Pavement and Music in the Ozarks

I’m sitting on an uncomfortable bench. It’s uncomfortable because the back of the bench is shaped like a guitar. I would move, but every other seat in the park is taken. On the other side of the gazebo a man wears a T-Shirt that reads, “Infidel and Proud of It.” There’s just enough breeze to blow past the smell of a muggy summer night, and the sweet sound of bluegrass is in the air. I’m in Mountain View, Arkansas, the Folk Music Capital of the World. Or so all the signs say.

MusiciansI was told by a National Geographic road trip guide that there would be music played on the courthouse steps if I got here on a Saturday night. It became clear when I arrived in town around 6PM that the music was on more than just the steps. It was off to the side, in front of the BBQ joint, next to the music shop, and all over the park. Little groups of musicians gathered together in circles, playing the tunes it seems everyone knows but me. The townsfolk walk around with their camping chairs in tow, looking for a good spot to set up shop. At one point I walk by a group of people sitting in a circle staring at nothing, and find out that they’re sitting there hoping some musicians will show up. There are dogs and kids and banjos everywhere. One of the first tunes I hear is Dueling Banjos from Deliverance. I get a room at the bed & breakfast overlooking the park, mostly out of convenience. I’ve never stayed in a bed & breakfast before, though I’m starting to understand their appeal. The place is ridiculously cute.

Woman in a Cowboy HatAs I walk through the park, I’m reminded of the bluegrass festivals I went to back in high school, when I’d visit my dad on tour with his band, The Waybacks. I loved going to the festivals and hanging out with the band. I would usually get a backstage pass, and sometimes I would happen upon musicians in the greenroom, gathered around for an impromptu jam session. All of Mountain View is an impromptu jam session. Sitting in the gazebo, I strike up a conversation with a local sitting next to me, and he says they don’t just do this on Saturdays. Almost every night of the week, all summer long, you will find people scattered around the park and courthouse. “It’s a bit slow on Mondays,” he tells me, “Maybe only one or two groups will be here.” It happens in the winter too, but since they have to move indoors “you gotta know where to look.”

My new friend is an older man with a wife and grown kids. He explains that the school here starts teaching music in the forth grade, and provides students with the musical instrument of their choice to take home and practice. I’m told the really talented kid musicians will show up later. Sure enough, right around 9:30PM, after people have been playing for over three hours, I see an eight-year-old girl in a pretty white dress join a group that already has ten players. She’s got a fiddle, and she’s better at it than most people are at most things.

Younger GroupMy friend points out a few people, some musicians and some spectators, that are from out of town. There’s a couple from Memphis who own a second home here to accommodate their visits. There’s a guitarist from New Orleans that works in sales and tries to find every excuse to go after potential clients in northern Arkansas or southern Missouri, just so he can manage to be in Mountain View every Friday and Saturday night. I consider asking my new friend what a person would do if they lived in Mountain View and didn’t like bluegrass, but I stop short when I realize the answer is probably “move.”

Steel GuitarHis back is hurting him, so my friend decides to get up and walk around for a bit. I see a man with a corn dog, and realize the nearby restaurants still have their to-go windows open. I grab some dinner and walk around, nibbling on my fair food as leftover 4th of July fireworks go off in the distance. I create this dream in my head where I finally learn how to play the guitar and spend a week in Mountain View trying out a different B&B every day and honing my picking skills every night. Or maybe I’ll just book a week at the place by the park, and sit around with the rest of the town, eating cotton candy and joining in to sing a chorus of “Let the Circle Be Unbroken.” Either way, it sounds like a beautiful way to have a lot of fun while getting nothing done. At least, that’s how I would feel. The people of Mountain View don’t see it as doing nothing. For them, this is everything.

I got to Mountain View by way of a winding road through the Ozarks, a beautiful drive that’s so curvy I couldn’t use my cruise control. I stopped in a town with a posted population of 339 to get some gas, a a pair of bikers pulled up behind me.

“You must be lost,” one of the bikers says with a smile.

“Excuse me?” I ask.

He points to my Washington State license plate and I smile. “No,” I tell him, “I’m just wandering.”

“You are lost,” he says with a laugh. “There’s no reason to be here.”

Jasper - In God We TrustI stop in Jasper for lunch, and sit next to an old man at the counter. His accent is so thick I have to have him repeat almost everything he says. He tells me he’s lived in Jasper his whole life, and asks me if I’m from around here.

“No,” I say, “I’m from far away.”

“What, like Missouri?” He asks.

“No, Seattle.”

“Oh,” he nods, “California.”

He tells me how it used to be you could barely get anything in or out of Jasper because the roads were so windy and very few were paved. Trucks couldn’t handle it. You were stuck. Nothing came in and nothing went out. They’ve paved the roads since then, but he still doesn’t seem very happy to be living here. Highway 7 is a favorite among motorcyclists and runs right through Jasper. There are plenty of bikers outside during our conversation, and the old man motions to them.
“I don’t know why they come through here,” he says, “I wouldn’t.”

Possum SmokerWithout much fanfare he says goodbye and takes his cup of coffee over to a table of old men sitting behind us. Two hours away in Mountain View there’s a certain nostalgia when they talk about the days when you couldn’t get in or out. Back then, the “real hillbillies” would come down to the town on weekends and “then you’d really hear somethin’ you’d never heard before.” But people don’t live like that anymore. There’s no need. You don’t need to stay isolated on your farm in the mountains when you can get the things you need from town. The days of the illiterate country bumpkin who can play a washboard like it’s a Stradivarius are gone. It’s as though the Industrial Revolution only just recently arrived in the Ozarks, and people are a little disappointed. Still, it’s probably too late for my friend in Jasper. I doubt he will ever leave Arkansas. To be honest, I’m not sure he’ll ever get as far as Mountain View.