A multi-instrumentalist before reaching high school, Nat Hewitt was 9 when he picked up the cello and 12 when he began playing the guitar and banjo.
By college, he loved music and playing the fiddle so much that he dropped out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst after a year. According to family lore, he moved to a cabin tucked away on the side of New Hampshire’s Pinnacle Mountain, accompanied only by his dog, Flotsam.
After a year of practicing, Mr. Hewitt walked onto a stage in Nelson, N.H., fiddle in hand, for the town’s weekly Monday night contra dance. Friends said he lit up the hall.
“Nat was hired as a fiddler, but what was so special about him was that he could play a bunch of instruments,” said Steve Zakon-Anderson of Conway, a friend and musician. “He was always full of surprises.”
Mr. Hewitt, who established his reputation for musicianship while playing for contra dances throughout the region, died Nov. 23 in UMass Memorial Medical Center of complications from radiation treatment for cancer. He was 54 and lived in Nelson, N.H.
As well-known for his natural sailing ability as for his fiddling skills, Mr. Hewitt “had perhaps the most charisma out of anyone I have ever met,” said Larry Siegel of Westmoreland, N.H., another friend and fellow musician. “There was something just compelling about him as a person, a twinkly grin and sort of impish style about him. You couldn’t help but really love him.”
Mr. Hewitt sailed as often as possible, spending summers on Cushing’s Island off Maine for much of his life.
Mr. Hewitt often finished a show with ‘a loudly abandoned kind of style that was just such a lot of fun.’
“Making music and sailing were the two passions of his life,” said his mother, Elizabeth of Nelson. “He wanted to be doing one or the other at any point in his life.”
At age 12, the year Mr. Hewitt was expanding his instrumental range, he also worked with his father to build his first boat, a small dinghy he used to sail around Cushing’s Island.
“He never went to bed when the other children did,” his mother recalled. “He was always up making things. We never sent him to bed as long as he was busy and happy.”
Nathaniel Hawley Hewitt was born in San Antonio and moved with his family to Massachusetts when his father, Dr. George Hewitt, who died in February, began working in the Bay State.
Mr. Hewitt graduated from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, and years after leaving UMass Amherst, Mr. Hewitt studied human evolution and environmental studies at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., graduating in 1986.
As a teenager, he played with Roaring Jelly, a local band. A few years later, he traveled to Germany and Ireland with a friend to play in pubs.
Through the course of his career, Mr. Hewitt played in bands including Reckless Abandon, Reckless Ramblers, Honk the Moose, and Rumblestrip. He also was the fiddler in house bands for contra dances in Rehoboth and Falmouth, Maine.
When Mr. Hewitt played, “he moved the whole dance floor,” his mother said. “They just loved to dance to his music.”
Zakon-Anderson, who often was the caller for the contra dances in Nelson, recalled how comfortable Mr. Hewitt was onstage.
“It was like the instrument just became part of him, as natural as breathing,” Zakon-Anderson said. “He was not a man of many words. His instruments did a lot of his talking for him.”
Contra dances often require musicians to repeat the same tune, but Mr. Hewitt kept dancers on their toes.
“He was very creative and playful, always trying something new,” Zakon-Anderson said. “That doesn’t mean it always worked, but when it didn’t work, he would have this great grin on his face. I loved looking at the stage, because I could picture a little kid with that same grin.”
Siegel, a composer and conductor, played traditional reels and jigs alongside Mr. Hewitt, an experience he called “tremendously invigorating.” They performed on Martha’s Vineyard and in the Cambridge VFW hall on Thursday nights.
Along with the fiddle, Mr. Hewitt played clawhammer-style banjo, mandolin, and electric guitar, often finishing a show with “a loudly abandoned kind of style that was just such a lot of fun,” Siegel said.
Standing next to Mr. Hewitt onstage, Siegel said, it was easy to “get cooking” as both musicians egged each other on.
“There was a very, very strong feeling with Nat that you were kind of pushing or pulling, drawing energy from each other,” Siegel said. “That is the heart of what making music is about, and he just had a force so strong that it just called out to every musician he played with.”
Mr. Hewitt was such a free spirit and trickster that his playfulness could sometimes challenge those close to him, Siegel said, “but again, you had to forgive him because he was sort of magical in that way.”
In 1995, Mr. Hewitt married Liza Constable, and they had two daughters. Their marriage ended in divorce.
Through the years, his career took him to places such as New York City, the Carolinas, and California. Finnegan, Mr. Hewitt’s son from a previous relationship, occasionally performed by his side.
“I grew up on stage,” said Finnegan, who also lives in Nelson. “I used to sleep under the piano when I was really little, and later started playing the piano with him.”
In between journeys by land for music tours, Mr. Hewitt continued to travel by sea. He sailed from Maine to the Exumas in the Bahamas every fall, often bringing along his three children.
“He was always kind of a wanderer, an explorer,” Finnegan said.
A service has been held for Mr. Hewitt, who in addition to his mother and son leaves two daughters, Piper and Zoey, who live with their mother in Costa Rica; two brothers, Seth of Portland, Maine, and Peter of West Concord; a sister, Eliza of Pleasantville, N.Y.; and two foster brothers, Trent Ma of Boston and Ming Ma of Newton.
Finnegan recalled that he once built a small boat with his father, much as Mr. Hewitt had built with his own father as a young boy.
Mr. Hewitt, his son said, “was always a pretty private person, but we shared a lot of traveling and sailing.”
Recalling that year Mr. Hewitt squirreled himself away to perfect his music, Seth said that in a way, his brother “always kind of lived in a cabin in the woods. That was just sort of the kind person he was. He really was a very kind, gentle person.”
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