Amateur musical entertainment is a robust enterprise here in northwest Arkansas, endless small town and small time venues featuring different genres of music where friends and neighbors across the area may gather to socialize and to be entertained on a regularly scheduled basis. In context, amateur simply refers to non-or semi-professional as opposed to professional; within its breadth and scope one finds different levels of musicianship from beginners to sophisticated instrumentalists and accomplished vocalizations. Much of the talent pool consists of retirees who during their working years laid aside their musical ambition but now have time to develop their love of it into an enjoyable hobby.
Alma is fortunate to have a variety of new music venues from which local folks may choose. first to come online was Warrens Rec Room, Newberry west, off U.S. 71 leaning more to country, rock and blues; next, bluesman Chris Cameron’s Founders Room, Dow Jones Road Alma north, featuring a variety of professional quality talent; and lastly, opening Jan. 1, Bill Rogers Front Porch Theater 71 north beyond A to Z, catering to bluegrass.
There are various threads which lead to the creation of these venues, many voices to be heard and many stories to be told of the people and history behind the development of our home-grown entertainment. For eight years I watched as the threads developed, and in an indirect way may have been a minor influence, though talent and energy far beyond the scope of my own abilities was there waiting for the opportunity ere I arrived on the scene.
For the bluegrassers there have been only two long-running venues in the area, one at Brentwood, Ark., on U.S. 71 south of West Fork; the other, Vida Brooks Friday night jamboree at Roland Oklahoma. Both are seasonal, fall to springtime and are excellent places for family entertainment and for musicians to grow their skills.
Closer to home were other venues catering more to country, O.G’s Jamboree on Dow Jones Road north of Alma, and Bill and Beverly Robertson’s "crawdad Hole" at Mountainburg with Red Moore. Although these two venues have become victims of the attrition of time, Mr. Moore whose life and times were featured last year on the front page of the Times Record still offers local entertainment, fronting the house band on open mic night at the Mountainburg Community Center on Thursday evenings.
As a newcomer I edged onto the local music scene by attending jam sessions and occasionally performing with make-up bands at Brentwood, Roland, and at Mountainburg; my brother Bill and I with the help of local musicians opened for Wade Kimes annual trail ride and benefit concert at Chester six years running. But It was at Roland, Okla., that I fell in with a bunch of "outlaws" calling them selves the "Rebel Ridge Rascals," headed by much traveled singer/musician Johnny Martin that became the major outlet for a music loving old guy who has never considered himself more than a "Sunday picker."
Yet, it was much closer to home that I became involved in events which eventually led to the new bluegrass venue here at Alma called the "Front Porch Theater" just one of the many and varied enterprises of local entrepreneur Rudy Mayor Bill Rogers, musician, magician and clown. A natural born entertainer "Mr. Bill" has been one of the areas foremost supporters and promoters of musical ventures and adventures. Gotta say, looking askance, one might imagine it would surely take the efforts of a true "magician" to get the level of entertainment up and running to the quality it has become.
Fancy if you will, a middle age fellow retired and casting about for something to occupy idle hands other than growing old growing a garden, or whiling away the hours sitting on a park bench whittling doodads from a hickory stick. That would be my friend and fellow musician, Larry Walker, who eight years ago, with no musical background, decided to learn the fiddle and become involved. Larry took his fiddle and new-found talent down to A to Z Sporting Goods at Alma, ensconced his considerable frame in a large plush recliner and welcomed anyone who came along to join in and play along.
A To Z Sporting Goods is no small enterprise. A host of people pass through its doors daily, amongst them an occasional musician and as word got out and around, the fledgling jam grew in number and popularity. Among the participants were such accomplished musicians as fiddler Allen Ray Ward, the afore-mentioned Johnny Martin, Doctor James Robertson of Ozark and yes— - ven the esteemed Mayor of Rudy Mr. Bill Rogers.
The gent from Rudy first showed at the high intensity jam with a rattling old country guitar and a measured country rhythm, however, after deciding the irreverent old fellow sitting close by in the small circle of pickers was in fact, harmless enough, soon determined to join the high energy and camaraderie of bluegrass, fetched himself a high-dollar Martin guitar and went from crooning Jimmy Buffet’s "Wasting away in Margaritaville," to the driving tempo of Bill Monroe’s "Blue Moon of Kentucky." A talented lyricist, the artistic juices produced a song called "The Front Porch," the reminiscence of early childhood and from there the thread continued to develop. Today the stage of Mr. Mayor’s new Front Porch Theater, tend to take an old timer back to distant yesterdays, to his own childhood and that long ago cabin on the hill.
The eccentricities, protocols and politics of an open jam: The A to Z Friday morning jam session, its core musicians encouraged and catered to by management ran for three years becoming a social gathering place for friends, neighbor’s and fans alike, but in the end its success proved its undoing. An open jam by its very nature is nigh onto a mission impossible undertaking, with a built-in tendency to self-destruct: An open jam is a musical event that is open to anyone who wishes to participate, a charitable gesture to be sure but after awhile "the more the merrier" begins to affect the energy and intensity, it becomes weighty and slow moving degrading the musical quality by forcing core musicians to become less and less involved and less interested in supporting the venue.
Serious musicians invest thousands of dollars in quality instruments and thousands of hours honing their craft, in return they expect others to respect that dedication by being the best they can be. Nothing annoys a dedicated musician more than a jam member which comes to the party unrehearsed, unprepared and ignorant of the protocol; nothing detracts from the tempo of a jam like singing from lyrics typed on paper, holding up the parade by searching through a folder for a special song, not knowing which key, the chord progression, or deciding halfway through its not doable and leafing through the folder for more suitable material. Fetching along a hymnal and singing eight stanzas of a six stanza hymn can be a real jam-breaker.
My friend Larry, who started it all, opines that the catalyst for the jam’s demise was its coverage by the entertainment section of the Times Record, that in fact its popularity killed it by attracting too many players, at the latter end, less skilled participants with little understanding of the politics and protocols of invitational music, while at the same time the venue was shunned by the kind of talent that made it a success.
But for the drive and entrepreneurship of Mr. Bill who found or created other venues for the core musicians, the thread might well have ended there but forthwith, he and his banjo playing … accomplice, Doctor James Robertson of Ozark formed the (now defunct) Frog Bayou Bluegrass Band with me, Mr. Walker, guitarist singer Bob Burkhart and Kendal Hopkins, bassist, rounding out the membership.
For most of our association Mr. Bill had dreamed of creating his own music venue at a family owned commercial building just north of the Alma city limits. Now with a quality band called "Crooked and Steep" to anchor the entertainment, that dream has come to fruition and the community is better for it. Already, top regional bluegrass bands have found it an excellent venue for their music.
Meanwhile others of the group remain involved: There is still music at A to Z on Friday mornings, featuring country and western swing artists, pianist John Brumet and guitarist Frank Payton. Larry, the gentleman who planted the seed which started it all, heads the "New Frog Bayou Boys," and entertains there on Saturday mornings. As for this aging old relic, the past two years has found him hanging out with Mayor Bill and Doctor Robertson (guitar, mandolin and banjo) at the Ozark Travel Center, Ozark. Time has slowed him down but he ain’t quit.
From the song "Amanda" by Waylon Jennings:
It’s a measure of people that don’t understand
The pleasure of playing in a hillbilly band
I got my first guitar when I was 14
Now I finally reached 80 and I’m still wearing jeans