IT’S RAINY AND gray the day I head to the “Folk Music Capital of the World,” a dense fog cresting the hills and fizzling out in the hollows as I twist my way north along Arkansas 5. The cynic in me smirks; if ever there were a day to test the mettle of the town’s superlative moniker, it’s today: cold, damp and a full six weeks before the town’s 53-year-old folk festival ushers in a new season of plein air pickin’ and grinnin’, the mountain town’s claim to (supposedly worldwide) fame.
I know I’m nearing Main Street and the town’s courthouse square when the grocery stores and strip malls give way to ochre-yellow stone buildings, quaint as can be, one after the next. I park in front of Mountain View Music, the rendezvous point for me and my tour guide, a septuagenarian musician by the name of J.C. Bonds. The music store—a sort of de facto hub for local music makers—is tucked inside a rambling house lined with a white picket fence and wrapped in a creaky covered porch. Signs advertising “Bluegrass CDs & Cassettes,” “Dulcimers” and “Tourist Information” hang from the eaves.
Kitschy, I think.
I can hear the music before I even open the door, which jangles with the tinny tympani of a strung-up tambourine (“a Mountain View doorbell,” its sign explains) as I close it behind me. A fire’s roaring in a Stone County-stone fireplace as three musicians—J.C. on mandolin; store owners Scott and Shay Pool on guitar and fiddle, respectively—play alongside one another on mismatched wooden stools. Vega, the Pools’ calico cat, is curled up nearby, resting her head on the grooved frets of a handmade acoustic guitar, seemingly oblivious to the jam session unfolding before her.
As I take in the scene, it’s almost immediately apparent that this isn’t kitsch whatsoever. Not even close. In fact, the only adjective I manage to scrawl in my notebook as I stand in the doorway, mesmerized by the mountain melody spilling out of this trio, easy as anything, is “honest.”
“Scott has some of the finest instruments around,” J.C. tells me as he stoops to fit beneath a row of glossy mountain dulcimers, his tennis-shoed feet creaking over dusty floorboards as he walks me through the Pools’ store.
I, too, duck beneath dulcimers, dodge mandolins and pull in my elbows in order to shimmy between racks of music books as we walk through the practice rooms, peek in at Scott’s workshop, and make our way back to the fire-warmed front room. It’s a labyrinth of a space, every square inch indicative of a couple possessed of an almost maniacal devotion to playing, creating and teaching folk music. “It’s a shame you’re not here on a Tuesday, which is when a lot of our groups come in to practice,” says Shay, referring to the 200-some students who take part in the local Music Roots program. The county-wide initiative provides instruments (some made by Scott, all repaired by Scott) and instruction (Shay’s forte) to any kid, fourth grade and beyond, who shows an interest in traditional music. The goal, of course, is to preserve a way of life—one that is indelibly woven into the very social fabric of the place—that would otherwise die with J.C. and his pickin’ partners.
“A lot of the kids I saw come up have really taken off,” J.C. says, his long arms folded across his chest. “Like Gary Murray—he’s Darius Rucker’s fiddler now.”
“What about Mert’s grandson?” Shay chimes in from the front counter.
“Yep, he played with Alan Jackson,” J.C. says. “He plays on that video ‘Pop-a-Top’? And his son Lucas, now, he’s won the old-time banjo competition a couple of times.”
“He’s worked with Steve Martin, too!” Scott yells from his workshop.
As we make our way toward a wall of gleaming acoustic guitars, J.C. takes one off the wall and starts to strum, and I watch as his lanky fingers feel their way across the strings. He closes his eyes and starts to play an old Ozark folk tune, the sound evoking campfire singalongs and splintered rocking chairs and all manner of feel-good Americana. Each time the music slows, I ask him questions: how long he’s been playing, how long he’s lived in Stone County. He answers my questions—68 years, all his life—but he never stops his strumming. It’s as if he needs the accompaniment of his guitar to stay true to his story.
“You ever cook in an iron skillet?” J.C. asks me from across the room. I tell him that yes, I do, and I ask what he cooks in his.
“Biscuits,” he says, returning his attention to the stack of cast-iron pans in C.K. Lancaster & Son, a hardware store we’re browsing on the edge of the square. “I really like to make homemade biscuits.”
“I can’t believe that Susie wore a hole in an iron skillet making gravy, can you?” says Charlotte Lawrence, third-generation owner of the store, to J.C. from her perch at the counter, which is currently lost under a tangle of white register tape. “At least she says she did. That would be a lot of work.”
