October was a magical month spent with friends and surrounded by music. This was our first visit to Mountain View, Arkansas, located in the midst of the beautiful Ozark Mountains. There are no major highways leading to Mountain View and we hope it stays that way. The city is very laid back, population less than 5,000 year-round, with up to 50,000 temporary residents the last weekend of October – more on that later.
Karen and Galen, our friends and music mentors from the San Antonio area, had been to Mountain View, staying at the Ozark RV Park several times over the past few years. During last fall’s visit, they made plans to return this year for the month of October. Being the bashful folks we are, we invited ourselves along. While they were still there last fall, they made reservations for us, picking out a site that would fit our rig.
The Ozark RV Park is located about a mile from downtown Mountain View, the self-proclaimed Folk Music Capital of the World, where musicians gather for impromptu concerts and jam sessions on the courthouse square and any available space they can set up. There’s even a small park near the square that has a couple of fire pits, stocked with firewood, that helps keep the musicians and audience a little warmer on cool days and evenings. The RV park is also located right next door to the Ozark Folk Center, where we spent most of our days and evenings six days a week.
The Ozark Folk Center is an Arkansas state park established in 1973 to preserve Ozark traditions. This living history museum is non-commercial, no phony gimmicks or glitzy neon but you’ll find a lot of down-home Americana with genuine, homespun entertainment aimed at visitors of every age. We bought season tickets, even though October was the last month of the season. We got our money’s worth the first week we were there – it is definitely a bargain if you plan on attending concerts and visiting the crafts’ village for several days.
And visit we did! We (all four of us) were fixtures at the park Tuesdays through Sundays (the center was closed on Mondays). During the day, we’d check out the different craft buildings – we saw demonstrations on how to make soap, candles, brooms, furniture, pottery, quilts, baskets, clothing, shingles, musical instruments, spinning tops, blacksmithing wares, and our favorite – fresh baked goodies from the kitchen. We had to swing by the kitchen whenever we were in the village to check out what was baking in the wood-fired oven, and of course, sample some of the finished goods. We enjoyed cornbread, hoecakes, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, chocolate-dipped ginger snaps and other scrumptious goodies.
We particularly enjoyed listening to the daytime musicians who played for a half hour every hour with a longer set at lunchtime. The groups varied every day but they were all talented. All music that is played at the Folk Center, whether it is during the daytime or at the evening concerts, must have been written before 1941, which is when Ernest Tubbs first introduced electric guitar to this style music. No electric instruments, other than mikes, are allowed. The music played is classified as folk music, not to be confused with current country-western music. Some of the groups sing a capella. It was such a joy to hear music without electric guitars and other electric instruments and to be able to clearly understand the words. In fact, the fairgrounds across the street from the campground had a festival one weekend with a rock group playing – our ears had gotten so used to the clarity and pureness of the center’s folk music that we felt assaulted by the loud electronic music.
Just about every evening (except on Mondays) we’d attend a concert in the 1000-seat auditorium. About eight to ten different groups would play every evening, about 15 minutes per set. Most groups played so well, the audience would yell for more (literally-that’s how you get an encore in the Ozarks!) and we’d be treated to another song. Each concert got jumpstarted with the Ozark Folk Center dancers doing a square dance, then that night’s emcee, almost always a musician that would later play a set, would introduce each group, giving a little history of the group. What is interesting is recognizing some of the musicians playing in several different groups, each group having its own flavor. Mountain View has lots of musicians but not many want to commit to performing on a regular basis, or they feel they aren’t good enough or want to perform in public. It wasn’t unusual for one musician to be part of four or five ensembles.
Evening concerts generally lasted about two hours but if the musicians were spectacular and had requests for encores, the program might run over for another half hour or so. The audience never minded that at all – in fact, you could judge how well the evening’s line up was by what time you got out. Our favorite concerts ended when all the musicians for that evening came on stage for a grand finale. Joe Jewell (hammered dulcimer, guitar, mandolin, jig dancer extraordinaire and often emcee) said these finales are all impromptu, depending on the instruments available and the musicians willing to participate. It didn’t happen often-but when they had a grand finale, it took your breath away. One evening’s grand finale, we were treated to several fiddles, banjoes, guitars and two spoon players – an occurrence that rarely happens. There aren’t many spoon players performing publicly--we were delighted to listen to two very talented players that night.
Members of the audience were always welcome and encouraged to come up on stage and dance, whether the band was playing a waltz or a jig tune. We often saw two young brothers jig dancing and were amazed to find out they had been taking lessons for only six weeks. (Jig dancing, similar to clogging and buck dancing, is also an Ozark tradition and is taught at the Folk Center.)
Several years ago, local musicians realized that few young people were getting involved in learning and preserving Ozark folk music. Through a government grant, students that are interested are provided with an instrument and lessons. We watched several talented young people benefiting from this effort perform.
Some of our favorite groups and musicians:
We made friends with most of these musicians, getting to know them on a first-name basis and being recognized and kidded if we didn’t get to a daytime performance on time. Some of the daytime groups asked Galen to accompany them on his washtub bass during their performances. His washtub bass is a hit wherever he goes. Most groups had at least one CD for sale. Between Karen and Galen and us, we added several new CDs to our collection. We kidded several of the groups that we were their groupies.
