Ozarks Weather, Predictable by Being Reliably Unpredictable

Feb 1, 2019

Credit Terren in Virginia / Flickr

In this segment of These Ozarks Hills, longtime storyteller, musician and folklorist Marideth Sisco talks about the disruptions that Ozarks weather patterns sometimes bring, and how we learn to live around them.

Click the "Play" button below to hear the audio essay.

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. Time out of mind, the people of these hills have endured the whimsical and often severe weather common to the region.

Long before there were written records or even thermometers as we know them today, the vagaries of the seasons have been making life, well, interesting for all those who inhabit this place.

Now that we have records, of course, we learn all sorts of interesting things, such as the information that Springfield, Mo., is famous for having the most unsettled weather of anywhere in the populated United States. It’s not necessarily a distinction we might have sought, but hearing about it doesn’t cause us to dispute it.

Some several years ago, I recall attending an outdoor art fair on the grounds of the Springfield Art Museum, next to Phelps Grove park, on a balmy, sunny spring day. The weather could not have been more perfect. Then a breeze came up, a very artistic bundle of clouds rolled up from behind the trees, and within moments the wind became a rain and hail filled gale that roared across the green, flinging debris and flattening nearly all the booths and exhibits.

Then it rolled on, the sun came out and all was well. But the art fair was over. Such is the nature of, uh, nature. At least in the Ozarks.

Another well remembered chain of weather events that comes to mind now is related to West Plains and it’s Old Time Music Ozarks Heritage Festival, which happens every June.

Now approaching its 23rd year of outstanding and sometimes legendary performances, it began as a small outdoor gathering at HOBA, the Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Association’s facility just south of town. The mixing of these very distinct and unique traditions, Bluegrass and Old time, of course, led to the occasional sparring with dyed in the wool Bluegrass addicts who thought the intrusion of Old Time Music, characterized by non-bluegrass forms and features like modal tuning, fewer banjos and slower tempos, was just a little short of an abomination.

One year one of the HOBA members pulled his RV into the heart of the festival and played bluegrass tunes loudly on his stereo, presumably to drive out the demon Old Timers. But mostly everyone got along. That is until the morning it began to rain and wouldn’t stop.

Festival organizers, acting just in the nick of time, obtained permission to move the performances into the shelter of the WP Civic Center, and so all was saved. Those who were last out were barely able to ford the creek that had recently been the road in. That was a great festival, and Doc Watson got to play indoors to a packed house. Once removed to downtown West Plains, there the festival stayed.

Some years later, the festival was dealt another blow by weather, this from a freak storm in the wee hours of morning that again came and went within minutes, but on its way through ripped apart every tent and canopy sheltering vendors and performers alike. But volunteers arriving at dawn called first responders, and they all called on friends and by the time the festival opened for business, things were back to a shaky normal.

Two years ago the weather event came down on me at the festival shortly after I announced the opening evening act, the Roe Family Band from Minnesota. Again a breeze, a cloud, and a sudden rain-filled blow that fetched a monumental slat at the stage built on a flat-bed trailer, sending the musicians scrambling to protect their instruments and the sound crew flying in all directions, trying to cover electrical connections and protect their sensitive circuitry.

The stage was covered on three sides and the storm was coming at an oblique angle, so all should have been well. But it was June, and the stage was known to get awfully hot, and so some thoughtful carpenter had cut ventilation holes near the top to help the hot air move about. Neither he nor any of us had accounted for the possibility of rain falling hard, fast and horizontal.

As the wind increased and we began to feel the stage floor start to tremble, we could only hold fast and do what little was possible. For me, that was standing between the deluge and an elderly and valuable string bass.

When the storm passed, the bass was wiped dry, the whole apparatus, except for the stage, was moved into the Civic Center, and the show went on. I, however, did not. Reminding myself that  A) discretion is the better part of valor, and B) I’m old, I went home, dried off and curled up with my dog and a book. They had to finish without me. 

Likewise, when this most recent blow loomed over the Ozarks, I had already availed myself of a free ride to the beach, in this case Ocean springs, MS, and was deprived of the opportunity to be brave, steadfast and way too cold.  I’m sorry I couldn’t take you with me. I’ll be on my way home by the time you hear this, and will have plenty of time to enjoy the rest of what this winter’s weather brings.

And even if there’s another blizzard on the way, I’ll be pleased as punch, as I always am, to return to these oldest hills, where the air is always sweet, the people are generous and kind, and nobody has an accent. This is Marideth Sisco, headed back to these blessed Ozark Hills.