John Wynn Mandolin

Mandolin Maker John Wynn (1938 to 2010)

by Joshua Heston

What is Ozark culture? “Self-made,” said John Wynn, without missing a beat. “When they got here to such backwoods, hilly country that you couldn’t hardly farm because there wasn't a level piece of land around, they had to build everything they used. They built their own culture.

“They formed their own ways of life. Their own standards, their own religion. It meant so much to them.

“They were hill people."

Born on the West Coast during the latter of the dust bowl days, Wynn remembers traveling back and forth from California to the Oklahoma Ozarks to “pick up family members and haul them to California to find work.”

In time, his family returned to Salina, Oklahoma, and a “40-acre rockpile” where John remained until joining the navy, at which point he found himself back in California.

It was during this time that another serviceman, Charles Winkler, altered John’s life forever by simply teaching him a few guitar chords.

“Funny how someone can influence our lives by a little gesture like that,” he remembers. “It changed the whole course of my life. Funny how things happen. I'd love to find him and thank him for that someday.”

After getting out of the navy, John Wynn continued to play in his spare time while doing woodwork and cabinetry for a living. He also taught himself to play banjo.

It wasn’t long before his past-time and his career converged. To save money, he built a mandolin. Building several more, John continued to improve, finally taking one into an LA music shop simply because he was proud of it.

The storeowner offered him $550.

The year was 1974. John Wynn was in the mandolin business.

“I still don't have one of my own,” he notes. “I’m getting close to 200 mandolins that I’ve built and have probably built almost that many banjos. And to this day, I build a mandolin and someone comes along and wants to buy it.”

Never one to stick with tradition unless required, John continued to experiment as he developed his skills. As a result, many of his mandolins truly represent the Ozarks, having been crafted from native wood.

“Traditionally, F-style, Gibson style mandolins were built out of maple.[But] I really like walnut, which produces a really good, acoustic sound, and I’ve experimented with sassafras, persimmon, sycamore and willow just to see what would happen and a lot work really well.

“Wood does contribute to quality, but it's mainly workmanship,” explains John.

“When you build a mandolin, you tune the wood to a musical pitch as you are carving it, and that stems back to even the early days. Stradivarius would tune the wood to A440 pitch — taking a front or back, putting a little rosin on the edge, and run his bow across it.

“Well, I take my thumb and tap the tops and backs and listen. You take off a little bit of wood until you get the pitch you want. So you're actually tuning the wood itself.”

Despite his skill, John’s humility is nearly as remarkable as his craftsmanship.

“I just practiced my craft and kept building. That's how it came about. I think I made every error in the book. But it's kind of routine and fairly easy for me now.

“The one I built today is hopefully better than the one I built yesterday.”

September 11, 2007

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Photo credits: J. Heston. All Plates, John Wynn and John’s Ozark Workshop, Christian County, Missouri (9/11/07).

State of the Ozarks © Archive. September 11, 2007, December 9, 2007, August 17, 2010

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Big Creek Bluegrass

(Protem, MO) Southern Missouri’s Big Creek has been a part of the Ozarks’ bluegrass scene for 35 years. “I was 25 when we first got started and we planned to play every other weekend,” remembers banjo player Ron Yarger, “but there were a lot of small festivals back then and if a band dropped out, we would get a call. So a lot of the time we would play every weekend, sometimes Thursday night through Sunday night.” At the time, Big Creek’s lineup included Ron’s uncle and two cousins.

“I never dreamed we would start over eight years ago. My youngest son Zack was back from the Marine Corps. When he found out the guys were going to quit, he said, ‘Dad, we can’t let this happen.’ Come to find out being part of the band was a dream of his. I was blown away.”

Zack now plays fiddle and sings lead vocals for Big Creek, joined by his cousin Cody Yarger on guitar. Ron’s brother Don plays bass. Ron plays banjo. “It’s a family group thing,” notes Ron, “And it makes the vocals come easy and the blend good. That has been the fun part of it — to get to play music with your children. Cody and Zack are so natural at it.”

Big Creek is rounded out with with Jessica Workman (mandolin) and Tim Prososki (dobro), who happen to be Zack’s sister-in-law and father-in-law. Big Creek performs regularly at West Plains’s Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Association festivals and numerous Ozark churches. Gospel music is a significant part of their repertoire.

For contact information, be sure to check out our State of the Ozarks Links Page!

For a full listing news articles, click on our State of the Ozarks News Directory!

Loudermilk Music News

(EASTANOLLEE, GA) In addition to making bluegrass news by joining forces with Dave Adkins to form Adkins & Loudermilk, Edgar Loudermilk is making waves of his own through producing, songwriting and the release of the solo project My Big Chance Tomorrow. Selections Blue Lonesome Blue, Little Girl of Mine and Shady Green are all frontrunners on bluegrass radio. The Spinney Brothers of Canada just cut one of Loudermilk’s songs as well.

Loudermilk grew up in Georgia, well aware of his family’s ties to bluegrass and country music. The Louvin Brothers (actually Ira Lonnie and Charlie Elzer Loudermilk) were related. “My grandpa was like fifth cousin,” remembers Edgar. “We used to go to Sand Mountain, Alabama, to the Louvin Brothers Festival. I wasn’t playing at the time but we were singing. Charlie asked my dad to come on on stage and sing Ira’s part to When I Stop Dreaming.

“I was only six at the time and was standing next to my grandpa. He was standing there with tears rolling down his face and that’s what really set a fire under me. I knew what music meant to my grandpa and my dad and those were two people I really admired.”

Loudermilk was nine when he began playing bass. Eleven when he started singing tenor. His talents would eventually land him with Rhonda Vincent & The Rage (2001) and Marty Raybon & Full Circle before joining Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out in 2007.

His project My Big Chance Tomorrow’s list of guests reads like a who’s who of contemporary bluegrass. John Cowan (New Grass Revival), Junior Sisk (Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice), Buddy Melton (Balsam Range) and Shawn Lane (Blue Highway) all provide guest vocals. Of the 15 tracks, 14 are written exclusively by Loudermilk. The song I Never Knew You At All was co-written with Ashby Frank.

“I love writing story songs,” relates Loudermilk. “With Shady Green, I wrote that when I was with IIIrd Tyme Out, sitting in the front of the bus as we were coming out of Canada. We were coming through some big mountains and I said, ‘Can you imagine the pioneers coming up on these mountains, having to cut right through them. They had no choice but to go forward or go back.”

My Big Chance Tomorrow is dedicated to Edgar’s grandfather, Elder Marvin Loudermilk, who passed away recently. “He was a preacher for 50 years and played fiddle for 50 years,” says Edgar.

“He was my hero.”

For contact information, be sure to check out our State of the Ozarks Links Page!

For a full listing news articles, click on our State of the Ozarks News Directory!

April 2, 2014

Hilbilly Music

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