We spent a lot of time talking to Joe Jewell, getting a history of the area and the musicians. Joe was often emceeing the evening concerts – always a good evening when he was there, either as emcee or when he played and danced. He is an excellent jig dancer and told us he keeps in shape that way. It was fascinating to see him play the hammered dulcimer – he makes that instrument rock. His hands move so fast while he plays, he puts a special adhesive on the ‘spoons’ to keep them from flying across the stage. If he got really cooking, he’d play that dulcimer and dance in place. We hope to see him perform in Florida this winter at a renaissance fair.
Robert and Mary Gillihan both work at the Folk Center when they aren’t performing on stage. Robert could be found in the Music Cabin, demonstrating some of the old instruments there, including a wash pail bass. He showed us an 1850s dulcimer that Karen played. Another day he gave us a picking bow demonstration and a little history about this odd looking instrument. Mary often led school groups as they toured the folk center. She also performed solo as the Ballad Singer, the story of three women that were prominent in the early music history of the Ozarks. Mary wove a story around these women and what life was like in those days. She was in character describing the place of singing and song in the lives of isolated rural women, telling us about old time quilting bees and play parties. She’d get you so involved listening that you really felt you were there in the 1800s.
Our favorite performance while we were there was listening to Harmony perform Charley Sandage’s Arkansas Stories in the intimate 150-seat auditorium in the admin building. Charley is an historian that has written stories about the history of Arkansas and its settlers, putting these stories to music. Harmony, sometimes with Charley joining in, performs these story songs. This was all done without mikes and was fabulous. We are kicking ourselves that none of us had cameras. If you are ever in the area or hear of Harmony performing Arkansas Stories, make plans to attend – a memorable performance.
Factoid: the song, “The Battle of New Orleans”, sung by Johnny Horton, was written by the late Jimmy Driftwood, a local teacher and musician, trying to get his students interested in history and the battle that occurred during the War of 1812. Words were put to the music of the “Eighth of January”, which is when the battle started.
Besides the kitchen where we’d get our daily ration of cookies, the Folk Center had a smokehouse that sold quick lunches as well as hand-dipped ice cream. However, our favorite eating establishment at the Folk Center was their restaurant, the Skillet. Their breakfast buffets on weekends were delicious and well stocked. Their fried chicken buffet on Sunday was fabulous – you never walked away hungry. We enjoyed their lunch specials several times. Do you get the idea we ate there a lot? Between the entertainment and fine dining at the Folk Center, you can see why we spent most of our time there.
Karen and Galen’s friends, Betty and Ken, were also at the campground. One Sunday, they introduced us to their favorite restaurant – JoJo’s Catfish Wharf, located about five miles away, on the White River. We’re not catfish fans but we enjoyed the clam strips and fried shrimp, as well as the complimentary hushpuppies, beans, and green tomato relish that accompanies every meal. We made a couple more trips to JoJo’s during our month in the area.
As we mentioned earlier, Mountain View is surrounded by music and every RV park has a pickin’ shed where musicians, wannabes and anyone in the area can wander in and either join in playing or listening. The Ozark RV Park’s Pickin’ Shed had a dulcimer jam every Monday evening, regular jams on Wednesdays and Thursday mornings and ‘gentle’ jams those afternoons. A gentle jam is a jam that is slower paced, allowing beginners to get comfortable in a jam session, learn new tunes and techniques.
The Monday night dulcimer jams were always well attended. The first one we attended, we went just to watch. With Karen and Galen’s encouragement, we got brave enough to bring and play our instruments at subsequent Monday jams. There’s even a protocol to jam sessions--each musician has a chance to pick a song to play, no one musician should dominate the session, musicians shouldn’t play so loud that others can’t hear their own playing, as well as other informal ‘rules’. There were usually at least a dozen or more musicians during the two-hour jam session, with as many listeners in the ‘audience’. We are still beginning mountain dulcimer players but we enjoyed playing the few songs we did know as well as just strumming chords on those songs we didn’t know.
The RV park sponsors a weekly potluck on Tuesday evenings. It’s such a popular event that we were advised to be there on time because within five minutes, all the food would be gone. We found they start the meal right on time but it was closer to fifteen minutes! Seriously, as we’ve found in most potlucks, there’s always lots of good food. We started a weekly tradition – we’d get together with Karen and Galen the night after and have leftover potluck dishes.
Early in the month, friends Ron and Donna arrived to stay a few days at the RV park. Ron and Donna were the third couple that went with us to Alaska in 2005 – this was the first time we’d all been together since then. They were on their way to Orlando to work at Disney for the winter. It was good seeing them again.
