On Monday nights, the mountains around here sleep well.
They have heard the old songs. And the shoes that tap the hardwood floor land like a mother’s pat on a baby’s back.
The music comes from a white clapboard building on Route W in Taney County, just shy of where the blacktop turns to gravel and miles beyond any Ozark pomp. McClurg isn’t a town anymore. It’s pretty much this one building and one night a week.
Every Monday, after the sun drops below the timbered ridges to the west in far southern Missouri, headlights come down the winding blacktop to the general store, closed for years, with a metal “Tindles Feeds” sign still nailed to the front.
Some of these people live nearby but others drive for miles. They lug in Crock-Pots and fiddles, cobblers and banjos, greens and guitars. And corn bread.
And it is here at the McClurg Jam that they gather around and play the old songs that came to them by blood. The songs grampas say they heard grampa play. They play for fun, but also to keep this old mountain music alive for generations, to pass it on to the young.
Some were taught by family long gone. Now they play for babies not yet born.
And it’s been going nearly 40 years.
“My fingers are getting pretty crooked, but I can still go a couple of hours,” says Alvie Dooms, 86, who’s been playing since the start. “If people start dropping out, that’ll be the end of it and this music will be gone.”
He started playing guitar when he was 10 because that’s the way it was in his family.
No telling who’s going to show up on a Monday night. Visitors have come from all over the country. One night, a German film crew came through the door.
But the McClurg bunch doesn’t play for a crowd. It’s not a show. They can play all night and not get within a county of a song you’ve ever heard of. How about “Dance Around Molly,” “Sally Goodin” and “Soldier’s Joy,” tunes that got loaded in wagons a long time ago for the trip from Appalachia to the hills of southern Missouri and Arkansas.
For years, these songs blew with the wind through the valleys and up along the ridges.
“This is genuine old-time fiddle music,” says David Scrivner, an associate English professor at College of the Ozarks, fiddle player extraordinaire, local boy and McClurg regular. “It’s not about mass media, not about trends of the day. It’s preserving a heritage that is largely lost in America.
“I took music lessons all the years I was growing up. But I learned to play in McClurg.”
The weekly jam got started with a Missouri game warden named Bob Walsh who made it a point to check on things in McClurg on Monday evenings and he always happened to have his fiddle in the car. He and some fellows played on a porch. Later on, after a few more joined in, they moved into the old store.
Ailene Adams, who used to run the store and still owned the building with her husband, Lester, laid down two rules: No drinking, no cussing. She has died. The rules haven’t.
Even in a time when digital technology seemingly works against social gatherings, the McClurg Jam goes strong. Some nights, as many as 20 pickers show up, usually with spouses who bring the grub.
Banjos, cornbread and a jig dance — that’s social media in these parts.
Into all this came Casey Ritchie. She’s an 18-year-old college music major, a classically trained violinist whose family moved to the area from southern California.
She heard about the McClurg Jam, walked in that first time and had never heard such music or seen such fingers. She brought her violin that night. It stayed in the case.
“They’re going 140 beats a minute and that’s really flippin’ fast and they do it all the time,” she says.
But she became a regular and tries to get back when her schedule allows it. She gets it.
“They’re playing songs that aren’t even written down,” she says. “It’s all by ear and they hear it and they can play it and they want to pass it on.”
Joel Hinds, 37, a Baptist preacher and relatively new fiddler who drives 80 miles from Willow Springs, says he gets it, too, but he can’t think about all that preservation stuff.
“I’m just trying to keep up.”
‘Spider Bit the Baby’
Late afternoon on a cold Monday, Alvie is getting ready to head to McClurg. That means putting on clean overalls and tuning his guitar. The house in the trees is made cozy by whatever Dovie, his wife of 49 years, has cooking in the kitchen.
“You might find better music than McClurg,” she says at the stove. “But you won’t find better eatin’ anywhere.”
The meatballs have just long enough to go for Alvie to tell his story.
He grew up in the area. Went to school through the fifth grade and picked up a guitar about the same time. His dad played banjo and his uncle was “an old rough fiddle player.” They and whoever else showed up played music on the porch or under a shade tree.
“Sometimes we’d shift the furniture to another room inside to clear room for a dance,” he says.
As an adult, he drove a truck, hauled milk and built a few houses. He wandered off a few times but always came back to the hills south of Ava. And he always made music.
“He was the best fiddler I ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot of them,” Alvie says.
Alvie was one of the guys who played with Walsh, the game warden, back in the early days. Everybody in Taney County knew Walsh, Alvie says. Great guy.
“Me and Bob Holt went to his house and played for him two days before he died.”
