We left Memphis on Monday, bound for our next stop which was a little further off the beaten track than most of the places we had so far visited. I had asked a question on the Trip Advisor Road Trips forum on whether people had any suggestions on where I should stop on a musical tour. In addition to all of the usual responses, someone suggested Mountain View, Arkansas. This is a small town in the Ozarks, home to the Ozark Folk Center and, according to my Trip Advisor correspondent, a hub for Bluegrass and Old Time jamming. I decided to include it on the trip on that basis.
We drove out of Memphis, crossing the Mississippi river as we went. We couldn’t help but notice that the river had encroached on flood plains, as had most of the rivers we crossed on our journey westward. The high rainfall had been taking its toll.
Our journey to Mountain View was largely uneventful, although we continue to see armadillo roadkill at regular intervals. Apparently, the native US armadillo reacts to surprise by leaping into the air, thus colliding with vehicles that might otherwise have avoided it.
We were booked to stay at the Inn at Mountain View which neighbours a small park, officially designated the Washington Street Park but known locally as the Pickin’ Park.
As we rolled into town, we could see why. We arrived at about 2:00pm, and there was a group of four musicians jamming together at one of the three gazebos in the park. It looks like they weren’t kidding about the jamming being a constant here. We checked in to our room and took a stroll around to see the town. We walked all the way along Main Street and back, which didn’t take long. This is a town of fewer than 3,000 people but, as we were to learn over our short stay, it punches well above its weight in musical terms.
We stopped at the Pickin’ Park to listen to the people playing there. This particular group were playing more of a country/gospel repertoire than we usually choose to listen to, but the standard of musicianship was impressively high. We were going to have to seriously consider whether we wanted to join any of the jams here.
We grabbed a meal at the local Mexican restaurant and Ishbel ordered a water to drink while I asked for a beer. And that’s when I found out. Mountain View sits in Stone County. A dry county. No beer for me for the next few days!
The following day we went up to the Ozark Folk Center to take a look around. They have a range of different craftsmen and women making and selling traditional items made in a traditional fashion. There’s a blacksmith, a print shop using treadle printers and old-school typesetting, leather working, stained glass, pottery and much more, all being made on the premises. We had an interesting conversation with the lady in the stained glass workshop after we admired the geometric patterns on some examples of her work. The patterns were based on quilt patterns that were used as signalling devices on the underground railroad. This was the name given to the route travelled by runaway slaves as they attempted to escape their servitude in the South and reach Canada, where slavery was prohibited. Certain patterns would signal that food was available for runaways, or warn that there were runaway hunters in the area. Also in the Folk Center, there were regular music presentations. We stopped by to watch a husband and wife team perform. They were excellent.
After the Folk Center, we headed back to town and stopped by the local music store, Mountain View Music. We had a chat with the owner, Scott, and his daughter, Rebecca. They are both accomplished musicians and, in fact, Rebecca is part of a band called Twang who are nominated for an Arkansas state Country Music Award this year. We were already aware of Twang as they were scheduled to play a concert that evening that we had already decided we would attend.
As we walked towards the concert that evening we passed by the music shop again and saw yet another jam in progress.
According to the list of music events chalked daily on the blackboard at our inn, this was the fast jam and the slow jam was scheduled for the following evening, Wednesday. We were seriously considering trying to join the slow jam, but would wait to see if we had the courage.
Needless to say, the girls from Twang put on an excellent show. Three of them are sixteen years old, and a fourth is almost sixteen. They are amazing. We discovered this evening that, in local schools, there is a folk music program. In fourth grade – so around ten years old – kids in the region start receiving musical education about the folk tradition of the Ozarks, and they get the loan of an instrument to start learning. During our stay in Mountain View, we witnessed a number of youngsters playing, singing, or dancing in the traditional style and each of them clearly enjoyed what they were doing. Shockingly, it seems that exposure to stimuli and skills at an early age can make a difference to the performance of those skills in later life. Who knew? If only the Scottish Football Association could do something similar for young footballers.
Various rock formations in the caverns have been named by the workers, based on a perceived resemblance to certain objects. This is the Battleship:
After the caverns, we headed back to the Inn and bravely took up our instruments. With steely resolve, we got ready to head to the jam at the music store. We were about to step out when the heavens opened, and the rain fell in huge drops. Well, we thought, there won’t be a jam in this weather so there’s little point in us dragging ourselves along there. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Looks like we’re jamming, then.
We went along and sat in, doing our best to keep up with what was largely an Old Time repertoire. It was actually great fun and the jam regulars were lovely and welcoming to us. We were concentrating quite hard on hitting the right chords and keeping up, so didn’t really notice just how large an audience the jam had acquired until it was over, two and three quarter hours after it had started. We were delighted that we had come along and sat in, and the regulars invited us to join them for a meal in a nearby restaurant, so we had a long chat. One of them used a great phrase when asking us what brought us here. “Mountain View is a to, not a via. If you’re here, you weren’t passing through.” And that was, of course true.
Thursday was our last full day in Mountain View, so we decided to see some more of the natural beauty of this area and headed up to Gunner Pool in the Ozark National Forest for a hike along Sylamore Creek Trail. It was stunning, passing along a beautifully clear river at the foot of high limestone bluffs.
For the evening, we went back to the Folk Center and bought tickets for the concert in the auditorium. Once again, we heard the cream of this little town’s talented young musicians perform. Possum Juice, Backwoods Arkansas, The Wiede Family, and Grace Stormont were all amazing. The headliners, Mary Parker and the White River Ramblers, were brilliant. All of this and we had to stand up to be applauded for coming all this way to see them. Ishbel had been talking to the MC during the interval and it turns out he loves Scotland and Scottish music.
These shows are recorded for broadcast on Ozark Highlands Radio, which is available online and which we’ll be checking out in the future.
Amazed by the talent on show and eager to keep playing music, we headed back to our little inn. There was jamming action at two of the three gazebos in the picking park and I decided to bite the bullet, pick up my mandolin, and head out there to sit in. Well, I took the mandolin out then couldn’t pluck up the courage to take it out of the case so we just listened to the musicians play for a while before calling it a night. Before we went, Ishbel got a photo of something that you would never see in the UK: a dobro-themed park bench!
We probably should have jammed more than we did but even so we had a great time in Mountain View. I’m grateful to the Trip Advisor respondent who brought it to my attention and, who knows, we might even make it back up into the Ozarks one day.