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Rural Missouri Magazine

Hootenanny in the holler
Three decades of music and fellowship at the McDowell Gold Jubilee

by Bob McEowen

Singer/guitarist Gene Cochran and his wife, Teresa, take their turn on stage at the McDowell Gold Jubilee, a biweekly music party in Barry County, where bands are allowed 20 minutes to perform. Accompanying the Cochrans are fiddler Junior Haddock, bass player James Townsend and Fred DeVore on guitar.

Musicians and guests begin arriving even before the sun sets on an old schoolhouse down a lonely rural road in Barry County. Some tote cheap chipboard guitar cases bandaged with duct tape. Others carry expensive instruments ensconced in sturdy fiberglass cases plastered with festival decals. Even more people bring nothing but their anticipation of an evening of music and an appetite for the homemade pie sold at the concession stand.

One by one, arriving guests pass beneath a single bare bulb illuminating a concrete stoop and open a creaky old door. As the door swings wide, the faint sounds heard outside become a joyous roar of old-time country music and a chorus of “How are you?” and “Good to see you.”

It’s Saturday night and the McDowell Gold Jubilee is about to begin.

Held every other Saturday from October through the first of May, the McDowell Gold Jubilee is one of the oldest and most-established music gatherings in southwest Missouri. For 31 years, fans of bluegrass, gospel and country music have flocked to this former schoolhouse to play their songs and visit with friends and neighbors.

“We were the first ones in this country to start this, I think,” says Ben Henderson, who together with his wife, Betty, organizes the biweekly hootenanny in the tiny community of McDowell. “We’ve got some other good ones that are going on now, but they started a lot later than we did.”

Although, officially, the McDowell Gold Jubilee begins at 6:30 p.m., the music invariably starts much earlier as musicians huddle together in the jam room to play familiar tunes and learn new licks. Another room, normally reserved for bands to warm up, also hosts impromptu jams before the formal stage performances begin.

Betty moves from room to room, chatting with musicians and writing their names in a spiral-bound notebook. With her list ready, she moves to the former classroom’s chalkboard and posts the order of performers.

Musicians jam in the band warm-up room of the McDowell Gold Jubilee.

“They give me their names, and I try to arrange it as diplomatically as I can,” Betty says, describing her task of setting the performance rotation. “I try not to make people too unhappy.”

It’s a curious mix of performers most evenings. Each night begins with 81-year-old Raymond Thomas on fiddle. From there a steady progression of ensembles take the stage, each playing three songs or 20 minutes — at which point a blue light placed atop the piano comes on to signal that it’s time to yield the mic. The music lasts until after midnight most weekends and runs the gamut from bluegrass to gospel to old-time country to honky-tonk, with the occasional Bob Dylan, John Denver or Dixie Chicks number thrown in for good measure.

Just as the type of music varies from act to act, the quality of performances does, too.

“It ranges from very, very, very bad to very, very, very good, and a lot in the middle,” Betty says.

“You take the good with the bad and you mix it together,” says Ben, who introduces each act with equal enthusiasm. “We’ve got probably 20, 25 here tonight, different ones. If one group is not what people want to hear, the next group may be. It gives a good variety.”

The audience at McDowell listens more or less politely to each performer, in part out of courtesy, but also because they’ve seen so many musicians steadily improve from week to week and year to year, they know better than to judge too soon.

“I’ve seen some through the years who started out pretty bad who have become quite good,” says Betty, who plays upright bass with Ben’s band, Country Color, and admits that her own singing sometimes challenged the audience. “When I started years ago, oh my gosh, you couldn’t stand to listen to me. It was horrible.”

David Warren Lampe’s instrument bears the autographs of Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent and other notable fiddlers he’s met at bluegrass festivals and other events. Musicians of all skill levels, including the occasional professional, attend the McDowell Gold Jubilee to perform on stage or play with other attendees in the schoolhouse’s jam room.

Although the usual line-up includes traditional instruments such as acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle, there is an amplifier on stage and, increasingly, musicians plug in.

“Back in the ’40s on the Grand Ole Opry, they wouldn’t allow drums or electric bass. It took years for that to change. It’s still that way here,” says Fred Devore of Cassville, who plays his amplified acoustic guitar several times each night with a number of bands.

Some of these people, when they see an electric guitar, they just sort of turn their nose up. They’re not rude about it or nothing, but a lot of them don’t really like it.”