From there he tells about his great-granddaughter who takes violin lessons. Has he shown her a few things?
“No, she don’t listen to me,” he said. “But I keep her in instruments.”
He figures he has a couple hundred fiddles sitting around. And except for maybe 10, he can tell you where each one came from.
Through music, Alvie came to know Scrivner, the professor. Despite an age difference — he’s 86 and Scrivner is 34 — the two bonded. They once loaded up in a pickup and pop-up camper and took out for Appalachia, getting out and playing music when the mood hit them.
And it hit them when they got to the celebrated Shindig on the Green, an annual music festival in Asheville, N.C.
“David played ‘Spider Bit the Baby’ and he sure drew a crowd,” Alvie says with a big smile.
Dovie calls from the kitchen. Meatballs are done. Time to go.
‘If we don’t play this music, who’s going to?’
GPS says it’s 23 miles from Ava to McClurg.
It’s a long 23. Missouri 76 is winding and hilly, but that doesn’t bother the deer. If there’s headlights in the rear-view mirror, good chance they’re going where you’re going if it’s Monday.
Finally, the lights of McClurg. Both of them. They’re on the front of the old store, which also used to be the post office, feed store and gas station.
Inside, the hardwood floor is well worn. Chairs sit in a circle, waiting. Grocery shelves hold photos of musicians, present and past. Toward the back, the wives get the potluck ready. Couches line the walls and that’s where a few early arrivals have settled in with coffee.
Wayne Sutherland, 86, sits alone. Plaid shirt, ball cap. His dad was a hoedown fiddler, and Sutherland played guitar until a stroke took one side. He hoped a long time that he might play again.
“But I don’t think so anymore,” he says softly.
He gestures to the far wall.
“That’s my picture over there,” he says.
More people come in. Larry Shumate, a 65-year-old chain-saw mechanic, tells about politicians coming to the store when he was a boy and leaving money for kids.
“We’d go down there and get candidate pop — that’s what we called it,” he said. “And we’d always shoot squirrels on the way to the store. Have 8, 10, 12 by the time we got home.”
He rarely misses a jam.
“If we don’t play this music, who’s going to?” he asks.
Steve Assenmacher might be the only one in the crowd who can’t trace Ozark roots back generations. He and his wife moved to the area from Michigan a few years back.
“We had no idea this place was here,” he says of the jam. “It’s incredible. Now when we have friends come to visit, they make a point to be here on a Monday.”
Food’s ready, somebody calls.
How’s this for a menu: fried chicken, brown beans, meatballs, peachy chicken, kraut and wienies, biscuits, mashed potatoes, greens, cornbread, potato salad, blackberry cobbler, apple crisp and chocolate pie.
“Get some of that pot liquor (from the greens) on the cornbread if you want to do it like a hillbilly,” Laine Sutherland, Wayne’s daughter, advises a visitor.
After eating, Scrivner is first to go to the circle and pull out his fiddle. Alvie Dooms follows. Joel Hinds, too. Dennis Shumate, whose son played banjo in the movie “Winter’s Bone,” takes a chair, but he’s still talking about the meal.
“You can’t eat like that in any restaurant,” says Dennis, brother of Larry Shumate.
Soon the chairs are full, and fair to say this bunch doesn’t ease into it. They take off playing the first song like they’re racing to town on payday. Larry Shumate plays the whole thing on rhythm guitar and doesn’t know the name of it. He thinks maybe it was “Birdie.”
Doesn’t matter, he says.
“We might never play it the same way twice, but we get to the end.”
Next come “St. Anne’s Reel,” “Fort Smith,” “Golden Slippers” and “Ozark Mountain Waltz.”
Wayne Sutherland requests the rousing “Sally Goodin” and when they get that going, stroke be damned, he’s tapping a foot. This is the fast music Casey Ritchie talked about. Bows whip, fingers fly and eyes lock.
A guitar player can’t fight it. He jumps up into a jig. A woman joins him.
“That sure is a good old fiddle tune, ain’t it?” Sutherland says louder than he’s spoken all night.
His wife, Frances, looks on.
“It’s hard on him not to be able to play,” she says. “I know he misses it.”
At the end of the evening, the musicians pack up their instruments, visit a bit more, say their goodbyes, grab the leftovers and head out into the cold.
And that’s another McClurg Jam. They come to this old store to play the music that is theirs by blood. To play for the ages. Feet have tapped the hardwood, and the old songs have gone out into the night.
To the mountains, it’s like listening to familiar voices of family downstairs in the kitchen.
And this night, like all Mondays, they sleep well.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182