- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Ark. — The musicians start ambling toward the town square, carrying their guitars, fiddles and dulcimers as the sun dips below the brilliantly colored trees that blanket the Ozark Mountains.

Their admirers cart lawn chairs and picnic blankets, everyone aiming for a spot close to the Stone County Courthouse.

The town bills itself as the “Folk Music Capital of the World” and holds daily impromptu jam sessions on the courthouse lawn. There’s no set time, no set bill and no set lists.

Some musicians are locals who have been playing on the square as long as they can remember. Others have heard about the routine and travel from all parts to join them.

Some play solo, others in gatherings of five or more. If musicians tire of one bunch, they’ll join another. Listeners mosey from one group to another until they find what they like. It’s a different scene from the staged concerts offered at the nearby Ozark Folk Center.

The musicians play for up to 1,000 folks some nights, but they don’t set up facing the crowds. Instead, they face one another, debate what to play next and ask if everyone knows the song. The dulcimer players weave lists of songs between the strings on their instruments.

Children sit at their feet, eating single-dip ice cream cones and watching the quick movements of the musicians’ fingers. Clip-clops from tourists taking horse-and-buggy rides sound down the road.

The impromptu performances took root when folks in the isolated community of 2,900 gathered to pick guitars on their front porches. Now the area’s Ozark valleys boast bed-and-breakfasts, quaint shops and several music theaters, including Cash’s White River Hoedown, John Taylor’s Laid Back Pickin’ and a barn named for Jimmy Driftwood, the town’s famous son.

Visitors come through summer and into the fall to hear the tunes and watch the green hillsides change to vivid yellows, oranges and reds that peak in the last half of October. They’ll trek to the town in October for the Arkansas Beanfest and Championship Outhouse Races and again in mid-November for the Mountain View Bluegrass Weekend.

Locals are quick to clarify that they play folk, not country, music. Folk music is the original Southern mountain music. Country music, they explain, is what you hear on the radio.

Skip Sapp leans back in his lawn chair, picking at his guitar. “What’s the use to deny you’ve been living a lie, so why should we try anymore?” he sings.

“Did you write that one?” a woman yells from the courtyard after he finishes. “That was pretty good.” Mr. Sapp grins, never answering her question.

Mr. Sapp has been playing in Mountain View for 12 years. He wears a camouflage hat; a long, drooping white mustache that curls under at his shoulders; and a leather guitar strap proclaiming him to be the “Cajon Hillbilly.”

He started playing electric bass guitar in a Texas dance-hall band in 1960 but quit to retire in nearby Guion.

“I got tired of dodging bullets and bottles,” he says, spitting tobacco over his shoulder. “Down there we were getting paid to play, and that’s a job, and I don’t like jobs. I came here and decided to play for me.”

Standing in the crowd around Mr. Sapp, Gene Reed and his wife, Faye, say they came from Decatur, Texas, for a second time this summer to catch the Mountain View music.

“It’s just a slow pace,” Mr. Reed says. “You just don’t hear music like this. I think everybody up here can play something.”

Barb Brown drove down from Bell City, Mo., with her own lawn chair. She stayed in a bed-and-breakfast across from the square.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Miss Brown says. “When they finish with one group, they just sit down and play with another one. It takes you back to the way your ancestors used to get their entertainment.”

Other women in the audience use copies of the weekly Stone County Leader to fan mosquitoes away from their faces. The men sit back with their cowboy hats on their knees. Some of the notes are off, but nobody seems to notice.

Sam Turpin of Jonesboro, Ark., travels the two hours to Mountain View a handful of times every year to play on the square. He says he wants to retire here.

“You see one Christmas parade, you’ve seen every one of them,” he says, guitar on his knee. “This is different time and again.”

Mr. Turpin lectures on local lore and about Mr. Driftwood, who also has a street named after him in town. Mr. Driftwood wrote the ballad “The Battle of New Orleans.”

Mr. Turpin picks it out on his guitar, asking, “Have you ever heard a song that goes, ‘In 1814, we took a little trip …?’” Everyone sitting around him recognizes the lyrics.

They finish the verse: “… down with Colonel Jackson, down the mighty Mississip.”

Two guitarists from Texas hear him across the lawn and pull up chairs to finish the song with him. They’re strangers, but they talk with Mr. Turpin like friends.

The performers are glad the crowds enjoy the tunes, but most musicians say they play for the joy of playing.

“If somebody enjoys it, that’s icing on the cake,” Mr. Sapp says. “It’s relaxed here. No pressure. No drunks. It’s good, clean, family entertainment.”

• • •

Ozark Folk Center: The folk center, craft store and adjoining lodge and conference center are located off Highways 5 and 16 in Mountain View, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and, beginning Oct. 7, open Tuesdays as well. Concerts are in the music theater at 7:30 p.m. Call 870/269-3851. Visit the Web site: www.ozarkfolkcenter.com.

Arkansas Beanfest and Championship Outhouse Races: On Oct. 25, nearly a ton of pinto beans will be cooked in antique iron pots on the courthouse lawn. The beans will be served with corn bread at noon before teams start the outhouse race at 2 p.m., vying for the gold toilet-seat trophy. A talent show is scheduled for immediately after the races. Contact Ginger Johnson, 870/793-4196, Ext. 26.

Mountain View Bluegrass Weekend: Musicians descend on the town Nov. 14 and 15 for the annual acoustic bluegrass festival and fiddle contest. There are indoor and outdoor jamming areas at the Ozark Folk Center. Tickets are $25 for two days or $15 for one day. For advance sales, contact Mountain View Bluegrass, 17221 Highway 9, Mountain View, AR 72560 or call the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, 888/679-2859. The Mountain View Web site is www.mountainviewcc.org.

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