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West Plains Keeps it Real With Old Time Music Festival

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Mike Smith.

We wind down our week long series of reports on historic preservation in the Ozarks, in West Plains Missouri where what’s become that city’s signature event took place June 19th and 20th.  The annual Old Time Music-Ozark Heritage Festival.  (SOUND: Voices singing I’ll Fly Away)

Todd Shanks is the Community Marketing Director for the City of West Plains, and a member of the 

Credit City of West Plains
Wets Plains Community Marketing Director Todd Shanks

  OTMOHF Committee:  “This is the signature event for the city of West Plains, and arguably  this region’s largest event every year.  When you come to the OTMOHF, we like to tell people You Are Getting the Authentic Ozarks Experience.  The focus of our festival is more of the musical traditions.  There were  3 main ideas central to starting it.  One would be acknowledging many of the local and very able performers we have in the area, and also we felt the need to save these Expressive Traditions from here in the Ozarks. With that, we also want to maintain a focus of authenticity.”

(Sound:  Van Colbert Singing Skillet Good and Greasy)  You can’t get more authentic than Van Colbert.  Festival goers get the real deal when The Colbert Brothers perform at the OTMOHF. “My dad learned to play music when he was just a boy, and that was in the 1920’s.  He taught all us boys to play music, and that was a family thing.  We grew up down here and it was real rural, and we sat around in the evenings playing music as a family unit.”

I asked Van Colbert about the importance of passing down the knowledge and traditions at home and at the Old Time Music Ozark Heritage Festival:  “Well, I doubt the world will stop spinning if we don’t, but to me it’s pretty important because it’s part of our past and part of our culture, part of the history of this country.  And to me it’s not a static dead thing.  It’s alive and as vibrant today as it was in the 1920’s and 30’s, So I think it’s real important.  You need to know your roots, and what came before you.”

Credit Mike Smith / KSMU-FM
Old Time Music Practitioner Van Colbert

“The mission of the festival is this.  It’s Old Time Music.  The Ozark Heritage part of it came later.”  Kathleen Morrissey has served on the OTMOHF Committee for its entire 21 year history. In fact, she was working in her West Plains Council on the Arts office 23 year ago when musicians Michael Fraser and Bob Cunningham approached her with the idea of supporting and showcasing local talent.    “It was me that had my whole consciousness lifted and changed and rearranged when Michael and Bob came into my office.  Then they had to educate me because I knew nothing about this.” 

Michael Fraser recalls that encounter:  “I had served and worked with the Missouri Arts Council because I served an apprenticeship with Bob Holt, Master Ozarks Square Dance Fiddler.  So I was somewhat familiar with how things worked, and that’s how we got the idea to start with Kathleen because  we thought West Plains would be a great place to have a festival and knew she had worked some with the Missouri Arts Council as well.”

Kathleen Morrissey:  “It took about a year for them to keep talking to me about how it could happen and how things were happening in other places like West Plains.  That’s how it really started.”

Michael Fraser:  “It was primarily the music that started it but there was a whole realm of other things going on that needed to be showcased, cultural art forms that were being lost.”

Credit Mike Smith / KSMU-FM
Kathleen Morrissey and Michael Fraser Helped Originate the Old Time Music-Ozark Heritage Festival

Take Quilting, for example:  (VOICE AT QUILT DEMONSTRATION)  “This is a Lone Star, and it’s a modern one.  There is an older one upstairs and  is from the 1920’s…….”

Another art form is passed on by festival flint nappers sharing their knowledge of chipping chert:   (SOUND: Rock being chipped) “Basically, it’s the reduction of rock till you get to the point where it looks like something, hopefully and arrowhead.  It’s a humbling very addictive hobby, but every once in a while we get lucky and as you can see we’ve made a few arrowheads…..”

As Festival Vendor Bill Rhodes of Sheridan Arkansas shows off his hand crafted turkey calls, Todd Shanks has some final words:  “It’s a tradition in the Ozarks that goes back generations where a lot of the music  the stories and  folklore gets passed on from generation to generation.  That’s what we are trying to do here.  We’re trying to pass down those traditions to future generations so they’re no lost, just lost.”    

For information about the past, present and future of the Old Time Music-Ozark Heritage Festival in West Plains,

Mike Smith's career at KSMU began in 1980 as a student announcer when the former Navy Submariner attended (then) SMSU with help from the GI Bill. In 1982 Smith became a full time member of the KSMU family as "Chief Announcer", responsible for the acquisition, training and scheduling of the student announcing staff. It was also in 1982 when Smith first produced "Seldom Heard Music" a broadcast of Bluegrass which is still heard on KSMU and every Saturday night at 7CT.