Bluegrass Nights

The Beauty of Ozarks Music

by Joshua Heston

The rich musical heritage of the Ozarks is obvious.

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It is important, however, to look deeper, celebrating and understanding what defines Ozark music, how it came to be, and what it will become.

It is also important to know that Ozark music is not purely acoustic. The early television show, The Ozark Jubilee (based in Springfield, Missouri), was a pioneer in popularizing what would become commercial country music.

And many do not realize that Ben Moody and Amy Lee (of Evanescence) developed their skills and style in the southern Ozarks region near Little Rock.

Thus, State of the Ozarks is dedicated to celebrating the Ozarks' music heritage, past, present and future.

Bright Glowed My Hills

“All life was not dull work for James Columbus Booth. He was a musician. He had no musical training, but somewhere in his Irish and Scotch ancestry there must have been a harp or bagpipe player because Lum could truly make his old fiddle sing. He kept the instrument in a bleached, white muslin flour sack carefully laid in the bureau drawer. Inside the fiddle, he kept a set of rattles from a rattlesnake, ‘to help the tone,’ he explained.”

— Doug Mahnkey, Bright Glowed My Hills, School of the Ozarks Press, Point Lookout, Missouri 1968

...Roots Music

by Joshua Heston

“Roots Music” is a fancy term, one used for some of the most compelling — though decidedly least fancy — music ever made.

Roots music, or acoustic music, or simply put, the unadorned music of the American heartland, comes from many places and in many forms. And while the Ozarks culture certainly doesn't have a trademark on roots music, the culture is still deeply embedded here.

That culture comes to mind whenever I listen to the spirituals like Well, Well, Well recorded by the Foggy River Boys. Or visit with Gordon McCann. Or drive through Mountain View, Arkansas.

Our music. Our voice. Our song.

And Springfield, Missouri. Today, it's easy to overlook the gritty, bluesy, rootsy home of folks like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Big Smith.

Perhaps it is all the traffic and the Battlefield Mall with its Abercrombie & Fitch and Build-A-Bear Workshop stores that tends to distract us (and not necessarily for the better). Beneath all the plastic commercialism there is a grit and a soul: a strange mix one part rural hillbilly and one part urban ghetto.

I'm really not sure how it works even now.

But take a listen to Ha Ha Tonka's Caney Mountain or the Daredevil's If You Wanna Get To Heaven (You Gotta Raise A Little Hell) and you start to understand what it feels like.

It is where hillbilly meets urban prairie — ultimately some truly fascinating stuff.

— from August 8, 2010, State of the Ozarks Weekly Issue 143

Roland Wade Carson & Ozark Mountain Grass

(West Plains, MO) Ozark Mountain Grass’ self-titled album featuring James, Leah and Braden VanKirk of Licking, Missouri, along with Roland Wade Carson of West Plains (formerly of Oneida, TN), is doing well, says Carson.

The album includes tracks I’ve Seen the Rock of Ages (written by John Preston), Shepherd of My Valley (Betty Jean Robinson), and Me & Jesus (Tom T. Hall), as well as West Plains Tragedy (Roland Carson, Karlene Carson Leah VanKirk). West Plains Tragedy memorializes the 1928 dance hall explosion which took place in downtown West Plains. Roland Wade Carson was approached by a New York moviemaker to write the song (casting has recently taken place for the planned short film).

Carson, a songwriter, trucker and vice president of the West Plains-based George D. Hay Society, heralds from a long line of Tennessee musicians. Fiddlin’ John Carson was his great uncle, making “Moonshine Kate” Rosa Lee Carson (John Carson’s daughter) a cousin. Both were some of the earliest musicians to record identifiably country music. Roland's stepfather was L. C. Angel who made his mark with the 1969 honky tonk hit Don’t Judge Me Guilty. Carson remembers, “I grew up under L.C. He opened for people like Johnny Cash and Mel Street and he put me to work as a rhythm guitar player when I was a kid.

