I began playing mandolin when I was six. My dad and his brothers had formed a bluegrass band when they were in high school in Ava, Missouri, in the 1950s. My dad had evidently played the banjo and the jawbone of an ass in their band–though I never saw or heard him play either of those instruments. I do remember him playing a version of Wildwood Flower on the harmonica one time when I was quite young. Nevertheless, my dad was determined his boys would play music—Bluegrass music. He signed me and my brother up for mandolin lessons with Charlotte Blackwell in Seymour, Missouri. My journey experience with music had begun, and my dad was living his deferred musical dreams through me. I was never particularly excited about practicing, but by the time I was in eighth grade, I had taken lessons on mandolin, bass fiddle, guitar, bluegrass banjo, and dobro.
It should be understood that during these years, I mostly hated playing music. Sure, I enjoyed messing around with my mandolin at home, figuring out new chords and playing whatever I wanted to, but I disliked doing what other people wanted. I loathed playing in the student band I was in. When I was in eighth grade, a girl in my class, Erica Spyres, who played classical violin, told me excitedly that she was taking fiddle lessons from a man I had never heard of in Ava: Bob Holt. She was excited about a fiddle camp she was going to be attending in Bethel, Missouri, and since I had recently started playing fiddle, she thought I should go. Knowing this was another thing my dad would push me into without giving me a choice, I resolved to keep it a secret from him so I wouldn’t have to go. Fortunately (though it seemed incredibly unfortunate to me at the time), her mother spoke to my mother about it, and when my mom told my dad, it was all but decided. I was going to fiddle camp. Having grown up around Ava, my dad knew that Bob was a legend, and he wanted me to learn anything I could from him.
Sure enough, my experience at fiddle camp made me want to take lessons from Bob, but not because I appreciated his greatness as a teacher at camp. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Bob cussed a lot more than I was used to and insisted on results from his students. I didn’t enjoy that approach, but what I did appreciate was friends my age who were also playing fiddle. In addition to Erica, I became good friends with another one of Bob’s students, Travis Bentley, who had been taking lessons from Bob for years. So, for the sake of having friends, I told Bob I wanted to take lessons from him after fiddle camp. Without knowing it, I was discovering what I still appreciate most about old time music: community. Bob understood the importance of traditional Ozarks culture for learning traditional Ozarks music, and he strongly encouraged us to attend local music parties and dances to absorb as much of it as we could. Of course, my favorite parties were the ones Bob hosted at his house because I got to see Travis and Erica and learn tunes from them. My friendships with Travis and Erica soon expanded to include Bob’s long-time guitar player, Alvie Dooms, and many other people who attended these events. To this day, these people are my favorite part of Ozarks fiddle music.
Travis and Erica knew more tunes than I did, so I worked extra hard to catch up to them. Whereas I had always hated practicing, I spent hours and hours on summer days in my room, playing with my lesson tapes and trying to learn tunes I had heard Travis and Erica play. When I attended music parties, my dad wrote down every single fiddle tune I didn’t know from the party, and I requested them in my lessons with Bob. During this time, my dad also insisted I play in multiple local bluegrass bands. While I appreciated the people I met through those bands, I hated playing on stage, attending weekly practices, wearing matching western outfits, and, in general, being a performer. I just wanted to attend old-time fiddle house parties and work on learning more tunes.
I mentioned that I became friends with Alvie Dooms, Bob’s guitar player. His role in my development as a fiddle player is probably at least as significant as Bob’s. While Bob tended to be gruff and hard to please, Alvie was as nice as any person I had ever met, and he has always gone out of his way to encourage people who are learning to play. Alvie was teaching a few people to play rhythm guitar, and he needed a fiddler to play while he was teaching chords and pick use. I served in this role, which meant I also got the same guitar lessons. But more importantly, I came to see Alvie as one of the finest people I’ve ever known. During the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, my parents let me go with Alvie to Clifftop. I learned a lot about Alvie’s philosophy of music and life in general on this trip. We spent two weeks getting to the festival. We didn’t have a travel plan, and we just drove. We stayed off the interstate and didn’t use the air conditioner—and it was the most peaceful form of travel I had ever experienced. In the evenings, we would find campgrounds to park at, and after setting up for the night, we would play music as long as we wanted. When I went away to college, the freedom from my dad’s pushing and local bluegrass bands meant that I basically quit playing music for two or three years, but Alvie’s influence and kindness kept me from quitting entirely. Because I was excited to see Alvie when I went home, I would frequently plan music parties in Alvie’s kitchen, and through those parties, I realized my true enjoyment of old time fiddle and took ownership of my fiddling.
For a look at the McClurg jam, Alvie Dooms, and Ozarks fiddling, be sure to check out this recent short documentary:
And here is a series of videos with Bob Holt and Alvie Dooms in 2000: