On a chilly November night in the Ozarks, a lone musician picked solemnly on his mandolin. He might have been happily married to his high school sweetheart, but his instrument sounded forlorn. It wept over torn love notes, tattered dreams and a crushing loneliness. His instrument needed a companion, a harmony to his melody.
“Hey, do you know ‘Call Me Maybe’?” I asked him, gripping my mandolin.
The musician flashed me a confused expression, then flatly answered no. I could have pressed the topic: the megahit-turned-anthem of the 2012 U.S. Olympic swim team, 576 million YouTube hits. Ring a bell, maybe? Instead I switched topics (better common ground: left-handed stringing), sensing that my naive question had offended generations of ardent disciples of traditional folk music.
O’ teach me, Mountain View, Ark. Fill my head with true Americana music. Introduce me to folks who inhale and exhale the air of their ancestors. Wean me off pop-candy tunes with snappy hooks.
The Ozark town, about 100 miles north of Little Rock, is the self-proclaimed Folk Music Capital of the World. That’s a big boast for a small peep of a town, with fewer than 3,000 residents and zero bars (it’s dry). Mountain View can back up its banner-waving claim, though. Since 1963, it has held the Arkansas Folk Festival, in April. In 2002, it added bluegrass festivals in March and November, stretching the music season on both ends of the calendar. Participants perform at the Ozark Folk Center State Park,dedicated to preserving and promoting the region’s heritage.
Moreover, during most of the year, Mountain View is one giant jam stage, and its community is one big band. At any hour, day or night, locals congregate on storefront porches, in park pavilions and outside the Stone County Courthouse to pick ’n’ strum ’n’ sing ’n’ dance.
“If you put a fence up and didn’t let tourists in,” said Scott Pool, who owns Mountain View Music store with his wife, Shay, “they’d still be playing music.”
As a festival destination, Mountain View (established 1890) stands out for its otherness and beyondness. Its music roots run long and deep through a rugged landscape of forests and streams. Residents drive around with instruments in their pickup trucks — everyday tools.
“Mountain View is sort of in its own world. We live in a time capsule,” said Clancey Ferguson, a 15-year-old fiddler and singer who has grown up here. “The music stays pure.”
Last November, I attended the Mountain View Bluegrass Festival, but I came with a higher purpose. I was on a mission to unlock the secrets tucked inside a heavy black case resting in the trunk of my rental car.
For more than a decade, I have owned — note the distinction from “played” — a mandolin. Various teachers have taught me nursery rhymes and classic rock tunes with mandolin parts, such as the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” and REM’s “Losing My Religion.” My playlist also includes radio hits (Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You”) that I should have filed under Perform Me Never.
Despite the years of instruction, I have never studied the mandolin’s bluegrass roots or performed the songs the Ozarks have been crooning for ages. So on my trip to Arkansas, I planned to make a long-overdue introduction: Mandolin, meet your folk music forebears. May you/we make some beautiful music together.
I arrived on the Wednesday evening before the three-day festival. Back home, Washingtonians were just leaving work or were two drinks into happy hour. The north-central Arkansas town, however, was still and silent, blinds down, buttoned-up. The humble homes emitted only faint pinpricks of light.
In the darkness, I knocked on the front door of the Mulberry Place Guest Houses. Lynn Phelps, the proprietor, was as warm and comforting as apple pie. Noticing my case, she told me she played the dulcimer and attended a weekly social circle at the Dulcimer Shoppe and the Ozark RV Park. I caught a hint of an invitation that my instrument and I should join her. Or perhaps I was misreading the kindness in her eyes.
I asked her about the bluegrass festival and who typically attends the shows.
“Everyone sitting in the audience will either be watching someone they know or waiting for their turn,” she said. She fell into the former category.
The following morning, I met Lynn for a quick tour of town. I drove and listened; she navigated and narrated. Our first stop was the Ozark RV Park office, which doubled as festival headquarters. Here, I could pick up my tickets and a schedule of events.
