The audience applauds a number at the Northview Jam, a weekly music party in Webster County.
NORTHVIEW — Amid Northview’s empty, silent storefronts still thuds a heartbeat strong and true — and it sounds an awful lot like old-fashioned country music. The beat intensifies as it leads to the Northview Jam, a party that calls folks to the nearly nonexistent town every Friday.
“I say we double the population — or more, probably, every Friday night,” says Kieth Baker, one of the jam’s leaders.
That tradition started nearly 15 years ago, when folks began filling the 117-year-old former Christian church on State Route B in southern Webster County to sing, strum or simply sit and listen. Evenings begin around 5 p.m., when the first song is played to a typically full house of folks filling repurposed theater seats.
That’s the case on a recent Friday, when just a few seats are vacant. Regulars, however, say that’s nothing.
“It’s too bad we don’t have a crowd,” says attendee Joyce Gilbert, who blames the few open spots on the recent Labor Day weekend.
A quick video look at the jam.
Even though the sessions start at 5 p.m., some attendees are so eager that they regularly start arriving around 3:30 p.m.
Two of those early arrivals include the aforementioned Kieth Baker and his wife, Virginia, who provide the jam’s backbone. The duo sees to many details such as running the sound board, moving microphones from person to person, serving as emcee between songs and even breaking out their own instruments from time to time.
The jam, however, actually ended up in its current location a generation before the Bakers. It was originally held in Elkland — but when a new home was needed, it was Virginia’s mother who finagled the move. She worked with her brother-in-law, Walter Myers, to relocate to the Northview church since he owned the building.
The jam session is held at a former Christian church dating to 1900.
Today, he still regularly attends — and one reason why stands out above the rest. “Just the people,” he says.
It’s an answer echoed by most when asked what their favorite part of the music party is. It’s clear that while the music brought them together, the people keep them coming back. And for some, the connections go much deeper than just the jam’s start.
“See that lady on the left, singing now?” queries Tom Price, clad in plaid and enjoying the entertainment from the back row. “We went to eighth grade together in Niangua. What’s that been — 20, 30 years?”
Since he’s “more or less” 80 years old, the last part is a bit of a humorous miscalculation. But the jam does seem to promote a unique sense of time: Within its walls the clock stands still in ways, but flies through beats in the musicians’ songs. Some cause such joy that the audience performs by singing along.
“If you can sing, you can join in, and if you can’t, you can just lean back,” says Price. “If you come enough times, there’ll be entertainment you’ve never heard before.”
It’s a relaxed atmosphere, proven by chatting friends shopping weekly grocery ads, the man playing a fly swatter as one would spoons, and a woman even seemingly balancing her checkbook. They’re serenaded by tried-and-true favorites such as “I’ll Fly Away,” “This Old House” and more unusual tunes like “Grasshopper Bar.”
Music stands wait on stage, but they’re mostly empty. Paper music isn’t necessary when the musicians have it in their ears.
After an hour and a half or so, it’s time to take a break — but it’s not because people are tired. It’s because they’re hungry. Attendees come carrying dishes from their favorite recipes to share, ranging from beans to pulled pork to trays of sandwiches, fried fancies and much more.
Just some of the desserts
Even though the affair technically is pot luck, folks are lucky that Virginia Baker brings many of the pots. Last Friday, she brought seven dishes: Brown beans, corn bread, stewed cabbage, homemade macaroni and cheese, roast pork, cooked vegetables and peach cobbler.
“We always have plenty of food,” she says. “It works itself out somehow.”
After bellies are full, souls crave more music. The musicians get back at it, picking and strumming as the moon shyly comes out to listen.
As night falls, melodies continue to rise from the little country church. They don’t often stop until the clock strikes 9, when cases comes out and instruments go in for the night.
Musicians walk across the crunchy gravel parking lot, and start looking forward to next week.
Want to visit?
The Northview Jam is located along State Route B in Northview. Take I-44 to exit 96, turn right and drive into town. The jam is free to attend, although donations are accepted to help cover expenses. It begins at 5 p.m., and continues to around 9 p.m.