Dramamine is in order when driving through the dense oak and hickory forests of southern Missouri, on roads with sidewinder curves and stomach-dropping dips into steep draws. Welcome to the hills and hollers of the Ozarks, a lonesome, lissome, rollercoaster landscape that flows from Missouri south into Arkansas.
For many Americans, unversed in the traditions and culture of the isolated Ozarks countryside, these remote hills conjure romantic tales of moonshiners, hillbillies, and such notorious outlaws as Frank and Jesse James. More recently, the area meth labs served as a backdrop for the gritty 2011 Oscar-nominated film Winter’s Bone, shot on location just a few miles from my destination, tiny McClurg in Taney County, 60 winding miles south of Springfield, Missouri, in the sprawling Mark Twain National Forest. Inside a country store at 3899 State Hwy. W.—a non-descript, whitewashed clapboard building that once housed the local post office—stereotypes dissolve and time stands still: Music takes over.
Music has put McClurg and its rollicking Monday-night jams on the map. Not just any music, mind you—Ozarks roots music, a style mostly obscure to all but those who live here, or those curious enough to seek it out.
The origins of the music date back hundreds of years in this neck of the greater Ozarks range, known as “the deep Ozarks,” a bastion of old-time fiddle music. And it traces back hundreds of years more to the British Isles, ancestral homeland for a large portion of the early Ozarks settlers. In this isolated environment, both social and physical, the old tunes and the traditional way of learning them—by ear—have survived pretty much intact.
For 35 years, local musicians have made the weekly trek to McClurg, fiddlers and guitarists primarily, though sometimes only guitarists show up, with many of them veteran Monday-night regulars. No formal invitation is needed to drop in. No skill set is refused. All are welcome, whether to play or listen, though it is best to follow house rules if playing is the goal—the McClurg jam is all-acoustic, all the time.
“There are no electric instruments, no amplification of any kind at McClurg,” says Alvie Dooms, 87, who became a guitar legend as the dexterous partner to the esteemed finger-flying fiddler Bob Holt, who died in 2006. “We played five square dances a month for 28 years,” Dooms says of his association with Holt. “He was quite a fiddler, and he played fast. He played to the dancer. That was what made him such a great fiddler in this part of the world. I had to keep up the rhythm for three or four hours.
“Sometimes he’d play the same tune differently from one set to another, just for the dancers,” adds Dooms, whose task was to anticipate his partner’s detours. “I don’t care what kind of music it is, the bottom line is timing.”
Dooms has been jamming at McClurg since its beginnings. “If I’m able to hold my head up, I go,” he quips.
And he’s been playing Ozarks music since he first held a guitar 77 years ago. “Sally Goodin,” “Eighth of January,” and “Forked Deer” were among the first old-time tunes he remembers hearing, played by his father, a fiddler.
On this night, Dooms is at the McClurg jam, not playing, but helping the evening’s lead fiddler, David Scrivner—a former student of Holt’s—fix his bow. (Dooms’s day job is repairing violins.) He likes to tell newcomers to the jam that he “played for Hillary Clinton,” which he and Holt did in 1999, when the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Holt a National Heritage Fellowship.
Dooms himself is a master of his craft, an honor bestowed by the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program of the Missouri Folk Arts Program. Today, he is a mentor and sought-after performer at the numerous folk-music events and festivals held annually in Missouri and Arkansas. Yet, when it comes to everyday Ozarks music and its authentic expression, Dooms says, “McClurg is about the only place where this style exists anymore.”
What It Is—and Isn’t
Jams like McClurg’s are as ubiquitous in the Ozarks as the old juke joints that once dotted the Mississippi Delta, and their purpose is the same: to bring rural people together for food, fun, and music, which is particularly the case among Ozarkers, who by preference settled and continue to live miles from one another. As my Ozarks cousin advises, deadpan, “Two or three miles apart can be too close.”
Music provides community for this self-imposed isolation, and it is played out in a variety of venues, from cozy “music parties” in private homes to larger spaces, where people could enjoy what the music is really about—dancing, mostly square dancing and jigging.
That’s what you understand first and foremost about the music at the McClurg jam. You can’t sit still, you can’t keep a toe from tapping.
As for its unique regional style, no one really knows what to say about it, including Dooms. “It’s hard to really define the old-time music. It’s just something I’ve been around all my life, and it hasn’t changed a lot over the past 50 years,” he says. “Old musicians learned all those old tunes by ear. They played them like they learned them, maybe with some variations, then passed ’em down.”
What Ozarks music isn’t is perhaps the best way to describe what it is. First, you can call it traditional or old-time or old-timey music, but never bluegrass. Ozarks music preceded bluegrass, and its dominant instrument is the fiddle accompanied by the guitar—the rhythm machine—not the banjo. (Persnickety old-time fiddlers have been known to walk off stage if a banjo appears.)
With subtle regional variations, traditional Ozarks music is akin to Appalachian music, for it was the Scots-Irish from Appalachia who migrated to this stretch of the Ozarks in the early 1800s, along with German and French settlers. It’s not weighted toward pure Irish music, however. (The Scots-Irish were Protestant.)
Traditional Ozarks music, as described in an article from the hosts of “Seldom Heard Music,” a long-running, mostly bluegrass show on KSMU-FM, Ozarks Public Radio, “is Irish music, and it’s not; it is Appalachian music, and it’s not. It runs between those cultures and adds elements of others—it’s very distinct, but not in ways that are easily defined or captured.”
