Riverfest is always tuneful. But it could have been argued last year, on the Memorial Day festival’s second night, that the best concert in Arkansas was some two hours away, up in the hills of North Arkansas.
Just a little ways outside picturesque Mountain View, with its stone buildings around an old-fashioned square, and just up the hill a piece from Jimmy Driftwood Boulevard, the incomparable dobro player Jerry Douglas — the guy whose name is featured on the billing every time you see Alison Krauss and Union Station — was holding forth with his talented Nashville-based acoustic band.
Douglas’ show, in front of nearly a thousand folks at the Ozark Folk Center theater, was part of the center’s Resophonic Guitar Festival weekend, a celebration of an old instrument that was influential in the development of Southern blues. It evolved into the popular country instrument, the dobro.
Of all the instruments John D. Van Orman plays — and he’s well-versed on a variety of string instruments — the resophonic guitar (which looks like somebody jammed a hubcap onto a guitar) is one of his favorites. He created the resophonic festival when he became the folk center’s director of music and he’s adding a day to the show this year, on Memorial Day weekend.
The acclaimed Nashville bluegrass outfit Blue Highway, with Rob Ickes on the dobro, will be the guests of honor this year.
“The people in Nashville who don’t think Jerry Douglas is the greatest dobro player in the world think Rob Ickes is,” Van Orman says.
That show barely scratches the surface of an impressive lineup Van Orman has scheduled for the Folk Center’s concert season, which officially begins April 16 with Norman and Nancy Blake as part of the 43rd annual Arkansas Folk Festival. The Browns, long known in Nashville, joined the national bluegrass mainstream after the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” Ralph Stanley (Aug. 13), the reigning bluegrass king, the Old Crow Medicine Show (Aug. 20), Ricky Skaggs (Sept. 2), Arkansas native Iris Dement (Sept. 17) and the Del McCoury Band (Sept. 3) are other household names who’ll be making the trek to Mountain View this year.
“I’ve been trying to enhance the programming up here and I’m very pleased with this season,” said Van Orman, who’ll finish his fifth year at the center in June.
Van Orman moved to the center from the Arc of Arkansas, a visual arts program for people with developmental disabilities. He came to Little Rock from Illinois, where he’d played in string bands. He began visiting Mountain View after coming to Arkansas, then jumped at the music director’s job when it opened in 2000.
It’s a move that’s suited the folk center as much as it has Van Orman.
“Change comes somewhat slowly because audiences are accustomed to certain things,” he said. “We don’t want to lose our older audience but at the same time we want to court a newer audience and increase our attendance. And, of course, we have to watch our bottom line. But making money is not the most important thing we do.”
Rather, he says, preserving traditional Southern mountain music and culture is the folk center’s trust. They do it through music classes, interpretive workshops and, of course, concerts.
Arkansas’s folk music is about more than picking and grinning hillbillies, a familiar caricature. It has been influenced by groups as diverse as gypsies, Chinese and Greeks who built railroads and black roustabouts on the river. Hawaiian-style music was influential in the 1920s and ’30s, Van Orman said.
“It’s real dangerous thing to just focus on one type of music to the exclusion of a lot of things that have happened in our history that influenced our music,” Van Orman says.
So, the Ozark Folk Center’s season covers everything from gospel to the hammer dulcimer (whose origins can be found in Persia) to a popular storytelling event to newer programs starting on the mandolin.
“It allows us to offer more variety in our music programming, which is important to people,” he said, “both in terms of being historically accurate and being entertaining.”
Once the weekends turn warm, Mountain View’s musicians come out in full force, with impromptu concerts on the square until the wee hours of the morning. The Ozark Folk Center, meanwhile, has refurbished its lodging and has a restaurant, along with an arts and crafts area. And, of course, there are many mountain views.
Altogether, the little town on Highway 5 makes a nice weekend getaway for the fan of authentic folk music. Van Orman’s lineup just makes it sweeter.