Mooneyham Junction, a Saturday-night music show, began bringing musicians and listeners to rural Christian County in the 1960s. After a several-decade hiatus, it was revived by Mark and Sybil Ryan, the founders’ son-in-law and daughter. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

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

RURAL CHRISTIAN COUNTY — Tradition echoes in a metal Quonset barn between Billings and Republic, where Burel and Ellen Mooneyham began inviting friends to their farm for Saturday music parties in the 1960s. 

After outgrowing the house where people first gathered, the parties ended up in the next-door barn, where musicians and audiences assembled to enjoy music and each other. More than 50 years later, that tradition still lives on, thanks to folks who want to keep the music alive. 

“This is where I was born and raised,” says Sybil Ryan, one of the Mooneyham’s daughters, speaking of a small white home a few steps away from the round metal barn. “I guess they first started having just jam sessions in the house, and it grew and got too big, so they moved it outside.” 

Eventually things settled into the barn, where music would ring to the rafters every Saturday night — and perhaps into Sunday morning.

“There was no quitting. Now, these guys, they quit at 9 o’clock,” says Linda Brown, Sybil’s sister. “Mom and Dad knew no quitting. So it would go on until midnight.” 

But perhaps the evenings — both were and are — about more than just music. 

“When you’re young, you just take everything for granted. But they had so many friends,” says Sybil. “They would have people that would just pull up and say, ‘Can I just go out and look at the barn?’”

Photos from shows gone by line the walls, including one — in the middle — of the Mooneyhams. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

Photos on the wall of the barn show the gatherings’ early days, when folks dressed up for Saturday night and packed the place. Back then it had a semblance of open-mic, where local folks would come and entertain their friends and neighbors. 

It was a family affair in those early years. Sybil says she was a bit too young to help in a meaningful way back then, but her time would come later (just wait and see). Linda is older, and she remembers the evenings somewhat differently. Oftentimes, it was her job to make popcorn. 

“She’s 10 years younger, so she got to play,” says Linda of Sybil, with a smile in her voice. “I had to work. I’m from the ‘60s, OK? We were into the Beatles. This was not the Beatles. My friends, they’d come out, but they weren’t interested in country music, so it was a drag. It really was a drag.”

While the Beatles might not have shown up at Mooneyham Junction, many others did: Linda recalls one particular night when around 300 people were at the farm. 

“(That was) the largest one I remember,” she says. 

Those nights — including two bluegrass festivals — faded into the past in the 1970s, when health concerns forced the sessions to stop. But really, they were just on pause. 

Sybil and her husband, Mark, eventually bought the family farm, and decided to open a barn filled with antiques up for sale. It wasn’t the same one as the gatherings were held in years earlier, but around a decade ago, it prompted a similar sentiment: “Mark said, ‘Well, we have to have music,’” recalls Sybil. 

That fact led them to call Charles and Jan Lee, a couple with deep links to the Mooneyham family, as well as to both the barn’s past and present. It was in the Mooneyham barn that the Lees met for the first time, and they have been instrumental in the local music scene for many years since, says Sybil.

Not only did the Lees play the first revived show at the farm, but they also were crucial in getting the shows back to where they started. 

“(Jan Lee) asked us if they could have their 50th wedding anniversary here in the original barn. And Mark and I looked at one another, and we said, ‘Well, when is it?’ And she said two years. I said, ‘It’d take two years to get it clean.’

“Everybody in the family had something stored out there in the barn,” explains Mark. 

But the request became reality, and the shows moved back to their original home.

The Ryans’ interest in keeping the music going isn’t for financial gain. In fact, they don’t charge attendees to attend. Donations are accepted, but they are passed along to that night’s performers.

“I was confused, especially with how much money they put into it,” says Emily White, the Ryans’ daughter, on her initial thoughts when her parents revived the Mooneyham music tradition. 

Now, things are different.

Sybil and Mark Ryan pause before a recent Saturday show with their grandson, Teddy. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

“It’s hard to say anything when you see how much it means to them,” Emily says. Her young son, Teddy, toddled around the barn on a recent Saturday night, making the fourth generation of the family to be at the music destination.  

“I think it’s special and cool to see the pictures and the stories and how much it means to the community.”

Folks now trek to the farm on one (or occasionally two) Saturdays each month between April and October from 7 to 9 p.m. to hear bands perform a spectrum of bluegrass, gospel and country tunes. The Ryans book the groups months in advance, working to find options that are high-quality and fun for the entire family. 

The time and effort in keeping the tradition going is not insignifiant. But the dividends are great. 

“I want to make Mom and Daddy proud,” says Sybil. “I think they would be very happy.”

Show-goers spill out beyond the barn on some Saturday nights. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

On a recent warm summer evening, the crowd settled in. One of those folks was Ruby Watson of nearby Clever, who moved to the area around seven years ago, after which she was drawn to the destination. 

“I like bluegrass music. My husband and I used to go to festivals,” she says. “I just like the music and the atmosphere. Sybil and Mark — they’re just good people.” 

Ruby is one of a few dozen that evening to hear Potters Wheel, a Gospel group from Lebanon that has appeared at the barn numerous times. They keep coming back even though they are simply given the donations the audience volunteers.  

“When we play for church venues or something like this, we just come for a love offering. 

We’ve been doing this for 22 years, and the Lord has never let us down. He takes care of us,” says Bonnie Eidson, the band’s vocalist, who notes that they are typically at Mooneyham once or twice a year. 

“We love the venue. It’s family-orientated, it’s safe, and they treat everybody that comes to play for them like royalty. And it’s got such history. We’re honored to be part of that.”

Linda Brown, longtime popcorn maker, at work during the July 2022 show. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

As an invocation starts the night, the band takes the stage, and listeners settle into chairs  inside the barn (the chairs are there — no need to bring your own unless you want to) or just outside the open barn door in the night air. 

While much is different than it was in the 1960s, the enjoyment evident on the faces of attendees is likely the same. Or perhaps it means more: While things evolve, it also proves that some things never change. Linda is a perfect example: 

“Here I am, 75 years old, and guess where I’m at: the popcorn machine!”

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