You don't have to be born in the Ozarks to be a good bluegrass musician, but it helps, as Shannon County-born Cecil Goforth might tell you. Cecil doesn't get out to play much anymore, but when he does, it's a musical tonic that crosses the Goforth generations, calling up a tradition that binds this family together by the simple mountain strains of 'Sally Goodin' or 'Cattle in the Corn.'
You don’t have to be born in the Ozarks to be a good bluegrass musician, but it helps, as Shannon County-born Cecil Goforth might tell you. The region has a long Scots-Irish bluegrass tradition that has successfully been passed down through the generations, sometimes among family members—just like the Goforths. Many locals around Phelps and Pulaski Counties have heard the Goforth brothers over many decades at dances, bluegrass shows and competitions. At 81, Cecil doesn’t get out to play much anymore, but when he does, it’s a musical tonic that crosses the Goforth generations, calling up a tradition that binds this family together by the simple mountain strains of ‘Sally Goodin’ or ‘Cattle in the Corn.’
Cecil’s father, Richard, was born in Ava and left home when he was 15 years-old. He had two older sisters in Oklahoma and “Dink,” as his friends called him, “did a little hoboing,” according to Cecil, but soon came back and landed in Shannon County. At some point, Dink was influenced by his fiddle-playing father (Josh Goforth) and some local bluegrass musicians, so he learned to play the fiddle as well.
Dink Goforth got married and eventually had nine children. Cecil’s older brother (by 15 years) Gene, picked up the fiddle from his dad and his uncle Dee, but he left the household before Cecil could benefit from his brother’s musical knowledge.
“I kind of picked it up from my dad and later on, from Gene,” he said.
“I just liked music and that [fiddle] was what was available at the house.”
It was a different time growing up in the Ozarks in the 40’s and early 50’s. There was no rural electricity, so oil lamps served as lightbulbs in those early days. If you were fortunate, you had a 6-volt wet cell battery or something similar that would run a few appliances like a Master’s radio. Cecil remembers listening to The Grand Old Opry on the radio back then, by the soft light of the oil lamp. Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were big influences on Cecil’s desire to play music. He was partial more to the style of Flatt, the lead singer—a straight-ahead basic style without the high lonesome hillbilly inflections.
“He blended real good (vocally) with Bill Monroe, but Lester didn’t sing that high stuff.”
It was good Saturday night family entertainment for folks in the moon-lit hills and hollers of the Current River country.
Cecil also picked up playing the guitar and would attempt to learn some of those country songs he was hearing on the radio. But Cecil’s playing style was not traditional. He’s left-handed, but instead of stringing the guitar to accommodate a south-paw, he just learned to play the chords “upside down.” His fiddle playing is the same way. He fingers the strings on the neck “backwards,” but to a trained musician’s ear, they wouldn’t notice the difference. The technique hasn’t prevented him from earning decades of trophies in competitions held all around Mo.
“It’s what you call ‘playing over the bass—the bass strings are on the opposite side,” he said. “You play a right-hand fiddle, but you’re playing left-handed.”
In his earlier days, Cecil got the bug to play in a band called “The Bluegrass Five,” over in Dixon. But he had three kids and a wife to support and didn’t like the idea of having to travel a lot of weekends, so he stuck to playing at local bluegrass jam sessions. Brother Gene had a family as well, but he stretched out a little more. He settled near High Ridge, Mo., west of Fenton and became a heavy equipment operator. Gene was a versatile fiddle player who played regularly at jam sessions, but also made guest appearances with bluegrass icons like Bill Monroe and Kenny Baker. He also played and recorded with the Bluegrass Rounders and recorded a collection of fiddle tunes titled ‘Eminence Breakdown’ with musician and riverboat pilot John Hartford.
Cecil has fond memories of bluegrass jams and friendship with Hartford, who passed away in 2001 of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 63. YouTube has many videos of Gene Goforth and Hartford, jamming in Goforth’s kitchen, while other Goforth sisters play instruments and clog. Cecil plays the tapes of these sessions and shows a couple Hartford albums, autographed, with salutations, thanking him for his friendship over the years.
“I met John Hartford about the time I met the Dillards, in St. Louis,” said Cecil. “I was playing with some other boys that played my type of music, from southeast Mo. (Clifford and Marvin Hawthorne). They probably played some taverns and somehow met John Hartford. That’s how I got to know him.”
He (Hartford) was going to college, but he’d find the time to play,” he said. “Gene said he go over there in the middle of the week—Gene was an equipment operator and had to be up early. Gene said, ‘I stayed with him as long as I could, but finally had to say, ‘John, I’m going to bed.’ I’d leave him sitting there playing by himself and when I got up the next morning, he’d be sleeping on the couch, with his banjo still on him.”
Hartford is considered by many to be the father of experimental bluegrass, called “newgrass.” Having played in his early days with the Salem bluegrass musicians, Doug and Rodney Dillard (of “The Andy Griffith show fame), both the Dillards and Hartford dabbled in pop songs that used traditional bluegrass instruments. But the Goforths, perhaps unhindered by recording business pressure and West Coast influences, always stayed true to their bluegrass roots.
Cecil liked Hartford’s playing.
“Some of the later stuff, I didn’t much care for,” he said, “but he never did lose his love for what we played.”
“He was famous for playing the banjo, but he loved the fiddle,” he said.
Cecil, or Gene for that matter, never had the desire to follow in Hartford’s or the Dillard’s footsteps to travel and play clubs. It was all about raising a stable family, but how fortunate the brothers were to have visits by this entertainer-musician that loved the traditional music every bit as much as they did.
Gene Goforth passed away in 2002, a year after John Hartford. Cecil has his fiddle. It was owned by Kenny Baker, who played with Bill Monroe for 20 years. It has a mellow, darkened luster finish from age and a timbre that will send shivers to the spine, from the draw over the bass strings of the rosined bow in Cecil’s left hand. It’s a sound every bit as sweet as a fox hound’s call in the piney woods. It’s high lonesome—the anguished tale told of an Irish maiden killed by a jealous lover. It’s a sound that doesn’t belong in a fancy concert hall, but in a snug Ozarks cabin on a rainy night.
Those are the roots of a life lived and loved by the Goforth brothers and their friends that hold a reverence for a music so important to Americana.
Cecil carries that with him in the quiet life he lives in the senior center complex off Springfield in St. James. He likes to volunteer at the Veteran’s Home and still plays the music he loves, picking a guitar, banjo or dobro as much as fiddling—left-handed and backwards, of course. His three kids near Licking stop for visits and may watch an occasional western movie with him. Or maybe he’ll pick up the fiddle that played the music he so loved growing up in Shannon county and pass on the rich musical family heritage, a fitting legacy if there ever was one.