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Free music program keeps traditions alive in 'Folk Music Capital of the World'

Free music lessons offered in Mountain View, Ark., are sustaining the folk music tradition ingrained in the town's history. NBC's Chelsea Clinton reports.

By Craig Stanley, NBC News

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Ark. – Even at two years old, Clancey Ferguson knew one day she wanted to become a country music star.

“She saw the fiddler from the Dixie Chicks on the Country Music Awards and she fell hard,” remembered Clancey’s mother, Babbie Ferguson. “She said, ‘I want to do that!’”

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At five, Clancey convinced her mother to sign her up for classical violin training and at nine, Clancey finally picked up a fiddle. At the time, her hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark., afforded her few opportunities to master the faster-paced style so often found in folk music.

Undeterred, Clancey and her mother packed up and moved three and a half hours north to Mountain View, Ark.: the “Folk Music Capitol of the World.”

An ‘awe-inspiring’ experience


 Soon after settling in Mountain View, Clancey found a fiddle instructor and discovered Music Roots – a music education program that teaches 4th through 8th graders the fundamentals of folk music. Kids are given free instruments such as banjos, autoharps and mandolins, along with weekly lessons on how to play them. Locally home-schooled children -- like Clancey -- are also invited to participate at the school sessions.

The program’s advanced students are generally invited to join the ensemble group, which takes their folk music training to the next level by performing at local venues and recording CDs.

Clancey thrived in Music Roots and was asked by her instructor to help assist with teaching the other students. As she and her mother hoped, Mountain View was cultivating her musical talent. Unexpectedly, it was also nurturing her young soul.

“It was an awe-inspiring experience, seeing everybody playing music and being so welcoming,” Clancey said of Music Roots. “Helping the kids and seeing people opening their hearts and homes and their talents up to help me.”

A musical tradition begins

Settlers first took root in Mountain View after the Civil War, bringing with them the rich acoustic folk music that reverberates within the region today. Day and night, townspeople of all ages congregate on porches and in grass lots where they “pick and grin” until bedtime.

Danny Thomas, a former school superintendent, started the “Music Roots” program in the 1990s to pass down the town’s treasured historical legacy, preserved in the musical traditions of their ancestors.

Children at the Ozark Folk Center play fiddles, guitars and banjos preserving a rich musical heritage.  Here they play "seven and a half" a tune that has been around as long as anyone can remember, but whose author is unknown.

"Our forefathers who lived in this isolated, remote area in the mountains made a lot of sacrifices to make life better for their children," Thomas said. "A lot of the stories that took place here are told in the songs and the music.”

In the 1960s, Thomas and his neighbors met regularly at the courthouse in the epicenter of Mountain View where they’d jam into the night, echoing the heartfelt acoustic melodies of their forefathers and improvising new ones. Music was embedded in the town’s culture, fueling the preservation of its rich history while solidifying the town’s unique communal bond that has lasted more than a century.

"The kids and the old-timers, we knew the same songs, we played the same instruments, we had a good time together," Thomas said.

'Every child is motivated by something different'

Music Roots, a joint effort of the Mountain View Public School System and the Ozark Folk Center State Park, is supported in part by grant funding, but largely by the hospitality of the town’s residents.

Shay and Scott Pool own the music store on the town square, where they fix students’ broken instruments for free. And when time permits, they build new instruments from scratch.  Shay teaches Music Roots in the school once a week and provides two additional days of free lessons at her store for those interested – a conditional gesture.

“I'll say, 'here's your song for the week, go home and learn it,’” Shay said. "'If you don't learn it when you come back next week, you owe me for the lesson.' But if they learn it, then they don’t have to pay me for the lessons."

More than 1000 kids have matriculated at Music Roots since its inception, and everyone has completed the program at varying levels of mastery. The Pool’s son Lukas, an alumna of Music Roots, earned a full scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The Cobb brothers, also program alumni, have made a name for themselves on the Bluegrass circuit -- along with Clancey, who has begun to live out her dream, too.  Now 14 years old, she tours across the country with her band “Clancey and the Ragtags,” whom she found in Mountain View. Sometimes she also performs as a solo act.

"Every child is motivated by something different," Shay said. "Some are motivated by just the joy of playing. And others are motivated by a possible performance – or, down the road, instead of working in a local food joint, they can play music and make money."

Regardless of why kids choose to participate, Thomas said he’s glad Music Roots is keeping the community’s legacy alive among those poised to carry Mountain View into the future.

“It makes me feel good that [the young people] haven't forgotten their heritage," Thomas said. "And that they know that people before them had some wonderful things to tell in their music."

To learn more about Music Roots, please visit the website http://www.ofcmusicroots.com/