The snug cabin was packed with festival-goers and old-timers doing what they do best: bantering, cracking wise, razzing the newcomer. Everyone talked at once over the “Sounds of the Ozark RV Park, Volume 1,” which spun on a CD player resting on a card table. One of the voices belonged to Andy Rutledge, the festival’s president who also owned the RV park and acted as a de facto town historian.
Although people had been playing in the courthouse square since the early 1900s, in the 1960s it became a more formal ritual, Andy said. A stage was built in front of the courthouse and was later expanded.
When the weather turned cold, he continued, the residents would head indoors, carrying with them fiddles, guitars, upright bass, autoharps, mandolins, dobros, dulcimers and other traditional instruments. Non-musicians followed close behind ready to jig.
“It was like an old barn dance thing,” Andy said. “People would go into the courthouse and leave a large area for waltz, jig and square dancing.”
More than a half-century later, the locals and out-of-towners continue the custom. On Saturday nights between April’s Folk Festival and October’s BeanFest, performers assemble on a stage outside the courthouse. Spectators bring their own seats, arranging a crescent moon of folding chairs on the lawn.
Pop-up concerts also appear throughout town. The mini-jamborees proliferate during the warmer months but start to scatter when the mercury drops. But the musicians are indomitable.
“The talent here is ridiculous,” said one local. “I can’t even listen as good as they play.”
On Saturday afternoon, a brisk wind was turning cheeks rosy and fingertips numb. The front of the courthouse was empty, but around back, I bumped into a troupe with three guitars, a mandolin and an upright bass. The group had gathered behind a high stone wall, beyond November’s chilly reach. During a break, I inched up to the upright bass player and asked her about how one joins the revelry.
“You want to play with good pickers,” said Jan Hickman, “but you want to learn, too.”
I sensed that I would hit both marks with this merry band of insiders. My mando was just around the corner. I could easily grab it and be back before the closing verse. But while my mind foolishly raced ahead, my feet remained frozen, unwilling to advance.
I wasn’t ready.
On the schedule, I had circled the Whites, a family trio performing on all-gospel Thursday; Louisiana’s Lonesome Ridge and Nothin’ Fancy, of Lexington, Va., both on Friday; and, for Saturday, the homegrown talents of the Music Roots Ensemble and Clancey & the Ragtags.
The first show I was seeing didn’t start till 6 p.m., so I had time to explore. I wound up at the Dulcimer Shoppe, where I approached Judy Klinkhammer for a demonstration.
“It’s free, it’s easy and it’s willingly taught,” said the longtime player as she led me into a practice space near the front of the store.
Sitting on a low bench, I copied her form. I placed the dulcimer, which reminded me of a fancy cutting board, on my lap and parted my knees to stabilize the instrument. Instead of notes, I followed numbers on tablature. I pressed my fingers on the corresponding strings and frets, and with my other hand, strummed. Put it all together and what did I have? Why, it was “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
I followed “Star” with “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” a classic folk song, and “Home on the Range,” a campfire staple. With three songs under my belt, I wondered: Was I now ready for my debut on the square? And if so, could I depend on Judy to back me up?
“I’ve been playing for 50 years,” she said. “I’m jammed out.”
The children are key to Mountain View’s survival. They hold the culture’s future in their small hands — and often under their soft chins.
To keep the next generation involved and inspired, the town started the Music Roots program in the 1990s. Thanks to grants and donations, students in grades 4 through 8 who express interest in folk music will receive the instrument of their choice, plus free weekly lessons. More than 1,000 kids have taken advantage of this windfall, including homeschooled youngsters.
“Mountain View’s main mission is to pass along the traditions and not let them die,” said Clancey Ferguson, a Roots kid who leads her own band. “My big dream is to play the Grand Ole Opry. Then again, that’s every kid’s dream.”
