High school students sit in circle with musical instruments
Shannon County’s Eminence R-I School District exchanged a typical band program for stringed instruments to tie in with local musical tradition. (Photo: Kaitlyn McConnell)

This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.

EMINENCE — Strings sing at Eminence, where instead of a traditional band program, students at the town’s school learn how to play instruments like guitars, dobros, mandolins, fiddles and banjos. 

It wasn’t the original focus of the school’s band. In the past, they had a regular program — with the likes of tubas, trumpets and trombones — but had challenges in grabbing kids’ interest.

There were also issues with retaining a band instructor at the Shannon County seat of Eminence, a community that has less than 600 people.

Despite an influx of tourists each year in search of the area’s scenic beauty and stops along the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Eminence feels like a place with a slower pace of life and ties with old-time traditions. 

Eminence High School is located atop a hill in Shannon County’s seat. (Photo: Kaitlyn McConnell)

“We weren’t able to keep a music teacher very long,” said Julie Voyles, the high school counselor. “They’d get here and they’d go, ‘Wow, this is not what I want to do in music.’”

About five years ago, those realities led school leaders to a new idea: Instead of the normal band experience, could they instead offer stringed instruction in the foundational music long loved by locals?

Years later, and with a room full of students, the answer is yes. 

“It’s a home on campus,” Voyles said. “Every kid needs a niche, and it’s not always in the gym.”

The effort is led by Darrell Jones, who was working in school maintenance when he was approached by school leaders about leading the band. A longtime pastor in addition to his job at the school (where he also once drove a bus), he was a music instructor and had about 17 students of his own. 

Today, he teaches music classes at the school for four hours each day. 

“I love doing what I’m doing,” he said. 

Darrell Jones helps students in the school’s stringed instrument program. (Photo: Kaitlyn McConnell)

Instruction begins in junior high, when seventh and eighth-grade students are able to take an instrumental class. Even though Jones hasn’t spent years playing each instrument — he began with the guitar — he learns alongside students.

“I usually spend a day each week with the respective instruments that the students choose to learn,” said Jones, giving examples of banjos on Monday, piano on Tuesday and guitar on Wednesday.

Students gather in a small building next door to the high school to practice and learn, a place thought to be the oldest facility in the Eminence district. It’s a distinction of significance, given that the next-door, stucco high school was built around a century ago. 

The building where the band meets doesn’t have running water, but it still has a bell and a hardwood floor that’s more than 100 years old. 

The school’s band building represents one of the oldest buildings in the district. (Photo: Kaitlyn McConnell)

Upon that walkable history, students gather to practice for some periods of the day, and together during an hour where they run through tunes. Some sing, others play; they largely learn by jumping in, with support from Jones along the way. 

There are folks like Ben Taylor, who expertly plays guitar and began with mandolin when he was eight. Even though he is advanced, still he comes to band.

“I just like music, and want to continue on,” Taylor said. “Maybe get a scholarship.” 

Another of those students is Rebecca Burrus, who is 15 and has been learning to play the banjo for about a year.

“I’m still not very good, but I’m learning,” she said. “I can play the guitar a little, too, and I sing. I think a lot of the students are talented and they don’t really know it until they start playing and trying to play. I enjoy it a lot.”

Burrus has deep roots in the region, mentioning “Shannon County: Home,” a documentary made by Missouri State University in the 1970s that featured local residents.

“(My grandfather) actually got to be in the film,” Burrus said, pulling up a clip of him hunting on YouTube. Another family member, she said, made it to the Grand Ole Opry. 

Others not as long in the area also find a meaningful connection within the white building’s walls. Ukulele in hand, Bonnee Cletcher recently moved from Salem to Eminence and found a new hobby through the band. 

“I had no experience with stringed instruments,” she said, but a friend at school helped get her interested.

She was also up to sing multiple songs at the band’s spring concert, which was held on April 20. It featured a list of favorites like “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” “Cripple Creek,” “Smokey Mountain Memories” and “Here Comes The Sun.”

As the sample song list shows, the band’s genre of music isn’t extremely defined. 

“I want them to express themselves,” Jones said. “The only thing — I don’t want anything that goes to the dark side (with lyrics).”

Beyond being a musical experience, Jones said working with the band is an opportunity to make a difference in kids’ lives. For some, support from the Jimmy Jack Foundation — which donates instruments for kids — has also made their experience possible.

“You’re sowing into their lives,” Jones said. “You carry (this skill) a lifetime.” 

Kaitlyn McConnell

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project through which she has documented the region’s people, places and defining features since 2015. McConnell regularly shares her stories with readers of the Springfield Daily Citizen. Contact her at: kaitlyn@ozarksalive.com More by Kaitlyn McConnell More by Kaitlyn McConnell