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The beat, clang and twang goes on for Tom Lenny

By on May 23, 2021 in Arts with 0 Comments
Tom Lenny can play a rambunctious tune on his Stumpf Fiddle.

By Sebastian Moraga

Give Tom Lenny a bell, a pie pan, a snowboard, a few springs and ask him to build something, and chances are he’ll be stumped. Or rather Stumpf-ed.

Tom, a retired chief operator at Rocky Reach Dam, is a talented luthier, whose specialties include the Stumpf Fiddle — an eclectic, slightly scary-looking instrument that uses all the things we just mentioned — the congas, bongos, and the cajon (Kah-HON), a box-shaped percussion instrument with roots in the South American nation of Peru.

Tom’s talent has taken him to a myriad of pretty unique places, such as on stage with country music legend Willie Nelson (who signed one of his instruments) and to the Discovery Channel’s series Auction Kings, where he performed Turkey in The Straw with one of his unique instruments. 

“I didn’t know the show was worldwide until I started getting comments from Norway, Holland, and Russia,” he said of his adventures on TV, about 10 years ago.

Tom, 65, began dabbling in music as a younger man, in the 1980s, traveling to Seattle and Alaska with bands. Over the next three decades, he made it to the Last Frontier State more than 10 times to play, as one of the few bands in America that was a professional Stumpf Fiddle band.

It wasn’t just the traveling that did it for Tom. Just being on stage, playing off other musicians was plenty exciting.

The luthier side of his skillset started developing even earlier than that. 

Tom said his dad got him started doing woodwork when he wasn’t even a teenager yet, so by the time he was in middle school, “I had some pretty good skills.” By the time he was in high school, he could not wait for wood shop class to start every day.

Indeed, he has built all his home’s bedroom furniture, he has built hockey sticks, chess boards, ping-pong paddles, and of course a broad array of drums. 

His talents are on display  at Chinook Music in East Wenatchee, where a few of his cajon drums are on sale. 

The apple of his eye, though is not for sale. It’s a slap-top cajon — a t-shaped box, rich in angles and sounds, both strong and nuanced, with a snare drum snare inside. It’s by far the most complex drum he has built, he said. 

When making an instrument, it’s part art, part science — although not a 50-50 split.

“It’s mostly my ear as a musician and then some experimentation with where to put different parts to change the tones,” he said. 

There is a slight edge, albeit a psychological one, to playing an instrument you know from the blueprints on up. 

“There is a satisfaction,” Tom said. “Especially when we are playing and someone sees me playing and asks me where I got it, and I say, ‘Well, I made these.’” 

People’s jaws go slack when they see the elaborate drums and oddball-looking-yet-euphonic Stumpf Fiddles. If you add to that the fact that Tom’s bands never want to be introduced, they just like to start playing, the surprise factor increases. 

“We just like to do one or two songs and leave, and make people go, ‘Whoa, what was that?’” Doing something that nobody else around is doing, just adds to the satisfaction, Tom said. 

After decades of building instruments, it’s still an exciting challenge, particularly building the Stumpf Fiddles. One such fiddle, he calls his “Cadillac” model, because it comes with all the bells and whistles. Only, of course, in this case, they are literally actual bells and actual whistles.

Oddly enough, one area of music Tom has not dabbled into is writing music. Instead, he plays with bands backing him and his friends up. Not a lot of people can say, even jokingly as Tom does, that the great outlaw country star with the beaten-up guitar is among his erstwhile backup musicians. 

The guitar is not the only thing beaten up about Willie Nelson, Tom says.

“You would think that a guitar player would have pretty soft hands,” he said. “Oh my gosh, the roughest, grizzliest hands I think I have ever shook.” 

After decades of woodwork, it’s no surprise that Courtney and Braden Lenny, his children, have followed in his footsteps. They are both adults now, and Braden is a pretty talented musician in his own right, although he leans toward string instruments, and Courtney is pretty talented with the power tools Dad uses.

“My daughter kind of surprised me several times,” Tom said. 

“I worked with my son quite a bit on the power-tool stuff, and I don’t remember doing that with my daughter so much, and she learned how to do it somehow, and a couple of times she’s told me, ‘Yeah, I’ll use this saw or that saw or that other thing,’ and if she needed to do something, she knew I had all the tools, and she knew how to find the right one and knew how to use it.”

Chips off the old wood block, indeed. 

Want to listen to Tom performing? Watch this video:

IMGP7926.MOV

Sebastian Moraga is a freelance writer based out of Cashmere. He says he has made great contributions to the world of music, mostly by not attempting to play any.

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