On Friday morning at Mountain View Middle School, a class of fifth-graders assembled for their first lesson of the day. At their teacher’s signal, they picked up their guitars. They tuned the strings, adjusted the straps and shifted the ungainly accessory against their slight frames. A few false notes escaped into the air. Now, they were ready.
“Strum. Change to an A, now go back to your D,” said Mike Sutter from the front of the room. Three volunteer assistants milled around the desks, offering individualized tutoring.
The dozen or so kids produced a lively, though slightly wobbly rendition of “There Ain’t No Bugs on Me.” Their fingers shifted from chord to chord while they belted out the verses.
Oh, there ain’t no bugs on me
There ain’t no bugs on me
There may be bugs on some of you mugs
But there ain’t no bugs on me
“This is a good Arkansas song,” Mike said. (You might recognize the ditty from the singing-puppies ad for K9 Advantix flea control.)
As second-year guitar students, they were learning basic first-position chord progression and the major scales. Some struggled with the fingering, but Mike wouldn’t let them give up.
“You will play more wrong strings than right,” he said. “It is the most frustrating thing you will do in your life. But once you get it — whoo-eee!”
He then kicked up the energy level with the bluesy “Boogie Woogie.”
“If you get the A, then back to E, you’re going to start sounding like you’re a musician,” he said.
As the end of the hour neared, Mike returned to a boisterous crowd-pleaser. Back to the “Bugs on Me” song, and all together for the peanut verse.
“Toot! Toot! Peanut butter!” the kids hollered.
Before excusing the group, he handed out assignments. He told them to finish “Boogie Woogie,” the A and B parts, and offered an incentive: Anyone who can play “Boogie Woogie” and sing“There Ain’t No Bugs on Me” earns a white ribbon. “And remember,” he shouted after them, “you have everything you need to be successful.”
After the life-affirming group hug and before the next class arrived (finger-pickin’ eighth-graders), I approached Mike for suggestions on my own continuing education. I asked him about picking vs. strumming, tuning my instrument and starter songs appropriate for a beginner. I also sought more profound lessons, a philosophy to playing.
“A ‘feel’ musician is better than a ‘think’ musician,” said Mike, a Zen master dressed in a fedora and guitar-print Hawaiian shirt.
He then handed me a wad of music sheets and told me to go practice.
I ﬁrst spotted the man with the flowing chest-length beard and blue overalls on the Mountain View Music store’s porch. He seemed to be a visitor from another place and time, a ghost that had crawled out of a fading photo from the Civil War.
I saw him again at a park on Washington Street. He was standing by a pavilion of performers, the wind parting his beard into white, spectral wings.
His name was Martin Darrell, and he, too, was on a mission.
“Mountain View got known for bluegrass, but I’d like to see the old-time component grow,” said the 57-year-old retiree. “I’d like to see it become a mini-mecca of old-time music.”
To achieve his quest, the self-taught fiddler and self-proclaimed scholar of life climbs into the surrounding hills and sits with the elder musicians, many in their 80s. He listens to their songs and stories, keeping them alive through remembrance and repetition. Once a week, he gathers with other old-time music aficionados to practice the sacred tunes and secure them for many tomorrows.
“It’s not an oral tradition,” he said. “It’s an aural tradition.”
To the untrained ear, old-time and bluegrass sound as if they share the same mother. And they do, except one kid went rogue.
“Bluegrass came out of old-time,” said Shay Pool, the music store’s co-owner and an accomplished fiddler. But, she added, the two genres differ in style and arrangement.
A quick breakdown:
Bluegrass: Fast and fancy, with riffs.
Old-time: Rhythmic and pulsing.
Bluegrass: Makes you want to listen.
Old-time: Makes you want to dance.
Bluegrass: Competitive. One person takes the lead.
Old-time: The more the merrier. Great jam parties.
