Jimmy Driftwood Outfoxes the Government

Jimmy Driftwood at home in Arkansas. Photography: J Gerald Crawford

Jimmy Driftwood, in the early hours of a frosty fall morning, decided that Mountain View, Arkansas, needed a genuine culture center to showcase that real, honest, down-home, authentic mountain folk music that he had found in the hollows of the Ozarks. He didn’t want a cold, formal museum with fiddles and guitars hanging on the walls, stuck inside some glass box, looking pretty but not making any sounds.

“What we need,” he told anyone who would listen to him, “is a place where people can come and hear the old-timey music being played the way our mamas and daddies and their mammas and daddies played it. We need to preserve those great old songs of our land before the old-timers die and that music is lost forever.”

That was the speech he made. With emotion. With passion. But Driftwood had other reasons for wanting the center nailed down to the hard rock and stone ledges of Stone County. He knew it would have to be funded by the Economic Development Administration, and if the government were somehow persuaded to erect a folk center, it would have to bring water and sewers to Mountain View. Mountain View had never had city water and sewers before. People either dug wells or went thirsty. All he had to do was sell the U.S. government on saving a national heritage.

Mountain musicians played on the steps of the Stone County Courthouse before the folk culture center was build.

Congressman Wilber Mills arranged for Driftwood to appear before the Ways and Means Committee, and the night before he left for Washington, a handful of nervous city officials paid him an unexpected visit.

They were wringing their hands, wiping the sweat from their faces, and it wasn’t even a hot night. They stood around on one foot and then another. They hemmed and hawed, spit and sputtered, and one councilman finally got up enough nerve to tell him: “Jimmy, we know you’re a big dreamer. But, we beg you, please don’t go up there and embarrass us. Don’t ask for so much money they’ll laugh at us, ridicule us, and think we’re crazy. We’re just a little old bitty place, Jimmy, and nobody up there’s ever heard of us anyway. We’ve talked to a good carpenter, and he can build us a center for forty-five thousand dollars. So that’s all you need to ask for, Jimmy. All we need to make it happen is forty-five thousand dollars. It’s not much, but it’s enough.”

Driftwood smiled and thanked them for their concern, which, of course was the neighborly thing to do. Then he went down to the town square, rounded up eighteen of those old-time mountain musicians, bought them some airline tickets, and caught a plane for Washington.

Before their first flight, Bookmiller Shannon and Lonnie Avey made a solemn promise to each other that neither would look out the window. But at twenty thousand feet, Bookmiller stole a glance with one eye and yelled, “Lonnie, hang on. We’ve played hell now.”

In Washington, Jimmie left his mountain musicians picking and singing on the Capitol steps while he walked toward the committee room. After all, they were the heritage he sought to save.

He kept remembering the words of those city officials: Don’t embarrass us, Jimmy. We don’t want them laughing at us, Jimmy. All we need is forty-five thousand dollars. That’s all you need to ask for, Jimmy. Forty-five thousand dollars.

Jimmy Driftwood stood up before the Ways and Means Committee, smiled that big Arkansas smile of his, and talked softly about the mountains and the music. The music is worth saving and preserving, he said.

“How much money do you need?” a congressman asked him.

Driftwood didn’t even blink.

“Fifteen million dollars,” he said.

Back in Mountain View, city officials would have bowed their heads in shame. There wouldn’t have been enough heart attacks to go around.

But nobody in Congress flinched. Nobody laughed. They had all hung around outside listening to the old-timers pick and sing before the meeting had been convened, just as Jimmy Driftwood knew they would.

He walked out of the committee room with two million hard cash dollars.

Within months, as he drove to town, Jimmy Driftwood could hear the sounds of heavy machinery digging holes for water pipe and sewer pipe.

It sounded a lot like music, he thought.

Mountain music.

MORE J GERALD CRAWFORD IMAGES CAN BE FOUND IN THE ART SECTION OF VENTURE GALLERIES.

Caleb Pirtle is author of Other Voices, Other Times, a collection of characters that he met during his years on the road as travel editor for Southern Living Magazine.

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  • Love these bits of fascinating history I’d otherwise never hear. And wonderfully told. Appreciate your work, Caleb.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Christina, you could spend a week with Jimmy and have enough stories to write for the rest of your life.

  • Thank you for a wonderful yarn. It has helped soothe my tattered nerves after listening to a bunch of politicians slinging BS last night.

  • Fabulous story! God bless Jimmy Driftwood!

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