Playing to preserve old-time Ozarks music

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Alvie Dooms has been a musician for most of his life.

AVA – Eighty-seven-year-old Alvie Dooms has been spent decades keeping Ozarks music alive. Pick in hand and fingers at the ready, he has long preserved a unique style — heard through centuries-old tunes — alongside fiddlers, banjo pluckers and other string-playing folk.

“You go 50 miles in any direction and it’s going to be different,” says Alvie. “You can still call it old-time music, but it ain’t going to be like it’s always been in this part of the world, right in here within a 100-mile radius.”

Today, he’s still regularly seen at local music parties. Background’s his forte; he steadily strums the bones of long-familiar songs. Like the beautiful green-hued fields behind his home, his backup is crucial to the overall picture.

As are his memories, which preserve an Ozarks when old-time music wasn’t old. It was simply music.

Outside his home, Alvie rests his arm comfortably over his guitar, hugging it like a friend. And in a sense, that’s what it is. He’s grown to know the instrument over nearly eight decades, most of which he’s spent in Douglas County.

That time, however, is only a drop in the bucket compared to how deep his family’s roots go into the Ozarks.

“My grandpa walked in here from Kentucky, when he was 10, 11 years old,” says Alvie.

When he says his grandfather walked, he’s serious: The young man came by foot, likely in the 1880s, for a better life. Alvie doesn’t know for sure why his grandfather made the trek. It was something that never came up.

“I guess it was just too hard to get by where they was coming from,” says Alvie. “He never did ever reveal what kind of a how big of a family he had or anything about it that I ever knew anything about.”

The thing Alvie does know is that his grandfather was a musician. “Brought a banjo with him,” he says. “The ‘old timers’ tell me that was one of the beginning banjos in this country.”

He settled in Van Buren, where the logging industry was booming. Years later, he met his future wife — Alvie’s grandmother — who sought work in a boarding house.

Like the steady beat of a song, years marched on. In 1930, Alvie was born and it wasn’t long before his earliest music-filled memories began.

Looking back, Alvie recalls the frequent music parties that were held in locals’ homes nearly every week. “They walked, rode a horse, or in a wagon,” says Alvie. “I’ve been to a lot of them in a wagon.”

Those gatherings, featuring toe-tapping tunes from local musicians, were just perfect for dancing — and were such fun that they continued into the night.

“I always stayed up until it was over, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, whatever time it was,” he says. “Most kids were piled up asleep by 9 o’clock. I just always loved music myself.”

Other times, tuning wasn’t of instruments: It was of the radio, when folks would gather at the Dooms’ home to listen to music thanks to a wet-cell battery. “(My dad would) put that battery in a sack and carry it on his back,” says Alvie. “Take it to Mountain Grove and have it charged all day on Friday, and come back and we’d hear the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night.”

Twenty, maybe 30, people would crowd around the radio, a novelty precious few folks had back in those days.

“And that was when WSM wasn’t a 50,000-watt channel,” says Alvie of the station that broadcast the Opry. “They might come in good for 10 minutes and then it’d go to squealing, or just go plumb off and couldn’t hear nothing. Then, pretty soon, it’d come back in.”

In those days, music added color to a life that was consistently difficult. “When I was a kid, we moved around all the time,” he recalls, noting the constant search for work. “Times was hard, and I had five brothers and five sisters. It was just hard to make a living.”

The family moved over and over, searching for a better life. For the 11-kid family, though, that constant relocation resulted in multiple schools and difficulty learning. “I think I was in second grade for four or five years,” says Alvie. “The second grade reader — I knew it by heart.”

Before becoming a teenager, Alvie decided there were better things he could do with his time. He left school to find a job.

“I never did like school anyway, and as soon as I had the chance to get out I got out,” he says. “I can see that it was a huge mistake ‘cause if you don’t get an education when you’re young, you won’t get it.”

He went to work doing whatever jobs he could find. The list began with cutting hay the old-fashioned way, for which he was paid 50 cents a day.

“I was about 12 then, but I was doing the job of a man,” he says. “You didn’t do it like you do today. You mowed it, and raked it up with a horse, hauled it with a wagon and put it in the barn.”

Despite Alvie’s stop in book learning, there was something he still wanted to pursue. He wanted to play the guitar, which he began before quitting school. It was an unusual idea — playing the guitar, not quitting school — back in those days.

