By Zoe Hebert
Handmade instrument maker R.V. Couch of Summerville, Louisiana, will be among those inducted into the Louisiana Folklife Center Hall of Master Folk Artists at this year’s Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival. Couch will be selling his beautiful handmade instruments at the festival. The 42nd Annual Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival will be held, 9 a.m.-10 p.m., on Saturday, July 23 in Prather Coliseum at 220 South Jefferson Street on the NSU campus. Admission is $10 for the entire day, $6 after 5 p.m., and free for children ages 12 and under. The induction will be at 11:15 a.m. on the main stage.
As a child, Couch spent a lot of time taking things apart and putting them back together. When things in the house broke, he would fix them. Couch realized quickly he had an affinity for handiwork, especially when it came to building. He has always enjoyed working with his hands. Nothing specific led him to this realization, according to Couch, but things just worked out that way. He described his experience dismantling and rebuilding his old canning machine in his childhood, as well as working on his bike and his grandmother’s sewing machine. In some cases, Couch would fix things that were broken around the house, like the fan, and build toys for himself out of whatever he had at hand. As an adult, Couch worked as an automotive and mobile home mechanic, continuing to work with his hands until his retirement.
Couch didn’t start building instruments until around 2005, when he heard someone playing a fiddle and decided that he wanted to learn to play himself. He had found an old fiddle that someone had thrown away and kept it in his shop. After deciding he wanted to learn how to play, he brought the fiddle to a repairman he knew who fixed it up for him, but he was charged $250 for the repairs.
“I walked out of his shop and to my truck, looking at it, thinking in my mind, ‘I can do better work than that,’” Couch explained.
Couch decided that he was going to build his own fiddle. He was told by the repairman that it would take him three months to build one, but after a month of focused work, Couch had finished building his first fiddle. He said that there are several mistakes in the instrument, but that it plays very well, and he has a special appreciation for the unique piece. His fascination with the creation and design of instruments was sparked. With the encouragement and support of his wife, Couch began to build more instruments, which he went on to display and sell at festivals.
His repertoire expanded when one of his daughters brought home a strumstick. Couch drew up a pattern for strumsticks using the measurements from the one he was shown and began making his own. He got more information from the man who built his daughter’s strumstick and, noticing a few design flaws, proceeded to improve upon the original design. Couch has since made several fiddles and strumsticks, regular, travel, and cigar-box guitars and a mandolin. He likes to build his instruments in different styles and with various features. While he does have a few blueprints, most of Couch’s instruments are built based on his own measurements and experimentation. Some of his instruments are even electrified.
“I’ve just picked up designs from different places, and I play with my designs some, change them, and little odds and ends where I’ll say ‘well, let’s see if this works,’” he explained, then went on to say, “mine looks different from everybody’s, but I’m just using my own imagination.”
There are a few instruments that Couch is especially proud of. One of them is a piece he made for a friend. He explained that his friend had a dog that he loved, so Couch did a carving of the dog’s head on the end of the neck instead of the typical scroll. He was proud of how well the carving came out. He also talked about one of the instruments he’s kept, a cigar-box guitar designed by his wife. The creation of this guitar was a collaborative effort between the two, with Couch’s wife creating the design and Couch crafting it according to her specifications, so Couch put her name in the final piece.
Couch’s wife passed away in early 2017. Couch has continued to make instruments since her passing, remembering the support she showed for his passion for building in her life.
“All the big stuff that she would want to see is happening now,” Couch said. “They displayed my instruments in the Schepis Museum in Columbia for a month. She wanted me to build more, and the more I built, the better they got, the better I liked them, and the better everybody looked at them.”
The original fiddle he made, the one that sparked his love for creating instruments, is his favorite. Several people have asked to buy it, but Couch has stated that he has no intention of selling that particular fiddle. It’s a unique instrument built in the process of trial and error and holds great significance to Couch. All the flaws in the fiddle are physical examples of his learning process, and he ensured that they don’t affect the quality of the music it can play. The fiddle is his favorite instrument in general, due to the challenge building one presents and the beauty of its music.
Couch is looking forward to talking with the people at the 2022 Folklife Festival. He explained that part of what makes his work so fulfilling is meeting and talking to the people who are interested in his craft. He does not sell his instruments online since he prefers to talk with his customers and interact with them personally. He enjoys interacting with the people who like his work face-to-face and getting to see for himself how they feel about the instruments he loves to create. He often attends the fiddle championships with his toolbox just in case anyone’s instrument breaks. While he noted that every year the festival has something different, this year he is looking forward to being inducted into the Hall of Master Folk Artists. Couch’s dedication to his craft and his contribution to the continuance of the instrument building tradition are excellent examples of Louisiana folk culture, and we look forward to seeing his instruments at the festival this year.
For complete festival details, visit www.nsula.edu/folklife or call (318) 357-4332. Support for the Festival is provided by grants from the Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., the Louisiana Division of the Arts, the Louisiana Office of Tourism, the Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation, and the Shreveport Regional Arts Council.