Thursday, October 23, 2008

Goal #2

It's late October and my birthday month is officially over. I can't eat cake and write it off as "..but it's your birthday, come on...." anymore. My birthday lasted a good, solid month, one that included camping, half-hearted backpacking, lots of great cheese, good wine, lots of ridiculously excessive calories and less time at the gym. It's time now to actually embark on my 36th year, to start accomplishing that which I set out to accomplish back in September when the goldenrods were in bloom.

#1. Learn how to make cheese. Cheese plays a huge role in my life and is likely the only reason my cholesterol is 130 rather than some better, lower number. Sheep's milk cheese is beautifully produced in the Ozarks and goat cheese is very capably made in Columbia. I will likely tap these production sources for secrets. I have a cool basement and access to raw milk from the Mennonites in the Niangua Basin, so I'll make my own cheese this year. Oh, don't worry, I won't serve it on a cheese plate if you come over for supper.

A charming mug at Columbia's Cafe Berlin inspired Goal #2 a few weeks ago: Find bluegrass. While I was home, I realized that what I missed most about being home is the absence of indigenous culture. A firm believer in the Jesuit dictum of "bloom where planted," I've tried to understand, accept, and love every place I've lived. I hung out in this weird mob-operated bar in Hoboken to feel closer to Sinatra and his black-suited fans; a Roman trattoria without walls (that served amazing vegetables) to feel like Henry James; this dirt floor taverna in the Cyclades that served terrible homemade retsina and gloopy meat-based food to somehow get closer to the spirit of the islands. But maybe I just haven't looked hard enough in the Ozarks to really find culture here.

When I first moved to the Niangua Basin, I scouted out bluegrass festivals, taking copious notes of every Hatch show print poster, dragging my little Honda through ungraded county roads to find bona fide bluegrass in the Ozarks. I wanted to find people who made their own fiddles like they do in Louisiana. While on my search for authenticity, I heard the Grammy-winning Del McCoury at the Meramec County Fair, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Sullivan playing to a crowd that sat down the whole time (barring me and my boss). But I was looking for Ozark culture. After all, the Ozark Highlands of Missouri gave rise to the Dillards, so the musical traditions must be out there, right?

My search led me to Dixon, Missouri a few years ago. Hatch poster in an independent grocery store. It must be real. I follow the cardboard signs to the bluegrass festival and pull into this old field filled with motor homes, side by side. My little car was dwarfed. Michael Doucet from Lafayette was going to be there, along with a couple of other fatois players I had heard of in south Louisiana. Committed, I bail out of my car with my backpack of food, drink, blanket and hat. In front of the main stage, the crowd had -voluntarily!- lined up their chairs in straight lines, in rows! No one was dancing, no one was moving, no one was doing anything much but some cross stitching. I think I was the only one in the county that night under 80. No beer tent, no food tent, but plenty of music about God and Jesus.

Now, if anyone knows me, they know I'm pretty averse to religion in general, but especially when it interferes with music. Oh, people can do what they wish on their own time, but don't let religion influence public policy, and certainly don't try to convert me when I'm trying to listen to the intricacies of bluegrass. Intellectually, I recognize religion in the bluegrass tradition of the early Lomax recordings, but when people in the audience start raising their hands towards some higher power, it's time for me to leave. I'll take A Closer Walk with Thee, I'll Fly Away, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, but the stylings of modern religion in Dixon that night was unnerving. I apologized profusely to my agnostic friend for interrupting his Friday night poker game with old time religion and then promised him a good meal of lentils and rice over my campstove.

Goal #2 is to find bluegrass in its native Ozark context. I'll take lousy Forest Service roads to lean-to's, go into places where Democrats aren't welcome, even if they're operated by the creepy white supremacist culture that exists in certain Ozark counties (despite how much I despise it). I won't be judgmental and I won't cast aspersions, of course, because I try to bloom where planted. I want technically interesting and competent musicians playing traditional music that I can't find in any store. I know it's here. And I know that finding it would make me supremely happy to be here because I'll be living in a state that appreciates its heritage, its culture, its traditions, those facets of life which I love in Louisiana. I'm heading to Van Buren next week to talk about woodlands for a spell. If any of the 5 people who read this know of anyplace in or around Van Buren (50 mi. radius) where I can hear local music, pray tell. I'll make you supper one night in Columbia and promise not to drag out my cheese experiment.



Well, I can't help you with Van Buren but I can suggest Mountain View, Arkansas. Every Saturday night when the weather is warm enough, musicians from all over the area gather on the county courthouse steps and hold an impromptu concert. You'll hear bluegrass, western swing, old country music, a lot of fiddle playing. Some is good, some is terrible but the experience is like none other. I would also suggest wandering the grounds around the courthouse as little bands assemble, practice and try out new melodies, Sometimes the best entertainment is not what's on stage but what is being played back stage.

These events are moved to an indoor facility during the winter months, but it just isn't the same.

Allison Vaughn said...

That's cool. It's a great little town, but I've never heard the live music! I'll definitely make it down for it. said...

I recall last year's goal was to find all of Missouri's ferns - did you get close?

I can't help you with any bluegrass tips, but Innsbrook has free live concerts every Saturday featuring an ecclectic mix of folk americana by local talent. Mild enough not to upset the old folks without resorting to palms upstretched.


Allison Vaughn said...

I *did* get close! I spent lots of field time with Paul stomping through various and diverse places. We have an appointment to see Pilularia americana, which has been inundated most of the year. Highlights: Osmunda regia (which I knew from home) at Cupola Pond; Woodsia obtusa growing out of a 1930s building now under our care in the Current River area...because we couldn't find it in the woods; seeing Cystopteris fragilis in places out of context and learning about how ferns can determine if an area has been overgrazed. I learn a lot in the field and it's awesome to go out with the illustrator himself. I'm missing a few from the St. Francois mountains, and we won't get out there until November. I still just *adore* ferns....