Longtime country jam sessions near Bloomfield come to an end
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Aquilla, Mo. — A little slice of life in rural Missouri became a little piece of history a few weeks ago when a group of local country music enthusiasts gathered for a Friday night jam session for the final time.
For over 20 years, Raleigh "Fuzz" Palmer and his wife of 68 years, Mildred, have been hosting country music jam sessions each Friday night in the garage of their rural Aquilla home. During the heat of the summer, the sessions would often spill over into the couple's front lawn and driveway, as the mosquito population allowed.
"I've been playing music since I was about 13 years old," says Fuzz, who will celebrate his 86th birthday next month.
"A bunch of us used to have a band," he recalls with a smile. "We called ourselves the 'Gumbo Gang'."
That was back in the '50s, Fuzz recalled, and later, with the membership somewhat altered in accordance with job and spousal demands, the group became known as "The Rhythm Rustlers."
"We played in Cape Girardeau pretty regularly and often for KDEX radio. They would tape us and play it at different times throughout the week," Fuzz recalls.
Although the regular "gigs" ended years ago, the Friday practices did not. And it wasn't only the musicians themselves who gathered at the Palmer home. It was neighbors and it was friends and often it was friends of neighbors who came, to hear an old country music favorite sung by the locals. The price was right and the company couldn't be beat.
"They usually brought some kind of refreshments," Mildred explains. "They'd bring a pie or cake or cookies and the coffee pot would always be on."
But most importantly, they brought with them a love of country music and an appreciation of the musicians at hand. And over the years, those musicians increased in numbers.
"That last night," Fuzz remembers, "we had about 20 on guitar."
They would come from far and near over the years. They weekly blended a mix of acoustic guitar, fiddle and bass fiddle, an occasional banjo and sometimes a drum, as they attempted to duplicate the era of George Jones, Buck Owens and Charlie Pride. A local mandolin player would tell a friend miles away and that friend would join in the fun and proceed to tell a fiddle player friend 40 miles to the north. They would gather on a Friday night, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, around a harvest moon or a woodstove, with neighborhood beagles and blue tick hounds waiting in the wings for discarded rib bones or crusts from a ham sandwich.
In the end, they were all neighbors and friends and that final night a few weeks ago was an emotional gathering of people who knew deep down that they were saying goodbye to more than good friends. They were bidding farewell to a bygone era ... a time when friends could congregate for an evening of good music, fellowship and great food, invited or uninvited, welcomed just the same.
Traditionally, Fuzz played rhythm guitar, first acoustic and later electric. About three years ago, though, he switched to electric keyboard.
"We had plenty of guitar players and I had an interest in the keyboard, so I just switched over," he explains from his modest home just north of Bloomfield.
As the art of playing rhythm guitar was self-taught, so is Fuzz Palmer's expertise on the keyboard. It seemingly comes as easy to Fuzz as spreading butter on one of Mildred's homemade biscuits.
All good things must come to an end, however, and the end came on a recent Friday evening, when after considerable thought, Fuzz Palmer concluded that it was a good time to call an end to the regular gatherings. Although the appreciation for a well-played country song will be forever in his heart, he recognized the fact that he no longer could serve adequately in the role he had played for well over half a century.
"I have something called macular degeneration," Fuzz admits, "and I just can't see the keyboard well enough anymore to play."
Macular degeneration, an age-related cause of vision loss in people 60 and older, is a disease that destroys one's sharp, central vision. The disease prohibits its victims from seeing objects clearly and robs them from enjoying tasks like reading and driving, eventually taking from them their overall sense of independence.
"He got where he couldn't see the controls on the keyboard," Mildred says. "It was embarrassing for him and we eventually decided that it would be best for all concerned if we didn't play on a regular basis anymore."
So, although he still picks up his guitar and plays with the ease that he did some fifty years ago, Friday nights for the Palmers will now hold a different agenda than in the past. No longer will the sound of old Buck Owens and George Jones hits ring through the flatlands of Aquilla. The hounds and the cats will have to find new resources for discarded scraps.
"It was time," Fuzz admits, although it is abundantly clear that had it not been for the onset of vision problems, the sound of an acoustic guitar and an accompanying fiddle and bass across the wheat fields of Aquilla might have continued to soothe the souls of friends and neighbors.
Instead, there is an element of society who can rest assured in the knowledge that their hearts are in a bit of a better place, having made that turn east on County Road 504 when, for all those years, Friday evening rolled around.