Playing the songs of a disappearing Ozarks

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Musicians at the McClurg Jam have gathered weekly for more than 30 years to play. They’re overseen by faces — found on the wall — of others who have joined in over the years.

MCCLURG – Even before its screen door slaps shut, finger-sung fiddle tunes can be heard reverberating from the McClurg Store. For more than 30 years, locals have gathered every week — every single week — to while away the evenings through songs of their ancestors. And each of those evenings offers an authentic glimpse into an Ozarks that is becoming increasingly rare.

“It’s really part of what I think of as ‘true’ Ozarks culture, which is dying,” says David Scrivner, one of the jam’s longtime fiddlers who has been playing there since he was in high school.

But for the folks there, the jam’s primary purpose isn’t necessarily historic preservation. “It really is a part of the culture that those people grew up with,” says David. “They care a lot about preserving it. But first for them, I guess, is this is just what we do.”

More than just music

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There’s more to the evening than music. “(People) just come here and get acquainted,” says audience member Ronnie Engelhardt. “You couldn’t ask for a better group of people.”

While music is a central focus, the jam isn’t a concert: It’s a social event, filled with card playing and friendly catch-up sessions. And it all begins with a lip-smacking potluck table, laden with the likes of fried chicken, cole slaw, soft sliced bread, and pie. Lots of pie. “I tell you what, those girls bring good food,” says Lonnie Taber, a decades-long attendee of the jam. “They’re all good cooks.”

The instruments wait patiently, cases lined up side by side, until the food is done. Then the music begins in a foot-pounding fury where hours can pass in the blink of an eye. Old-time tunes such as “Golden Slippers,” “Ragtime Annie” and “Solider’s Joy” might be heard, some of the songs passed down for centuries.

“There’s a lot of Scotch and Irish in this part of the country,” says Delbert Scrivner, the fiddle-wielding David’s father. “Maybe the words would be different, but the tunes are what they had for hundreds of years over there.”

And when one is done, the next will come round — and so will the instruments, which most of the musicians seem to be able to swap with complete ease.

“They could play all night long and not play the same tune twice,” says Delbert. “I don’t know how they keep all of it in their heads.”

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Alvie Dooms grew up locally and has been playing guitar since he was a child.

Perhaps it’s due to a lot of practice, such as the lifetime that guitarist Alvie Dooms has in hand. “I grew up … playing at square dances,” he says. “Back in them days, they had the dances in the houses. (I’d) go out and play with the kids and come back and play some more.”

As an adult, for years he played alongside legendary fiddler Bob Holt. Few at the jam didn’t know Holt, who was awarded a fellowship for his fiddling from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1999. And even though he passed away in 2004, his influence lives on: A renowned teacher, Holt’s legacy is preserved through the students he taught.

David is one of those people. Today, he continues playing in the ultra-fast fiddling style that makes the Ozarks — and by default, McClurg — unique.

“There are a lot of jams around, but this is the only one I know of that really focuses on old-time fiddles,” he says. “It’s unique, and so people go there because that’s what they want. And I think people are dedicated to it.”

How it began

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Hannah Forrest, Alvie Dooms’ great-granddaughter, plays her fiddle with the group.

The McClurg Jam was originally hosted by Lester and Aileen Adams, who began by welcoming musicians into their home. But as time passed, the jam became a little too popular. “It got to a point where you had to be invited,” recalls Delbert. “We just didn’t have enough room for everybody.”

The Adams also owned the next-door McClurg Store, and eventually the sessions were moved there. That’s where they’ve been ever since, even after the store closed several years ago.

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The McClurg Store also housed the community’s post office. Remnants of that time remain, evidenced by the names still clinging to the boxes in the back.

But times changed: Lester passed away, and as her health deteriorated, Aileen became increasingly concerned that the jam would cease to exist after her death. To alleviate that fear, she bequeathed the building to the aforementioned Lonnie Taber. “So I kept it a’goin’ all this time,” he says, something that he did for more than a decade.

As years passed, however, the same question began to worry him. “If something happens to me, my brother would put a lock on the door and it’d never be open again,” he says. To keep that from happening, Lonnie began looking for someone to sell the building to — with the promise that whoever it was would keep the jam alive.

He found those people in Wisconsin.

The road ahead

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Lonnie Taber, left, plays a hand of Pitch during a recent jam session.

Sharon and Jerry Janusz were planning a trip to Southwest Missouri when she did a simple Internet search to see what things of interest might be in the area. The McClurg Jam came up — and it wouldn’t go away.

“And I tried to delete it like five times and it wouldn’t go off,” Sharon says, who even went to the point of turning off her computer to try and get the mention of McClurg to disappear.

It didn’t — so in a decision of fate, the Januszes decided to pay the jam a visit. Little did they know that in the not-too-far-distant future, they would be its owners.

“We went home, and Lonnie called and said, ‘We’d like you to buy this place,” recalls Sharon. “So we bought it. We love it. We’d like to see it continue for years to come.”

The couple doesn’t live in Missouri just yet — retirement will come soon — but they’re already improving the place that has become their mission and responsibility. “We want to make sure they have a place to play,” she says. “That’s our main focus.”

So far, the Januszes have added new electrical wiring and light fixtures in the store, replaced the old wood stove, and will soon paint the building inside and out. “Everything is just going to get this brought back to how it was in the ’50s,” she says.

Looking back, Lonnie is pleased with who he passed the McClurg legacy to. “They’ve kept their word,” he says of the Januszes, and knows how “Ms. Adams,” as he calls her, would feel about the situation.

“She’d be very happy.”

Wrapping up and moving ahead

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Attendee Darold Evans heads home from the jam on a recent Monday. The store, still dressed in original signage, offers a unique place to play. “Well, you know there’s not many country stores left,” says Delbert Scrivner. “So people come for that novelty, too.”

Even though it’s Monday, some people stay until nigh on 10 p.m. According to David, keeping people there — not necessarily that night, but in the big picture — is key to preserving such a tradition for future generations.

“We’re all aware that this is very rare, and we need people to come along who are younger who care about it,” he says, noting that simple awareness may be play a role in preservation. That things, even those not highlighted by mainstream media, can be rewarding.

“It’s a real sense of community — I’d even say family,” David says. “Those of us who go every week, or a lot of weeks, we just have a real connection I think.”

Want to visit?

The McClurg Jam (3899 State Hwy W, McClurg) is held every Monday evening from 6 p.m. until the musicians stop. Dinner is first, and the music starts after. For more information, connect with the jam on Facebook.

Can’t wait to experience the jam? Check out this story done about the jam by CBS in 1998, and watch a variety of footage shot in McClurg on YouTube.