Indeed, like other music gatherings in the Ozarks, the McDowell Jubilee is steeped in tradition. Whether they’re called hootenannies, music parties or jam sessions, all of these events trace their roots to old-time house parties where family and friends would gather to play music and visit.

“We used to go to each other’s house, but it wasn’t nothing like this,” Ben recalls. “On cold winter nights — this is before they had TV — they’d get together and play and sing and have a good time.”

By some accounts, the modern Ozarks tradition of scheduled public music parties began at this same location in 1961, when McDowell residents Norma and Raymond Clevenger decided to host a New Year’s music party. The Clevenger home wasn’t big enough to accommodate all the guests, so Raymond approached the Purdy School District about using the old schoolhouse in McDowell.

“They granted permission to use it as long as they kept up the insurance and the utilities and didn’t allow drinking and dancing. Dancing was particularly a problem at that time,” Betty says, alluding to the Purdy district’s one-time rule against school dances that made national news and even reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite concerns expressed in local pulpits, the McDowell schoolhouse music parties became a regular monthly event for nearly seven years, when the task of preparing food and organizing the events became too much for the Clevengers. After McDowell shut down, Ben and a few fellow musicians started hosting regular jam sessions six miles away. When the building they used sold in 1977, the group moved back to the McDowell schoolhouse and began the every-other-Saturday tradition that continues today.

Over the years, the facilities at McDowell have expanded along with the popularity of the event. A propane furnace replaced the old wood stove. Running water made clean-up easier — though separate men’s and women’s outhouses still provide for other necessities. Rows of old theater seats and church pews allow seating for an audience of nearly 280. The biggest improvement, though, was the addition of the warm-up and jam rooms, which greatly expanded the musical experience at McDowell.

Eula May Mills sings during her turn on stage. A regular participant for decades, Eula May recalls her mother dancing a jig in the aisles at a time when dancing raised eyebrows in McDowell.

Jam session aficionados divide music parties into two classes. “True” jams involve musicians sitting in a circle, taking turns leading songs while other musicians join in. At open-mic events such as McDowell, structured bands play sets while facing the audience. Both styles are popular in southwest Missouri.

The McDowell Gold Jubilee began as a traditional jam session but soon grew so much that adopting the stage format became necessary. In some ways, though, the McDowell event offers the best of both styles. The jam room at McDowell is always packed with players, many of whom never enter the main hall.

“When we get here, I take my guitar and fiddle and go right to the back and just start playing,” says Steve Mitchell, a professional musician who plays on stage in Branson and elsewhere, but rarely leaves the jam room when visiting McDowell. “I like to come here and just jam. For me, it’s a stress release.”

For others, the jam room at McDowell provides an opportunity to develop their skills while playing along with sympathetic teachers.

“For somebody wanting to learn to play, it’s an ideal place to come because you’re just surrounded by it. You’re immersed in this atmosphere,” says Devore, who once played professionally in Washington state. “Everybody here is wanting to get better and improve their playing.”

The camaraderie at McDowell is not limited to the musicians, however. Betty says one of the main purposes of the McDowell music party is to provide a substitute for the kind of neighborly closeness lost in today’s culture.

“They like the music, but they like the visiting, too,” she says. “Nobody visits back and forth like they used to. I think this sort of takes the place of that, especially for the older people.

“Sometimes, they get so busy visiting, I don’t think they listen to the music at all,” Betty says.

But music is still the main attraction at McDowell, where admission is never charged and volunteers make the Jubilee a success. Ben, founder and master of ceremonies of the events, says that after 31 years, the biweekly event at McDowell still provides the public a wholesome place to spend a Saturday evening.

Barbara Ball and Peggy Prock, both of Miller, visit with friends in the audience while a band performs on stage.

“It’s good entertainment. It’s clean entertainment,” he says. “We don’t allow no drinking, no drugs, nothing out of the way. I don’t like to hear foul language. I won’t put up with that at all.”

And if the music is good and you find yourself tapping your foot or even swaying in the aisle, Ben says that’s OK these days.

“Anymore, if they want to get out there and jig dance and they want to waltz, we don’t mind at all,” he says. “In fact, we encourage it. It gives them something to do, you know.”

The McDowell Gold Jubilee is held every other Saturday from October until May. For more information, e-mail Betty Henderson at bettyh@sofnet.com or call 417-236-4983.

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