuff I had learned in school,” Thrift said. “I totally changed the way I make violins. The whole method is different now.”
He has blended his classic 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’s traveled and songs he has played, influence the lessons he teaches. It’s a different kind of show. A different kind of stage.
His classes this semester are sold out.