Ozark Mountain Grass albums may be purchased at the West Plains Music Store, the Oneida Book & Gift Shop of Oneida, TN, and from the group’s Facebook page. The band will perform on Saturday, June 7 at the Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Association’s Summer Festival in West Plains.

Music Memories

by John Tilden

Music is a big part of our family, just as it has been for a lot of families in the Ozarks. It was a good way to get away and have some fun for a change instead of just thinking about hard work. Lots of my relatives — grandpas, uncles — played the guitar, the fiddle.

My dad played on a radio program in Branson when he was younger. It's been a huge part of our life. My grandpa was on an album recorded years ago. There was a individual in the '20s who would travel around and record people's music, getting the flavor of that area.

Now several years back, a gentleman on the East Coast wanted to compile the music that had been recorded. So a song my grandpa was playing on in the 1920s is on that CD that they made. Music really goes back a long ways, both in my family and in the Ozarks. I do play guitar and I like to write. Gospel songs, Christian songs, is really my love right now. I don't want to write anymore if it's not for the Lord.

plate 1. A bass fiddle glows in the half-darkness of a bluegrass festival night. Starvy Creek Festival, Conway, Missouri. September 18, 2011.

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  • July 23, Brightwater Junction, Kimberling City Mall, Kimberling City, MO
Casey Lee Penn

plate 2. Casey Lee Penn, Benton, Arkansas.

Ozark Music Spotlight: Casey Lee Penn

“Casey encompasses all the qualities of a real artist,” says Cindy Clark of the Clark Family Trio. “She is a vocal delight!” As a writer, “she seems to find just the right words for describing the flavor and bright spots. Casey is more than a music critic. She’s a fan!” As a songwriter, “her contributions to the music world have been given some pretty high recognition by her songwriting peers. ‘Oceans I’ve Cried,’ which she wrote with friend and fellow musician Rodger King, is a heart-melter.”

An aspiring songwriter and musician, Penn’s day job is as creative director of her business, Pennwords Writing & Design. Her nonfiction writing appears in magazines such as Bluegrass Unlimited, Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society, and Talk Business & Politics.

Born in Wyoming, Penn remembers always loving the fiddle but seldom being around someone playing it. “We seemed to live far from where the music was,” she recalls. “That was not true – Wyoming has always had its share of music – I just wasn’t aware of most of it as a kid.

“As it was, I grew up around music in church and on the radio. I grew up loving the feel of my voice and felt, instinctively, that I could sing. I love the Lord, and singing in church with my family was always part of my life.”

These days, Penn is finding opportunities to use her voice – in church, yes, but also outside of church, where she enjoys the feeling of connecting emotionally with an audience. It’s been a slow process.

So how does a young girl in Wyoming find herself in the Ozark hills of Arkansas? “When I was 10, my dad surrendered to preach. We moved to Arkansas so he could attend the seminary. It was the hardest — and in the end, most wonderful — trip of our lives,” she recalls. “I’ve never regretted growing up in Arkansas. I do wish, at times, that I’d have landed a little closer to the Ozarks, where I could have been exposed earlier to a little front porch picking and singing.”

Other than a few years of piano and violin lessons, and singing in church, Penn wasn’t around a lot of music. “I didn’t have folks to sit around and play music with, and we didn’t live in a place where music was the ‘big’ thing,” she said. “It fell to the back burner, and though I missed it, I spent years enjoying other passions – writing, mostly – and just growing up.”

By 19, Penn was married, working and earning a degree in mass media and writing from Henderson State University. There wasn’t time for a lot of extras, but there was music in the family. “Thankfully, I married into a family that loved and played bluegrass gospel. I pulled my fiddle back out and learned to improvise along, and did some singing. My husband and I played with a family group at our church and around the region in some fellow church services.”

As life got busy, as it tends to do, music again went to the back burner. The family played together less, and there was a career to mind and kids to raise. Still, the desire for music was there inside. “I thought sometimes about performing, recording, and otherwise using my talent, but I didn’t do anything about it for too many years,” said Penn, who admits sometimes feeling alone in her wish to play and sing “out.”

