NEWPORT - Dr. George Orthey loves the autoharp.
Orthey is a 79 year-old retired veterinarian with the United States Army. The Perry County man can't hear a thing without his hearing aids. He admits he can't play an instrument.
But Orthey is a world-renown autoharp craftsman who has created 1,448 autoharps for professional performers and amateur enthusiasts since 1964.
George Orthey, of Newport, rests on one of his handcrafted auto harps inside his shop recently.
Sentinel photos by TABITHA GOODLING
Music and the military
Orthey grew up in the New York City metropolitan area but never took a liking to "city life." Each weekend he visited his aunt and uncle's farm and would wake up in the middle of the night to listen to his favorite radio program that consisted of folk/blue grass or "old time" music.
While Orthey was in college the Korean War was in full rage. He attended veterinarian school and was a vet with the U.S. Army. Orthey worked as a zoo veterinarian in Panama and taught courses on nuclear warfare while stationed in San Antonio, Texas.
"I never did the same thing twice," he said of his 28-year military career, admitting he enjoyed watching his comrades "blow up the dessert" during training. It didn't take long for Orthey to realize he was not satisfied in the career. He began the hobby of making wooden instruments in the early 1960s "to keep me from losing my mind."
He called his shop in Newport a "horse barn," due to its outside barn-like appearance, but the shop was created in the 1960s strictly for making instruments. He began making dulcimers and turned to autoharps when his late wife, Mary Lou, "got tired of them."
He then began selling his work in 1964 under the business name Orthey Instruments. He retired from the Army in 1982 and has been working full time at the auto harp shop.
"In 30 years I haven't had a month without orders," Orthey said.
The inside of Orthey's shop looks like a saw mill with various saws and machinery. On the walls are newspaper clippings of artists like June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash and many other performers who have purchased auto harps from Orthey. There are pictures from other customers who sent him notes of appreciation and wanted to show Orthey how his instrument is being put to good use.
His clientele has also included members of The Carter Family and The Carter Sisters featuring June Carter Cash. He also received a note from John Sebastian of the 1960s band The Lovin Spoonful who called Orthey's work "marvelous."
Mountain Laurel concerts
Orthey is also the co-founder of the Mountain Laurel Auto Harp Concert Series held each June at Little Buffalo State Park in Perry County. He started the concerts along with wife, Mary Lou, 25 years ago as a result of a concert on the couple's front porch. The Ortheys invited customers of the auto harp business to perform one summer evening. It became a yearly event that grew into a circus tent perched in the couple's back yard. When it became evident hundreds of people wanted to attend, the couple started presenting the series at the state park.
And still, that wasn't enough for the artists.
"They wanted more," Orthey said.
Orthey then created the winter concert series that occurs one weekend out of the month from January through April. A concert is held at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church on Friday evening, followed by a workshop at Orthey's business Saturday afternoon and another concert Saturday evening at Highland Presbyterian Church in Newport.
The next event is slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10 at St. John Evangelical. The workshop will be held 1-4 p.m. Saturday, and the Newport concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Featured artist Walt Michael and Company will be performing at each venue.
January's featured performers, Dale Jett and Hello Stranger played one of Orthey's autoharps at the Grand Ole Opry in Tennessee. Jett is a descendant of The Carter Family and plays bluegrass/folk music in his own Virginia-based group. He and bandmate Oscar Harris have purchased many of Orthey's instruments over the years.
'out of the ditch'
Jett, a self-proclaimed "hillbilly," said he believes Orthey "brought the autoharp out of the ditch."
His engineering style gives the instrument credibility like no other autoharp, Jett said. Early in the auto harp making business Orthey had attached a metal rod, the bracing of the instrument, to the frame. A musician pointed out the sound difference if the bracing was not attached. Every auto harp since then has no attachment.
"It's like an open door," Harris said of the sound, "You can really hear (the difference)."
The men who attended the January workshop commented on Orthey's ability to keep the sound of the auto harp the top priority and not its appearance. Orthey has a trademark flower on each instrument but keeps the pieces simple.
Orthey points out the wood grain must be lateral on each instrument because that detail also affects the sound. Orthey has used walnut trees from his own Perry County backyard as well as some cherry trees. He has also had pieces of redwood sent to him from California.
Orthey is always perfecting his work and visits other instrument businesses. "He's forever trying to improve," Jett said.
Not out of tune yet
Orthey's age and hearing disability have not stopped him. He joked he plans to live to be a 100. Orthey was diagnosed at age 35 with Meniere's Syndrome which attacks the vestibular part of the ear. He wears hearing aids in both ears and without them he is deaf.
Orthey has a protege, Greg Schreiber in Millerstown, who assists Orthey with the business and has access to his trademarks. Schreiber often listens to the autoharps after they are finished to ensure they sound properly before they are sold.
Orthey said the only way he can play the instrument is if the chords are numbered. "When I finish a harp I always play 'Home on the Range' because I know it and I know what I am doing.'"
Lovin' Spoonful's Sebastian once asked Orthey, "You make these so beautifully, why can't you play them?"
Orthey responded, " You play beautifully. Why can't you make one of these?"
The musician was dumbstruck with the response.
Though Orthey loves making the instrument he is most content listening to it. During each concert and workshop he is seated comfortably to the side taking it all in.
"The most important thing I want to hear is the music. It's my life."
More information on Orthey autoharps and future Mountain Laurel Concert series events: www.ortheyinstruments.com.