“Early on, back when I was 5 or 6 years old, you’d hardly ever see a guitar,” says Alvie. “Just fiddles and banjo. And they played the old tunes primarily the same way the old-timers play them now.”

Even though it wasn’t common, Alvie had a chance to learn guitar after his brother bought one from the Western Auto Store in Mountain Grove around 1940. “I got started fooling with it, and I got interested in playing,” he says. “It wasn’t worth 50 cents, but I wore the thing out.”

Of course, it was a little tricky for the 10-year-old (or so) to learn. Even if there was money for lessons, there wasn’t really anyone around to teach them. So Alvie turned to the radio for instruction, and simply started playing with others to practice.

“I usually hit note for note with the lead instrument,” he says. “You just sit down and pick it up, hit a few notes here and a few notes there and you listen to the radio and various things, you know, you can kind of pick up on. It takes a long time.”

When he started out, Alvie would tie strings together when they broke. The 35-cent sets were expensive back then.

Alvie’s love of music continued to grow. By the early 1950s, he wanted to upgrade his guitar to one that really caught his eye: A Martin D-18, with a sleek look and sweet sound — and an $85 price tag.

Today, a version of that guitar is listed for $15,000 on eBay. But back then, even the seemingly modest $85 was an amount that 20-something Alvie simply couldn’t front.

That fact, however, wasn’t enough to keep him from pursuing the guitar. He decided to visit Herman Davis, a longtime local banker, to see if he could get a loan. After some small talk, the banker got down to business. He asked Alvie what he could do for him, and was told the young man wanted to borrow $85.

“He said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ And I said, ‘Buy a guitar.’ And he set back, pushed his glasses up, (and said), ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,'” says Alvie. “And I said, ‘No, that’s what I’m in here for.'”

Faced with the unusual request, the banker didn’t deliberate long about the decision.

“He counted me out $85 and I took the guitar home,” says Alvie with a laugh, and obvious fondness for the man who made it possible. “He done more for me than anybody alive.”

For a time, marriage and kids put Alvie’s music playing on hold. He became a contract school bus driver for the Ava district, a position he held until a year ago. It’s a career proven by the two big, yellow school buses still in his front yard; ownership obvious by his name, painted in small letters near the driver’s windows.

Alvie, with one of his guitars and one of his school buses.

He was regularly making music again by the mid-1960s when the late, legendary fiddler Bob Holt, his cousin by marriage, came back to the Ozarks after time away. By then, old-time square dances had slowed — so the duo picked up instruments and got them started again. Even then, their efforts were important.

“It was kind of dying off,” says Alvie. “The old-time music was.”

Over the next four or so decades, the duo invested much time and energy in their passion for music. They kept playing; at festivals and square dances, nearly every week for years, raring at 140 beats a minute. It’s a speed that translates to more than two beats every single second.

“You learn how to make it easy,” says Alvie of playing at such a speed. “A lot of people complain about their fingers getting sore. Well, they get to sounding good — boy, they get to raring on them strings, you know, but you can’t do that. You’ve just got to touch them enough to keep ‘em from vibrating and then of course, your pick hand, why, you’ve just got to hit the bare necessity.”

And as old-time Ozarks musicians disappeared, they kept playing.

“There was about a 15-year span there I think it’d completely died if it hadn’t been for me and Holt,” says Alvie.

“We’s the only ones that was going, and only ones that was still playing it,” he continues. “We were still playing the dances, and we were still capable of doing it. Not saying that we was anything special, but there was a lot of people in that era of time that just wasn’t good enough. They wasn’t interested. Didn’t have enough interest in it.”

Fingers that played four-hour square dances at 140 beats a minute. “You learn to pull out what you absolutely don’t need,” says Alvie. “Because you ain’t gonna be able to put everything in that makes it sound pretty.”

Besides folks at home, their preservation work also sung through students they taught. Alvie recalls one in particular who Bob called him in to help with. “He said, ‘Come down and learn this damn kid some timing,’” says Alvie. “‘Course, Bob had a foul mouth, you know.”

The student he’s referring to is David Scrivner, who today is one of the Ozarks’ top fiddlers and regularly plays alongside Alvie.

In addition to preservation by playing, Alvie has also spent much of his life saving old-time instruments. At one time, his collection numbered in the hundreds, and took up multiple rooms in his home.

“I collected them for years and wouldn’t sell nothing,” says Alvie, who even once bought 78 fiddles on a single trip to Georgia.