As we mentioned earlier, we spent most of our time at the Folk Center, having a hard time pulling ourselves away when they were open to check out other attractions in the area. One of those attractions was the John Taylor Laid Back Pickin’ Barn, a down home music show with plenty of room for anyone wanting to either jig dance or waltz, depending on the music. Wooden chairs were set up auditorium-style on the floor in front of the stage. People came and went during the evening. There is no set admission but donations are accepted. We missed seeing it, but apparently, the family dog wanders among the attendees with a bucket collecting donations. John and his band play requests but he usually prefaces the request with “I hate that song”, no matter the song – his trademark phrase.
On a beautiful fall day, we took off with Karen, Galen, Ken and Betty, and Tony and Connie to visit Blanchard Springs Caverns, an incredible living underground cave and the only cavern run by the U S Forest Service. Located in the Ozark National Forest, this cave has only been open since the mid-1990s and in our opinion is one of the prettiest caves, using Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico as our comparison.
There are three different trails – the Dripstone Trail, about half mile long; the Discovery Trail, 1.2 miles (closed after Labor Day); and the Wild Cave Tour (you get to see undeveloped sections of the cave-very rugged). It was too late in the season to take the Discovery Trail and we weren’t ready to commit to the exertions of the Wild Cave Tour, so that left the Dripstone Trail. Our ranger was very informative and knowledgeable and thoroughly enjoyed conducting the tour. It hadn’t become a drag to him to take people through the cave day after day--his enthusiasm came through in his presentation. The path was paved with plenty of handrails. Two of the areas had amphitheater seating – we stopped at the first one and were awed by what we could see when the ranger flipped on the lights. If we had enough bandwidth, we’d load a slide show of the photos we took there – words cannot describe how beautiful it was. Well worth a stop in you’re in the area.
When we left the cave, we drove down to see Blanchard Springs, a waterfall rushing out from the base of the mountain. We then drove over to Mirror Lake, a popular fishing spot as well as very picturesque, especially with the fall colors reflecting in the lake.
One of the rangers at the Visitor Center inquired if any of us RVers would be interested in hosting at the campground. They are still developing their host program. We left them our names, then checked out the campground. The entire area is beautiful but there sure is one heckuva steep hill to get down to the campground. And what goes down, must come up!
As mentioned earlier in this update, the visitor population in Mountain View swells to over 50,000 near the end of the month. The Arkansas Bean Fest and Championship Outhouse Races take place the last weekend of October. This annual event, 24 years and counting, draws people from everywhere. There are concerts at the courthouse square starting Thursday and lasting through Saturday afternoon.
Early Saturday morning, the bean pots (large cauldrons) are placed around the courthouse with teams in place with their prize-winning pinto beans recipe (or so they hope). Judging takes place before noon and right at twelve, a whistle blows and the crowds surge forward to get their bowls of free beans and cornbread. Some recipes were better than others, from what we heard. We opted instead to get fish and chips being sold by one of the many food vendors set up nearby. One of the Monday night dulcimer jam leaders (Charlie) had a crew assembled while he and his partner cooked. His Musical Bean Team entertained visitors as they wandered by the square. Galen and Karen both performed, Galen with his washtub bass and Karen playing a mountain dulcimer.
At 1 pm, the outhouse race teams paraded around the square with the race starting about 30 minutes later. All ‘outhouses’ were human-powered, with one driver and two people pushing. The race was on a road with a slight incline because none of the vehicles had brakes. There was a lot of creativity in designing and decorating the outhouses, even down to the outfits. One of them was patterned after the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Thousands of participants lined either side of the narrow street with hay bales protecting us. We quickly saw the need for the bales when one of the outhouses started to veer towards the onlookers – a little added excitement! All in all, both the Bean Fest and Outhouse Races were fun to watch, once…. We easily got used to the casual atmosphere surrounding Mountain View so having the population swell tenfold was a bit overwhelming.
When we first got to Mountain View, we visited the Dulcimer Shoppe, home of the McSpadden mountain dulcimer and where our dulcimers had been made. We arranged to take private lessons from Lawrence Chapman, one of the craftsmen working there and an excellent dulcimer player. He performed at the Folk Center’s evening concerts several times over the course of the month, solo, which is unusual and takes a lot of talent and courage. Lawrence met us at the Pickin’ Shed for weekly lessons the month we were there – we feel we’ve learned additional techniques and skills, added to what Karen and Galen have taught us. The trick, though, is to practice, practice, practice…. several times a week. We’ve taken our dulcimers out of their cases and have them easily in reach to remind us to practice often.
Before we knew it, our magical month in Mountain View came to an end. We said good-bye to old friends and new, but not before making reservations to return next April for another month.
On our way to our November campground hosting jobs at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville, Alabama, we stopped for the night in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Agricenter RV Park. Memphis was a nice halfway point from Mountain View but most importantly, home of our all-time favorite barbecue place, Corky’s. Are we shameless or what??? After we got set up in our pull-thru site at the RV park, we headed out for dinner at Corky’s – scrumptious as always. Next morning, we hit the road after Memphis rush hour traffic subsided, arriving at Monte Sano mid-day. We’ll get set up in our host site on November first.
Coming up: Campground hosting in the evening, medical/dental/vet appointments during the day in November. South to Florida for most of the winter. Stay tuned!