A National Treasure
It may be undefined, but the songs and their variations are plentiful. “Some fiddlers know 400 to 500 tunes, and from holler to holler you can hear them played in a slightly different way, each player putting his own lick to it,” says guitarist Gordon McCann. Another McClurg regular, McCann performed for 17 years with celebrated fiddler Art Galbraith.
Beyond their many appearances in the Ozarks, Galbraith, who died in 1993, and McCann, 85, played national folk festivals, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap, as well as the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. They recorded on Rounder Records—McCann
performed on five albums, including the three-volume series Traditional Fiddle Music of the Ozarks, and he recently reissued the duo’s Dixie Blossoms on the Musical Traditions label. McCann also co-authored the Mel Bay instructional book Ozarks Fiddle Music.
Unlike Dooms’ fiddling partner, Holt, Galbraith played to a slower beat. “He was one of the smoothest musicians around,” McCann says. “People would joke after he’d played a hoedown, ‘Well, that was a good waltz.’”
McCann’s contribution to traditional music is one of two gifts that makes people like Mike Smith, founder and co-host of KSMU’S “Seldom Heard Music,” praise him as “a national treasure.”
Forty-five years ago, then a Springfield businessman, McCann decided to take up the guitar seriously and began visiting local jams, where players were happy to oblige as mentors to this adult student—one of them future partner Galbraith.
“I saw an article in the paper about a musical gathering every Saturday in Ozark [a small town near Springfield, Missouri]. I’d never seen anything like it—musicians setting up around an old coffee table in a room with old chairs, sofas, and a pot-bellied stove, with one 200-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling and duct tape covering broken pieces of the plate-glass windows.
“I was amazed,” says McCann, who began to record his tireless visits to jams and other local music events—the better to learn by. “I took my son’s recorder and I’d just keep it on,” he says, “then I’d come home and listen to the guitar-playing.”
It wasn’t just the music he captured on the recorder that turned out to be of special interest: McCann’s tapes had serendipitously picked up conversations—the idle chatter going on behind the music. McCann’s recordings included Ozarks slices of life, and ethnographers were as thrilled as musicologists and folk-art scholars when in 2007 he donated the bulk of his four decades of meticulous research to Missouri State University’s Special Collections Department. The Gordon McCann Collection at MSU includes 3,000 audio and videocassette recordings, 8,000 field notes, and a database with more than 70,000 entries and 30,000 scrapbook pages of photographs and flyers—all specific to traditional music and Ozarks culture, and that doesn’t count what remains in McCann’s home and personal library.
“I’ve been called a folklorist,” says McCann, “but I’m really a packrat.”
Aside from the wealth of material he has donated, what sets the collection apart from other notable Ozarks music archives is McCann’s penchant for specifics. “I noted who was there and what they were playing in my transcriptions,” he says. “People have told me they have never seen as detailed a collection.”
Back to McClurg
McCann is at McClurg this evening, playing his treasured 1943 Martin 00-18, which he snagged years ago for $250 during a festival under the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis. “I followed the guy to the Porta-Potty to find out if he’d sell it to me,” says McCann. “I’ve been offered $3,000 for it.”
On this night, six guitarists, three fiddlers, a couple of banjo players, and a McClurg newcomer with a standup bass encircle the standard prop, the coffee table. Among the guitarists are father and son Dennis and D.J. Shumate, who can be seen jamming in 2011’s Winter’s Bone. McCann helped director Debra Granik locate the local musicians featured in the film.
The jam runs from six o’clock until nine or so, the first hour pretty much dedicated to the comfort food potluck: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pie, and lots of coffee. But by the time the musicians are set up and tuned, spouses and visitors have taken their places on the chairs and couches that line the walls. Throughout the evening, they alternately listen to music, chat with friends, or jump up for an impromptu jig. Also, as they do every Monday night, regulars, including Lonnie Taber, the caretaker of the McClurg building and its jam, sit at a card table playing a game of pitch.
The house is packed, the music divine. But what about the future of the beloved Monday night jams? Dooms and McCann think about that a lot these days. Both have suffered strokes, and both note that the old-time players at McClurg are in their 80s—the oldest among them and playing banjo tonight, JR Johnston, is 88. “You don’t play music real good when you’re 90,” Dooms says with a laugh.
Turning serious, Dooms adds, “When we all die off, I don’t know whether McClurg will go on or not.”
Then he changes his tone, complimenting the younger players that night, including a 15-year-old girl playing a fine fiddle with the pros. Music is an important aspect of life in the Ozarks, so much so that Dooms usually asks newcomers two pertinent local questions: “Do you play music and do you fish? Sometimes I get a yes to both.”
What Alvie Dooms Plays
Guitarist Alvie Dooms has had plenty of guitars during his lifetime of playing old-time Ozarks music, most of them Martins. But these days he’s smitten with a D2H from Collings Guitars out of Austin, Texas. “It’s the best instrument I’ve ever had,” Dooms says. “The Collings has got everything beat, for volume, tone balance, playability.” He also just traded for “a little old Red Label Yamaha FG-110. Small-bodied guitars weren’t my favorite,” he says, “but this one knocked my hat off.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.