Arts & Culture

Olympia’s Joe McHugh strikes a chord with tales of ‘the violin family’

“Rosin the Bow” podcast host Joe McHugh, right, talks with violin maker Marco Picconotti in San Polo d’enza, Italy, in 2015.
“Rosin the Bow” podcast host Joe McHugh, right, talks with violin maker Marco Picconotti in San Polo d’enza, Italy, in 2015. Courtesy of Joe and Paula McHugh

Stories, it seems clear, are Joe McHugh’s favorite thing in all the world.

But violins are up there, too — which works out perfectly for McHugh, because, he says, “Every violin has a story.”

A storyteller, fiddler and veteran radio journalist, McHugh of Olympia is the creator and host of the podcast and radio program “Rosin the Bow,” which dives deeply into the stories of what he calls “the violin family.”

“It has a double meaning,” said McHugh, who’ll share his passions in a multimedia presentation about the podcast Wednesday at the Olympia Timberland Library. “The violin family refers to the instruments of the family, the viola and the cello, and we include the bass and then there are some folk instruments. That’s the family, but the family is also the people who have a connection to the instruments.”

McHugh and his wife and fellow musician Paula McHugh — both familiar figures in Olympia’s old-time music scene — have been collecting stories about violins and other bowed string instruments since 2014, traveling around the country and to Italy, France and Ireland to conduct interviews, some of which have aired on public radio stations and all of which will become part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

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From left, Joe McHugh on fiddle and Paula McHugh on banjo. Courtesy of Joe and Paula McHugh

The weekly podcast, which launched in January, already has yielded responses from all over the world. Many of the listeners are people who love the violin and its relatives as much as its host does, but he sees the podcast as relevant to a wide array of thoughtful people.

“It’s a very broad look at how we think about money, how we think about sacred objects, what’s going on globally,” he told The Olympian.

“These are not typical celebrity interviews,” Emily McHugh, the couple’s daughter and public-relations assistant, said in an email. “Joe McHugh asks his guests to explore big-picture questions.”

And the human members of the violin family include not only musicians and instrument makers but also collectors, dealers, museum curators, environmentalists, insurance agents who insure the instruments, and FBI agents and police offers who’ve investigated the thefts of the instruments, some of which are worth millions.

“It’s a world of eccentrics,” McHugh said. “It’s great to sit down with eccentrics, because they’re very opinionated. They’re passionate. It makes good radio.”

Interview subjects have included Grammy winner Joshua Bell, who owns a 300-year-old Stradivarius; celebrated Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster, with whom McHugh caught up last month when she was in town to play at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts; and local violin and bow maker Robert L. Ray, the recently retired owner of R.L. Ray Violin Shop on Olympia’s State Avenue.

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Olympia’s Robert Ray fixes a viola. Jon Hanson, the current owner of RL Ray Violin Shop, is in the background on the left. Courtesy of Joe and Paula McHugh

It was conversations with Ray that inspired the project, now a major focus for Joe and Paula McHugh, who will soon move to Virginia and continue their work in collaboration with the University of Virginia.

The idea started when Joe McHugh asked Ray to make him a bow in exchange for an Edward Hopper-inspired painting of the shop by Paula McHugh, who’s a painter as well as a banjo player.

“Bob had these great stories,” McHugh said. “He was telling me stories about Stradivariuses being washed out to sea in flash floods and being found on the beach and restored.

“I realized that there was such rich story lore about great makers and where the wood comes from and how magical the bow can be and what the history is. That’s when the light came on.”

‘Rosin the Bow’

  • What: Joe McHugh, host of the podcast and radio program “Rosin the Bow,” will share his journey through the violin world at a talk that also will include a slide show, audio recordings and live music. “It’s kind of a TED talk married to a music performance,” he told The Olympian.
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 27
  • Where: Olympia Timberland Library, 313 Eighth Ave. SE, Olympia
  • Admission: Free
  • More information: 360-352-0595, trl.org, rosinthebow.org
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