When I discovered a crowd gathered outside the courthouse, I attempted to test my knowledge in a round of Guess the Genre. I counted two upright basses, three guitars, two mandolins and one banjo — common instruments for both. I wanted to sit and listen, but I also felt the itch to dance. The musicians played as a cohesive unit, with no breakout divas. They were inviting and inclusive, and I experienced an urge to (almost) toss off my cloak of inhibitions and pluck a few notes of ... Instead, my mandolin stayed put again.
So back to the guessing game. I was about to say “old-time” when a musician shouted out, “Got any Cajuns out there?”
I flipped through my notes but did not find any mention of Louisiana or zydeco. But I did come across one of Mike Sutter’s koans: “The fun of playing is to play.”
Every weekend, the Jimmy Driftwood Barn hosts a spirited variety show of local talent. Each performer plays two songs, but other musicians often pile onto the stage as backup and added chaos. The rustic venue — pews for seats, year-round holiday lights, a circulating basket for donations — honors its namesake, the Arkansas-born folk singer, songwriter and fiddler.
Driftwood enjoyed a successful run on the American folk music circuit during the mid-20th century. He penned such hits as “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Tennessee Stud,” won a Grammy, and performed in such temples as Carnegie Hall and Grand Ole Opry. In the 1960s, he returned to Stone County to spread the music that fed his soul. He established the Rackensack Folklore Society in Mountain View and later the folk festival. He was also a creative force behind the folk center, until clashing visions with other planners ended his involvement.
The barn is run by Nellie Branscum and her sons, Roger and David. Their father, Glen, was a friend and collaborator of Jimmy’s, and images of the men hang like mini-deities on the barn’s Folk Hall of Fame wall.
Many of the performers at Jimmy’s represent the mainstays of Mountain View, including little Mary Parker. The 8-year-old prodigy could spark an electric storm with her fierce fiddling. At Jimmy’s and around town, she jams with musicians nearly eight times her age. They shake their heads in awe and admiration.
For her first song that night, she roused the crowd with “Stinky’s Blues.” She invited the audience to come up and dance. Her younger brother, Gordon, hopped on stage like a cricket and shimmied in his pint-size cowboy boots.
“Now, I am going to play some singing songs,” she said in a voice as sweet as butterscotch.
She opened her kewpie-doll mouth to sing “You Are My Sunshine.” The crowd released a communal “awwww.”
The homeschooled fiddler is omnipresent. There’s Mary at the folk center and on the courthouse stage, the music store porch, the railing of the ice cream shop. And there she goes chasing her brother across the lawn under a starry sky.
“Here comes Mary. Some of y’all know her,” said Scott Pool, introducing the Music Roots Ensemble members during the festival. “Bear with Mary,” he said as she tuned her fiddle, “she just started.”
The audience emitted a burst of guffaws, because we all knew Mary.
On Sunday morning, the streets were deserted, the music silenced. The visitors had cleared out with their instruments. Families were filing into church. At the Rainbow Cafe, diners dressed in camouflage were hunched over plates of eggs and sausage, bulking up for the first weekend of deer hunting season.
I, however, was not ready to let go of Mountain View’s previous season. For me, it had just begun.
I grabbed my mandolin and strolled over to the courthouse square. I sat on a bench, selected a sheet of music and played D, A, D. A woman across the street approached. I picked louder, hoping that she would join me. Instead, she pulled out a camera, snapped a picture of the stone building and drove off. I don’t think I was in her frame.
Her shot missed an important moment: me carrying on an old music tradition, doing my part to help preserve a cherished heritage. I strummed the chords of a familiar classic and sang the accompanying lyrics, bugs and all.
Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post travel writer.
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The Mountain View Bluegrass Festival is Nov. 6-8 at the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View, Ark. A three-day pass is $65. For a la carte tickets: Thursday night gospel show is $20, and all-day Friday or Saturday passes are $25.
No credit cards accepted; advance purchase suggested. 870-269-2542 or 870-269-2704.