Jon Kay has created a distinctive sound and style of mountain dulcimer music that caused some listeners to label him the "Jimi Hendrix of the dulcimer." Kay began playing the dulcimer in 1987, while working for Bill and Laura Berg at Mountain Made Music, in his hometown of Nashville, Indiana. During his four year tenure at this dulcimer shop, Kay developed his style of playing the dulcimer based on the Berg's five string dulcimer. Kay recalls, "I would spend the winter days playing the dulcimer. Sometimes, I would play for six or seven hours straight, waiting for customers to come into the store."
His finger-style approach blends the rolling technique of a five-string banjo with the tonal qualities of classical guitar. Kay explains "When I first started playing, I would listen to these dulcimer recordings and couldn't believe the sounds they were getting out of the simple little instrument. I thought, I want to play like that. It wasn't until later that I realized that the recording had a guitar or another instrument playing along. So, I guess, you could say, I didn't know I was doing anything different, at first."
Kay was influenced by the new acoustic movement of the 1980s. While working at Mountain Made Music, he listened to various "new age" and contemporary folk artists, including, Michael Hedges, Patrick Ball and Metamora. In 1988, Kay met dulcimer legend Neal Hellman, who confirmed Kay's dedication to finger-style dulcimer music. Kay's approach moves beyond finger picking tunes; his compositions and arrangements are inextricably link technique and composition.
In 1991, Kay recorded his first album, Richard's Wake, a collection of original compositions and arrangements. The recording explored the sparse beauty of Kay's solo style that brought musical and textural depth making it sound like two or three instruments. Kay describes, "I was trying to create a Windham Hill style recording. I wanted it to show the beauty of the instrument with out over-editing, over-arranging or even over-dubbing. It is minimal music; it's me playing the dulcimer in front of two microphones. I wanted it to be about me and the instrument, not about a studio or a band." Kay has re-released this recording as October Dreams, the title of the first cut on the album.
In 1991, Kay left Mountain Made Music, to try his hand as a full-time dulcimer player. For three years he made his living playing dulcimer at festivals, coffeehouses, schools, bookstores, retreat centers, weddings and even funerals. While selling dulcimers at the Yellow Banks Dulcimer Festival in Owensboro, Kentucky, Kay met Dick "Richard" Albin, who invited Kay to play at the following Great American Dulcimer Convention in Pine Mountain, Kentucky. Albin not only encouraged Kay to play more but offered advise on being a performer. Kay took this input to heart and started developing holistic shows that blend his unique brand of music and storytelling this allowed Kay to take his music to a much wider audience.
Kay won the Midwest Dulcimer Championship in Avoca, Iowa in 1992. That same year, Kay opened for many acoustic masters including Norman and Nancy Blake, Peter Rowan, John Hartford, and Tony Rice. He found himself playing dulcimer for audiences unfamiliar with the instrument. "I was really lucky. And it helped being the new kid on the block. I guess, I was one of the first Gen-X dulcimer players. Now days there are many great young players that are doing amazing things on the instrument." Kay continues, "I never viewed myself totally as a dulcimer player. I was a composer and instrumentalist that played the dulcimer. So, I was able to think outside the box. I didn't have any do's and don'ts for the instrument; I was free."