One of the things an outsider coming into Mountain View learns quickly is that music is serious business around here. There are especially strong opinions about the purest forms of music that define folk culture.
As a flatlander who couldn’t play the spoons, I stay out of those advanced conversations. Call me a simpleton who pretty much enjoys it all and is just happy to be here.
But there was a moment back in December when I knew I was in the presence of something special.
Odell Jackson (I learned recently they called him “The Chief”) had just celebrated his ninetieth birthday, and one day back in December while discussing story ideas for the following week our staff decided it would be a good idea to visit with the local legend. He’d been under the weather for several weeks when I met him and his wife at their home. Odell was enjoying time in his favorite cushioned rocking chair. His large hands enveloped a big mug of steaming coffee.
He welcomed me like an old friend.
I’d done enough research on Odell before our interview to know that local folks were especially endured to his talent for writing lyrics - the kind of words that speak to the authenticity of Ozark Mountain culture. Just a few of the dozens of notables include Sand Road County Line, Lester Do Little, Cotton Picking Baby, Sawmiller’s Princess, Mule Skinner Blues, and “T” for Texas.
It was Mountain View Mayor Roger Gardner’s father, Claude, who knew Odell years ago and encouraged him to consider the Ozarks as a new home thinking he’d be a great fit for the mountain music culture.
Claude Gardner was exactly right.
“He had a way with a song and he fit right in,” Roger Gardner said. “He was really kind of a country poet and he was just a natural here.
“One of the things we are steadily losing is a bunch of the old timers who would sit around the square and play, and visit with the tourists. I guarantee you when people come here this summer and they’re walking around the Square, they’ll be looking for Chief. He caught the eye of a lot of folks.”
One of the most notable eyes Chief caught was several years ago when country music star Pam Tillis stayed in Mountain View overnight en route from Nashville to Branson. Clad in sweats and a baseball cap, Tillis meandered through the Square and was taken by Odell’s style and presence. After several hours she returned to her overnight quarters and told the local manager of her experience.
“I just love that man. He’s fantastic. If I’d have met him 20 years ago, I’d have made him a star.”
As part of our story I really wanted to convey what inspired Odell to the creative style that was his signature brand. His modesty wouldn’t let him speak too much about himself. No big deal, really, his response.
“Oh, there’s not a whole lot to it, really. I think the more you’re around music, the more it gets to you. I have a lot of words and thoughts swimming around in my head all the time,” he said. “These days, I have to hurry up and get them down on paper. If I don’t they’ll be lost for sure.”
And then it happened. Right there in that little house on Woody Street.
“You want me to play something for you?” he asked, not really asking, and he grabbed his guitar before I could even answer.
And from the moment of that first strum across his lap on a guitar tuned to “open C” when Odell started playing and singing, something inside that house changed.
It was as if my spirit spoke quietly saying: “Just sit back and enjoy this rare moment for a bit. What you’re seeing and hearing now is something very special.”
And so, that’s exactly what I did.
I put down my pen and paper and soaked up the moment, watching this gifted man do what God made him to do. I swear in that moment, Odell Jackson went from a tired man in failing health to being perfectly in synch with his purpose and higher calling. It was like watching a bird fly.
It was an honor just to be there, and it’s something I’ll never forget. Odell Jackson and me, an audience of one.
It’s hard not to wonder if Odell is up in Heaven these days sitting cross-legged near some pavilion on a golden square belting out lyrics old and new, and inviting anyone who comes along to join in the pickin’.
Just imagine how sweet the sound is now.
Sing on, Odell.