The regional Missouri bluegrass community has lost a giant. The Father of Ozark Bluegrass Music, James Woodrow Orchard Jr., left his earthly home the night of Wednesday, February 1, 2023 in Mountain View, MO near his home of Eminence, MO. He was 86 years, 6 months, and 11 days old.
Born on July 21, 1936 to James Sr. and Velma Orchard of Eminence MO, Jim was the first of two children. Younger brother, Richard, was born in 1939, the year James Sr. bought a farm and moved the family to McHenry Hollow in the tiny community of Ink, MO. This place, along with other geographical landmarks of the Ozarks named Jim’s future fiddle tunes, and housed inspiration for lyrics of songs he wrote.
His mother’s love for country music and the radio fueled the fire inside the childhood mind of little James. As they listened to WSM’s Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights, James would listen intently to help his mother copy down the words to each song for their homemade song books. Velma also ordered every song book of Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, etc. These notepads and books were to be cherished for generations to come. At the time, Velma probably didn’t realize how much of an impact these family gatherings would have on her oldest boy.
At the age of 7, Jim received a mail order catalog, Silvertone archtop guitar for Christmas, which sparked lessons with Jack Shockley, a local musical legend quite a few years older than Jim. This is also the time Jim recalls seeing his first ever Martin guitar. His seriousness for music, in time, worried his mother with the potential places he may go in the Ozark Mountain Timber towns. She is quoted as saying, “If I ever catch you in that tavern, that’ll be the end of your music career.” Those words would stick with Jim until the end, as he always provide a family-oriented, wholesome show wherever he played.
As James got more serious, bluegrass styles of music were becoming more popular in the rural Ozark. Package and tent shows were coming to the mountains. Radio stations were taking on acts for sponsored segments of “hillbilly” and bluegrass music acts. Ernest Tubb was the first live show Jim ever saw. He remembers Eminence High School in 1946 where that “big Martin” and “my hero” stood in the flesh.
Another huge impact for a young Orchard was Bill Monroe’s appearance in the Summer of 1948 in the town of Winona, MO. Bill had came to town early to have his crew set up a huge tent, paraded around town with a bull horn on their airport limousine, announcing the baseball game between the Blue Grass Boys and Winona Wildcats, with the show to follow. Between the Blue Grass Boy’s baseball team winning and the show, a large storm came through and rain came down “like pouring water out of boot.”
The show would be covered, but the torrential downpour caused the tent to start retaining water, and Bill feared for people’s safety on the tent collapsing. Jim watched Bill pace back and forth not knowing what to do when an old timer walked up to ask the problem. Bill spoke of his concern, the old man said he knew how to fix it. He walked slowly to his Model T Ford, came back and pointed a .22 revolver at the gathering of water in the canvas. One shot and the water started draining. The show went on and the old man received free admission that night.
As Jim’s interest grew in music, he encouraged brother Rich to join him. By this time, their uncle had given Jim a fiddle and bow, and there was a mandolin floating around as well. The guitar was what Jim wanted his younger brother to play. With less enthusiasm, Rich was hared to get started. Jim would convince Rich to play the guitar by taking Rich’s chores in exchange to backing Jim up with rhythm. Rich was a natural business man from the start, some would say.
In 1952, Jim landed his first radio slot. A fifteen minute segment sponsored by Coca-Cola. Jack Shockley, Paul Brake, and Jimmy Orchard performed as The Booger County Ramblers to the mountain people on the airwaves of KSMO-AM in Salem, MO. This was perhaps the very first radio show in Missouri featuring bluegrass styles. Bluegrass sounds were penetrating the Ozark by way of WSM out of Nashville, TN, influencing the likes of Don Brown, Douglas and Rodney Dillard, Lou Broadfoot, The Goforth family, and many more. Mitch Jayne would follow up the fifteen minute segment with a half an hour slot called Hickory Holler Time. This slot sometimes hosted a hot new style of banjo from the hands of Douglas Dillard. Bluegrass was alive and well in the Ozarks, and the first generation of Missouri/Ozark artists were born.