“It isn’t fair to say that any one kept me from pursuing music,” said Penn. “Singing was something I spent some time thinking about. I could not see a responsible path to it, so I kept that particular ambition to myself. On occasion, I pushed my way onto a stage somewhere to get it out of my system for a while, but that was the extent of it.

It took tragedy to push Penn a little harder toward the Ozark music scene. “2011 was a difficult, but life-changing year for me. My dad died unexpectedly, and it was a hard loss, and a spotlight on life’s brevity. I am still learning from it. I find myself much more empathetic to others who suffer loss or falter as they travel life’s rocky pathway.

“In short, I woke up! I found myself looking at life vividly and what was missing was very clear to me: my music. I decided to make something happen. I got involved with a fiddle workshop here, a small performance there. Before I knew it, I was consumed with possibilities!”

Since getting more serious about music, Penn has been taking opportunities as she can to learn, grow, and search for her fit in the music world. Penn has begun performing periodically at the Ozark Folk Center. Other performances have included Mt. Ida Front Porch Stage, Central Arkansas NSAI Showcases, and private events around Arkansas. She also joined the Central Arkansas Chapter of Nashville Songwriters Association International. “I have a handful of songs under my belt and have met and performed with some great artists.”

Recently, Penn and co-writer Rodger King performed together and won the Arkansas Talent Search Songwriting Division. A resulting album, for release this spring, will feature their songwriting together and as independent artists.

“I’m writing songs and singing, and I have a group of friends and family that play with me regularly. I call on them as ‘bandmates’ more all of the time and I’m enjoying every minute of learning and growing with them.

“I realize I’m getting a late start,” she says. “I’m committed to being a mom, wife and small business owner. I don’t want to walk away from any of those things, but at the same time, I’m searching for my place in this business of music.”

Rhonda Vincent, Queen of Bluegrass

plate 3. Sassafras grove, Baker Creek Farm, Mansfield, MO. Photo credit, J. Heston. October 24, 2007.

“So the days slipped over the wood-fringed ridges. The soft green of tree, and of bush and grassy slope changed to brilliant gold, and crimson, and russet brown, while the gray blue haze that hangs always over the hollows took on a purple tone. Then in turn this purple changed to a deeper, colder blue, when the leaves had fallen, and the trees shows naked against the winter sky.” — Harold Bell Wright, 1907

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Missouri Boatride

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They are the founding band of the Bluegrass On The Lake Concert Series in Kimberling City, Missouri. Band members include Justin Sifford (guitar, vocals), Larry Sifford (bass, emcee), Dean Webb (mandolin), and Dennis Pritchard (fiddle).

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by Joshua Heston

Annabelle is the haunting second track of the Gillian Welch album Revival.

“We cannot have all things to please us, no matter how we try,” sings New York City-born (and California-raised) Welch with all the heartbreak of a real-life Ozarker.

Welch, associate producer and performer on the now-celebrated O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, isn't exactly a household name. But there’s something both plaintive and deeply arresting in her songs and phrasings.

I’m not entirely sure why, but when I listen Gillian Welch sing Annabelle I can't help but think of the farming folk up in Christian County, Missouri.

Rolling hills hold farming communities punctuated by rivers like the James and Finley, all in the shadow of the Queen City of the Ozarks: Springfield. Christian County is a land of countless stories.

“When I’m dead and buried, I’ll take a hard life of tears, from every day I’ve ever known. Anna’s in the churchyard, she’s got no life at all / She’s only got these words of stone...”

It kinda makes me want to know every single one of those stories.

— from March 27, 2011, State of the Ozarks Weekly Issue 176

Rhonda Vincent, Queen of Bluegrass

plate 2. All-American Bluegrass Girl Rhonda Vincent works tirelessly to popularize bluegrass and acoustic music. Sally Mountain Festival, Greentop, Missouri. July 02, 2005.

Hilbilly Music


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