He’s spent many hours restoring those instruments. His efforts made them much better than when he found them —  and worth much more, too. But his motivation wasn’t money, because he didn’t want to sell them.

“I just kept adding and adding, and I wasn’t even pricing them to anybody for years,” he says. “But then I realized one day that I’m getting old.”

A fact, he says, that means “I need to do something with them.”

Alvie with two instruments he’s donated to the Ozark String Project. (Courtesy of Ozark String Project)

He’s drastically downsized his collection in recent years. “I’m over the fact that I still love fiddles, and I’d like to keep them, but I know it’s not feasible,” he says.

“It ain’t the fact that I can’t afford to keep ‘em, but it’s the fact that if I’m gone, which I will be one of these days, nobody’s gonna know nothing about them. Some of them good fiddles — somebody get them for nothing, or just destroy them.”

To help keep that from happening, one of the places he’s infused his collection is the Ozark String Project in Ava. The program, begun little more than a decade ago, offers low-cost string lessons to local students. And even after he donates instruments, he continues to give time to their maintenance and repair.

As of late, his connection with the program is personal: Even his great-granddaughter participates, keeping tradition — both family and Ozarks — alive.

Even though Alvie has done much to show the Ozarks its musical heritage, he’s also taken the tradition to the rest of the country.

He’s visited other states to play, including Washington D.C., where he traveled in 1999 when Bob was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship for his fiddling efforts from the National Endowment for the Arts.

He’s been interviewed on national television about his music. He even went to Colorado in July 2017 to perform at the Central Rockies Old-Time Music Association Festival.

An evening at McClurg, where Alvie and David Scrivner (center) play on a near-weekly basis.

But most of his performing is heard closer to home. He’s routinely seen at McClurg, Mo., on Monday nights, where a music party has taken place every week for decades. He’s one of several who gather — alongside Scrivner — to play the old tunes.

Those evenings give him hope that the music won’t die anytime soon.

“Well, as long as them kind of guys are around, I don’t think it’s going to die off. But they’re not going to always be here,” he says, he says of folks like Scrivner and a few younger faces. “You’ve got to keep after that kind of stuff to keep it going.”

“I hate to think about it a’dying off,” he says. “But it may, it may not — you never know.”

6 thoughts on “Playing to preserve old-time Ozarks music

  1. Wonderful article! I recently went to the McClurg jam and loved it. Alvie was my school bus driver. I am 68 years of age , so that was a while ago!

  2. Very interesting story. My father was born in Eldon 1919 (back in the olden days) this reminds me of his stories back on THE FARM where he was raised by his sister Carmon Thompson ( his mother died when he was a few days old) he never played any music but sure enjoyed listening to it. I guess thats where i get it from. If i could have music like that everyday i would be a happy camper. So Mr Alvie I hope pray you can continue doing what you love to do because I surely enjoy listening to the the music & history behind your life. Thank You . sincerely Jessica Vernon

  3. I had a chance not long ago to visit with Alvie at his home and in McClurg. I got to know him.
    Now I know him better. Great writing, Kaitlyn. Love the old radio part. I could hear Alvie’s voice. Nice work.

  4. Thank you so much Alvie, I remember those music party’s as a young girl. I remember all the adults square dancing and us kids learning from our parents, I miss those times, I remember you, along with the Bells, Sanders, Berry’s, Souder’s Ben Bushgonand all his family My dad Bob Singleton they played every weekend. I wish we could turn back the time and show theses young ones what good old fashioned clean fun is. I think you even bought a little Martin guitar from my dad,Bob Singleton, I was in the 4th grade.
    Thank you again for the memories.

  5. My parents, Earl and Jo Engelhardt, went to almost every music party and square dance that Bob (Holt) and Alvie played.
    Dancing and listening to their music was just part of my parent’s life.
    I grew up at McClurg, just a mile or so from the store where they continue to play music each Monday night.
    This was an excellent story, very heartwarming.
    Thank you,
    Pauletta (Engelhardt) Fleetwood-Moody

  6. I have been there at MC Clurg at the store where they play on Monday nights, and I really love the music they play. I have been there twice and hope I get to go back soon, I’m from adairsville GA About 60Miles north of Atlanta. We have family that live in Ava and we love that little town, they are so friendly. Got to meet Mr Alvie, such a nice person,

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