Here in Mountain View, you see, things are built to last. Like Charlotte’s collection of cast-iron cookware. Or the piles (and piles and piles) of dark indigo overalls—size toddler to 54-inch waist—in the next room. Or the trio of locals—one of whom is J.C.’s old “fishin’ buddy”—who’ve pulled up lawn chairs inside to watch passers-by on this rainy day. The hardware store has been operating on the square since 1898, though the original wooden-frame building burned down long ago. These days, it seems less focused on “hardware,” and more on secondhand curiosities and country-town bric-a-brac.
We leave the store and duck our heads into a few other shops along the square—a gift shop called Aunt Minnie’s Yellow House and an antique mall—and then nose around the historic courthouse, where folks from the county judge to the assessor (a position J.C. held for a decade) light up when J.C. strolls in. As we head over to Cronies Cafe for lunch, a pickup honks as it passes us on Main Street, and J.C. waves.
“That’s the mayor, Roger Gardner,” J.C. says. “He’s real good with the harmonica.”
J.C.’s concerned. He’s all out of copies of the CD he just produced with songwriter Rickey Graves and fiddler Tim Crouch (Tim’s been touring with Alan Jackson, J.C.’s proud to tell me), and he’d really like me to have one.
He thinks we best check the stash back at Mountain View Music. On the way over, we stroll past the town’s Pickin’ Park, which in six weeks’ time—the third week of April, specifically—will play host to tens of thousands of folk-music enthusiasts during the three-day folk festival, a tradition that got its start in 1963, thanks to the likes of the late Jimmy Driftwood, the town’s most noteworthy musician.
When we walk into the store, Vega’s still curled up on the guitar, and the fire’s still roaring. There’s a family inside that looks to be out-of-towners. Shay asks J.C. if there will be any music going tonight. He shrugs.
“Well, we might do a breakout later. I’m not so sure,” J.C. says.
The out-of-towners look at him blankly, obviously waiting for more finite plans. He stares back.
“You know, it’s just an impromptu kind of thing,” says Shay, speaking up on J.C.’s behalf.
As the family makes their way out of the store, Mountain View doorbell jangling behind them, J.C. spots one of his CDs on the shelf at the back of the room.
“Look,” he says. “The last one.”
1:30 p.m.“Come here, I want to show you something,” J.C. says to me. I’ve just come from a tour of the backroom of The Dulcimer Shoppe, where a quartet of craftsmen were sanding and hammering, then sanding again, dust from the tips of their noses to the toes of their boots, in the workshop of one of the last artisan producers of mountain dulcimers in the country. J.C.’s got his nose in a book full of black-and-white images—A Pickin’ and a Grinnin’ on the Courthouse Square: An Ozark Family Album, it’s called, published in the ’80s by a California photographer named Samm Woolley Combs.
It’s exactly what I needed to see. In the rain, in the cold, in the offseason, the main thing I feel I’ve missed while in town is an honest-to-goodness pickin’-in-the-square moment, and this book? It’s full of them.
“That’s Jimmy Driftwood right there,” J.C. says, “and that’s me at Lonnie Lee’s house. It was hot, hot, hot in that room, no air-conditioning.” He flips the page. “That’s me at the courthouse, just outside the judge’s office. This guy, we called him Utah Carl, but he was from Iowa. He stayed in a trailer, stayed for years. And there’s Chester; he’s gone now. And that there is Claude Gardner, the mayor’s father. He was a great picker of Jimmie Rodgers.”
A flash of pride washes over J.C.’s face. For a moment, he’s lost in his memories.
2:15 p.m. It’s late in the day, and J.C. tells me he has to be on his way. I’m hesitant to say goodbye so abruptly: Did I ask him all the questions I had? Did we hit all the spots we needed to visit? We shake hands next to Sylamore Creek, and he reminds me, once again, to listen to that CD he gave me.
Once in my car, I slip in the CD. Only a few bars into an old Jimmie Rodgers tune called “California Blues,” I recognize J.C.’s voice rising above the twang of a duo of guitars: “I’m a do-right papa, I got a home everywhere I go. …” My heart swells, and I understand why J.C. was so adamant that I give his CD a listen. He knew all along that hearing this music—not hearing him talk—was the way to truly experience his hometown.
With J.C.’s voice filling my speakers, I drive back through town, past Mellon’s Country Store, past Jimmy Driftwood’s Barn, past the turnoff for the Arkansas Folk Center, and I realize that my tour’s not over.
In fact, perhaps it’s just begun.