November 2008
Featured Articles

From the Moon to Making Music

 

Joe Sims, former NASA engineer, showed off one of his more popular instruments — a gourd banjo. He grew the gourd and then made it into a folk banjo.

Music Fills the Time for Retired NASA Engineer

What do a NASA engineer and a man who once made a banjo out of a gourd have in common? They are one and the same.

After a career with NASA lasting more than 30 years, Joe Sims of the Forrest Chapel Community in Morgan County retired and turned his hobby into a second career of sorts.

Joe and Susan, his wife of 43 years, have always shared a love of music. In the early 1990s they began looking at music as a way to pass the time and make a little money after Joe retired.

   
   

   A self-proclaimed novice, folk musician Susan Sims played the harp which was built by her husband Joe.

 
   

He worked as an aerospace engineer in thermal dynamics at Marshall Space Flight Center.

Joe graduated from Florence State College in 1963 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve. Shortly after graduation, he was called to active duty with the Army.

"The Army rented me to NASA for two years as a chemist," said Joe. "Then, after an honorable discharge, I was hired by NASA as an engineer."

He worked as a heat transfer expert until he retired in 1997.

Music took a backseat during those years while the couple raised their two boys, David and John. Days were filled with Boy Scout activities and the few head of cattle Joe kept on their land near Hartselle.

Once the kids were grown and Joe was looking forward to retirement, the couple knew they needed something to keep them busy. And they hit the nail on the head.

The couple began going to folk music festivals in about 1993. Since then, their autumns have been filled with festivals and living history gatherings.

Most of their work centers around music from the 1800s.

"We love doing the living history work," said Susan, a former elementary school teacher. "Someone has to keep the music alive."

They don’t much like performing on stage. They prefer to teach small groups, either at schools or at festivals.

 

Joe Sims is currently working on a banjo rim.

"We had rather demonstrate our music," said Susan. "That way, people can always ask questions and be a part of the music."

In addition to sharing the history of music and many instruments, Joe repairs instruments for the public and builds some from scratch.

Joe got his start in music not long after he and Susan married.

"Susan’s brother, Billy, gave us an old Harmony guitar that was busted," recalled Joe. "It took several tries to fix it right."

Joe reckoned almost everyone who has played music in their house has played on that Harmony guitar.

Jack of All Trades

So far, Joe has been willing to tackle most any instrument repair that has come his way.

   

Susan Sims’ hands move lightning fast over the hammered dulcimer her husband Joe built for her.

 
   

Joe recalled the time a man asked if he could repair a family fiddle. Joe told him he’d take a look at it.

"He brought me the fiddle in a flour sack," said Joe. "It was covered in mud and was in pieces."

Turns out, the fiddle had been through a hurricane in Florida about 10 years earlier and had sat in the man’s closet ever since.

"It took some time and effort," said Joe. "But I was able to fix it."

Fiddles, mandolins, guitars and banjos are scattered all over his workshop. For years he has collected parts to fix almost any string instrument. Now he concentrates mostly on using up his inventory.

Asked how he knows where to even begin on some of the more damaged instruments, Joe just smiled and said he looks for what can be salvaged.

"I save and use as much of the original as I can," said Joe. "For what can’t be fixed I usually have spare parts."

Not Just a Repairman

One of the first instruments he built from scratch was a hammered dulcimer for Susan.

Most folks only know of the mountain dulcimer, which is a small stringed instrument that is strummed.

A hammered dulcimer is much larger and has many strings. To play, you strike the strings with hammers. Hammers can be specially made for playing the hammered dulcimer or they can be objects like wooden spoons or bamboo sticks.

Susan favorite hammers are covered in duct tape.

"They have the best sound," she said.

As her hands fly over the strings you can hardly see the hammers because they are moving so fast.

Besides the hammered dulcimer, Joe also built Susan a folk harp. She has been practicing on it for almost 14 years and claims to still be a novice. The sound is lovely and calming.

Slowing Down, Just a Bit

While they don’t work as vendors peddling their wares at as many festivals these days, they still love to interact with the crowds and teach them about the music and the instruments.

They prefer to share their love of music with their four grandchildren — Jonathan, Mary Grace, Will and David.

One of their favorite appearances was at Cowboy Day for David’s preschool last year.

Joe and Susan worship with the First Independent Methodist Church near Decatur. Joe also teaches a Sunday school class.

Contact Information

Persons interested in contacting Joe or Susan may call them at (256) 773-9443.

Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.