Orchard chose a career in public education, starting as the youngest teacher in the history of the Missouri School system in 1955 at age 18. Starting as a school master at the one room Flatwood School near Ink, and proceeding to become the History and Physical Education teacher and sports coach at Eminence High. He finally retired in 1985 as a history teacher in the Mountain View/Birch Tree, MO school systems. His love for history and preservation, along with his musical passion, spread throughout his student body over that 30 year time frame. The Ozarks were Jim’s Garden of Eden, and he wanted people to embrace and be proud of where they were from. He wanted the music that he loved to flourish as well. With that passion, several of his students were bit by the bluegrass bug, including Kenny Seaman, Lou Broadfoot, and many others.
In May of 1956, Jim married the one and only love of his life, Lucille. First living in a small home near Eminence, then moving to Lucille grandparents’ farm in an area named Delaware. This is the place they would make a home, raise two daughters (Candra and Sheri), and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Jim’s vision of the Garden of Eden was even more a reality on the farm he loved so well. There he raised up champion coon and squirrel dogs, registered Hereford cattle, and feeder hogs, and he hunted, fished, and enjoyed life to the fullest. The little house was added onto the main house, with his and Lucille’s collections of local history, fiddles, oil lamps, cast iron, and countless other treasures were kept. If you walked into their home, it was immediately your home. Just don’t cuss in the house or spit tobacco off the front porch!
The food was plentiful at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including Lucille’s famous strawberry jelly on a scratch-made cathead biscuit. Home-made macaroni and cheese with the perfect amount of sugar. Stories for days. Smiles and laughs. Bill Monroe impersonations. The dogs barking just outside the dining room letting you know there was a doe in the field with her fawn. Everything was perfect and at piece in Delaware, MO. Jim would great you at the door while sprawled out on his worn out chair nicknamed “the Throne,” and would stand on the front porch waving as you left until you were out of sight down the gravel lane.
The music grew in Shannon County, MO rather quickly. Some say “there must be something in the water,” as dang near half the county learned an instrument proficiently. Eminence is the county seat, nestled in the confluence of the spring-fed Jacks Fork and Current Rivers. Water so clear, you could drop a wheat penny in a 10 foot swimming hole and tell which way it landed at the bottom, heads or tails.
These rivers were so attractive that people started coming from all over the world to canoe, raft, fish, and float these waterways. Eminence went from a quiet river town in the winter and spring, to booming rural metropolis in the summer and fall. With this in place, local business men and women wanted to provide more for tourists.
Carl Seaman (Ken’s Father) had heard of a Opry-type show nearby that was really gaining popularity, so in 1966 The Current River Opry was born as an entertainment outlet for all the river goers. Jim was one of the first called, Carl needing his quick wit, Ozark storytelling, mandolin playing, and Master of Ceremonies skill. Jim joined a cast including, Ken Seaman, Guy Stephenson, Urel Albert, Clarence and Mary Ann Crider, and The Bressler Brothers. National traveling acts of the day like Flatt & Scruggs, Benny Martin, Red Allen, and The Country Gentlemen (their first ever show west of the Mississippi) would stop in for a night and make the Current River Opry even more special. Though the location changed a few times, The Current River Opry ran strong, with Jim Orchard at the wheel, until 2010. In that year, the concept rolled on in Willow Springs and Summersville, MO but under a different name. The common denominators…. Clarence and Mary Ann Crider, and Jimmy Orchard.
In late 1969-early 1970, Jim formed The Ozark Bluegrass Boys. The original band was Lou Broadfoot, Odie Mullins, Guy Stephenson, Hubert Woolsey, and Jimmy Orchard on the mandolin. This original band cut a 45 rpm record in Nashville, TN for the Cherry Label in approximately 1972. Each side boasted a Jim Orchard original, the instrumental, Trouble In B, and a tribute to his love for his home, Longing for the Ozarks.
Jimmy Orchard & The Ozark Bluegrass Boys began to make the regional circuit immediately. Playing dances, pie suppers, theaters, The Current River Opry, and a new concept called a bluegrass festival. The festival scene was spawning quickly in the midwest, and Jim was the face of many of the shows through the years. Some to note, include Dixon Bluegrass Pickin’ Time, Eminence Bluegrass Festival, and his own Heart of The Ozarks Bluegrass festival. Some of these shows went 40 years with Jim serving as Master of Ceremonies.
Jim’s first LP and next record is considered one of the rarest and most desirable records of bluegrass music for collectors. According to a 1995 Bluegrass Unlimited magazine article, Jim Orchard, Ken Seaman, and The Bressler Brothers Longing For The Ozarks LP on RimRock Records can not be found. First hand accounts from Jim confirms this articles is largely true. Jim went to Arkansas and picked up 1,000 copies of the LP to sell starting Memorial Day weekend 1976. He states the bumper was almost dragging from the weight of the records in the trunk. By Labor Day of ’76, the records were sold out, never to be reprinted again. Jim also recalled that the waterway featured on the front of the album is Arkansas’s Buffalo River. Longing For The Ozarks made Jim Orchard a Grammy Nominated Songwriter with its inclusion on The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys’ 2019 Rounder Record, Toil, Tears, & Trouble.
Jim Orchard went on to record over 20 records as the Ozark Bluegrass Boys, Orchard Brothers, Jim Orchard & Friends, Jim Orchard & The Bressler Brothers, and The Current River Opry. His knack for a fresh tune is prevalent throughout all these projects. He loved to honor people and places by naming instrumentals titles like Little Dab of Ink, Spring Valley Blues, Little Country Church in the Pines, among many others.
His mandolin playing was one of the first heard in the region, heavily influenced by Bill Monroe, but still unique to Jim. The fact that music couldn’t be played over and over again to capture the exact licks gave a sense of new creativity and imagination to the one time he may have heard White House Blues or Roanoke on WSM. He took what he retained and added his own twist without even knowing it. What Jim Orchard established was the very foundation of what is now considered Ozark mandolin style. His fiddle playing came later as his love for the instrument of his ancestors grew. From the 1980’s on, the world saw Jim gradually replace a pick with a bow as he continued to lead the Ozark Bluegrass Boys.
Jim Orchard’s passion for teaching never left him, even though he left the classroom. He supported young people in music and life skills for the rest of his life. He always invited all skills up on stage at any of his shows, with a hand shake a big smile. Countless Missouri artists attribute their love for bluegrass music to Jim Orchard and his support. There is something to be learned from this. Jim cared about the future. He wanted the music to flourish and grow. He selflessly wanted this, but in return he never truly realized that the seeds he had sown would in turn keep his memory alive for generations to come.
This is prevalent with Michael Cleveland’s banjo player, Josiah Shrode, Route 3’s Roy Bond, The Martin Family, The Baker Family, and The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys’ front man, C.J. Lewandowski. Jim Orchard’s light will shine upon the bluegrass and make it grow.
Jim’s last show appropriately took place at the Summersville VFW Hall, the last home of the Current River Opry, on November 19, 2022.
James Woodrow Orchard Jr. leaves behind his wife of nearly 67 years, Lucille, his two daughters, a large family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and countless friends. He is quoted saying, “I’d rather have a million friend than a million dollars.” Jim was a millionaire when it came to friends. His mark on the Ozarks, Missouri, and bluegrass music will never be forgotten simply because he took time for people. He knew the value of investment and he invested every day in the music he loved. He has a big family, but his family was much larger than he could have ever fathomed.
Take the time to teach someone something with a smile on your face and you’ll leave an impact that lasts far beyond your last breath.
Rest in Peace to The Father of Ozark Bluegrass Music… “I’m Longing tonight for the Ozarks. Your sweet williams and dogwoods fair. Where the whippoorwill calls in the moonlight. Will my sweetheart be waiting for me there?”
Services for James will be held Monday, February 6, 2023 at Yarber’s Funeral Home in Eminence, MO. The family will receive visitors from 9:00-11:00 a.m., with burial immediately following.