Story By: Kailey Miller.
Cowboy boots scrape against old wooden floors as the metal chairs lined up in rows vibrate from the steady beats escaping through the church’s tiny wooden frame. There are plaid shirts and cowboy hats as far as the eye can see, accompanied by a backdrop of white lilies, cream curtains, and a wooden figurine of Jesus Christ on the cross.
It’s Thursday night in Loachapoka, which means one thing: jam session at Loachapoka United Methodist Church.
Jam session was started by Edwin “Peck” Rowell and Forrest Tussey in the early 80’s, where it has continued off and on for 21 years.
“Jam session is what it implies,” said Jack Berry, Opelika resident and contributor to the jam sessions for more than ten years. “It’s open to the public; anybody can come in.”
Every other Thursday night, the jam session takes place, and LUMC is filled with the sounds of bluegrass, gospel, and old country music.
A core group that plays regularly at jam session includes Rowell, Jack Berry, Tommy Dozier, Tom Tyson, Jessie Tyson, Cecelia Newman, and George Boyle. Anyone else who wants to play is welcome to show up on that night and join the group.
The jam session takes place in a side room of the church where they line up rows of metal chairs for guests to sit on. The musicians sit up at the front of the room in a semi circle, around microphones that are placed at the front.
Many of the guests are elderly; spaces are reserved for guests who need wheelchairs or walkers to see the musicians.
“People just like to get out, especially old people,” Dozier said. “They don’t have the money or the know how to go to concerts and stuff like that. They don’t want to get involved with those crowds. That’s basically why I do it, is just for those people, you know, that want to come out and listen for nothing.”
Dozier, a resident of Auburn, has been playing at LUMC for seven years. Dozier started playing when he was 12 years old, but he had to take a 15-year break.
“I was playing guitar off and on, and I lost some fingers in my employment, so I didn’t play,” Dozier said. “When I retired, I was kind of bored and I said, ‘Well, the only thing I really care about is, for a hobby, is playing music.’ So I went to the pawn shop, and bought me a base, and sat down and learned how to play it.”
As a teenager, Dozier knew Rowell because Rowell owned The Blue Creek Recreation Center on Lake Martin, where Dozier would hang out. When Dozier heard about the jam sessions at LUMC, he went to see if he could play there.
“I got a bass, and started playing,” Dozier said. “Even though they had a bass player he let me sit in and learn the ropes, and after a few years I was the bass player.”
Berry also started playing music at a young age, learning how to play the guitar when he was 14.
During their Thursday night gatherings, the group plays until 7:30 p.m. before taking a break to socialize. They bring food and drinks for the guests, like sandwiches and Krispy Kreme donuts.
The group mingles like a family.
Mayzell Segrese started coming to jam session after she heard about it from Rowell. Segrese said her favorite part is being with the people and listening to the music, which she thinks has improved over the years.
“Sometimes it’s really good, sometimes it’s not,” Dozier said. “But the people keep coming back, and we have filled that place up.”
The group has changed throughout the years, as members have passed away or moved on to different chapters of their lives. One of the original members, Tussey, passed away last year.
Rowell turned 91 on Sept. 9, 2013. He plays with the group from his motorized chair, with a microphone just for him so he can still run the show.
The jam session has a causal atmosphere. When a new member joins the group, they accommodate each other’s different talents and sometimes learn new songs.
“That’s pretty much the novelty of what we do down there. Nobody knows what you’re going to play next,” Dozier said. “Somebody gets up there and just gets started, and it’s kind of left up to the individual musicians to find their place and make it work.”
Sometimes the spontaneity of the sessions can make it difficult for the musicians to play a song, but the crowd is patient.
“That can be a problem when you have a person come in that we’re not accustomed to playing with, and he may come up with a song that we don’t know how to accompany,” Berry said.
Jam session originally took place on Tuesdays until the group took a short break because Rowell wasn’t feeling well, Dozier said.
“I finally decided maybe it’s time for me to quit and all, and I did, and we all went different ways,” Rowell said.
Some of the regulars started a new group at Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church in Beauregard that plays on the second Tuesday of every month.
Dozier, Berry, and Tyson are among some of the players who alternate between groups. When Rowell started playing again at LUMC, they switched the event to Thursdays instead of Tuesdays.
“I had a big heart and I said, ‘Well, I won’t try to hurt them.’ We’ll just go with Thursday night,” Rowell said. So far, Rowell said the turn out is increasing weekly at LUCM for their newly rescheduled jam session.
The name for the event has changed throughout the years, and at one point was called, “Peck Rowell Picking at Loachapoka Church.”
“When I first started coming here, it was a gospel group mostly that was here all the time,” Newman said. “After Mr. Peck came back and took it back again, it went country, bluegrass, and gospel.”
Newman is one of a few of the group members that writes some of her own songs.
Although the majority of the crowd at the jam session is elderly, there is a mix of younger children and families as well. Some of the older children participate and play with the group.
“It’s just whoever walks in the door can come up and play and sing,” Dozier said. “We don’t do any practicing.”
The Jam Session entertains the people who want to come listen, but it is an enjoyable experience for the musicians as well, Dozier said. He compared the musicians in the group to dogs who were born to hunt birds.
“It’s kind of inbred in us to do it. We’re going to do it somewhere, somehow, someway,” Dozier said. “We enjoy playing for people. Otherwise, we’d just stay at home and play by ourselves.”
Berry made the distinction that they play old country music and not the modern day country music. Berry said he understands that every generation changes their music, but he still prefers the country from the ’50s and the ’60s.
“I just love to play music,” Berry said. “I enjoy playing with accomplished musicians like we have. They’re good, and it challenges you to play with them.”
Dozier said he also enjoys playing with local musicians.
“When we get out and pick together, we like playing with other musicians in and around the area because it’s kind of like fellowship,” Dozier said. “We all enjoy doing the same thing, and when we get together sometimes some of us older, better pickers, we make some pretty good music. It’s real satisfying when you do that.”
The group had their last performance of 2013 on Nov. 14, so they can take a break for the holidays. They will start back again in January 2014.
Some of Rowell’s family can be seen among the crowd, like his nephew, Thomas Rowell, who has been coming for ten years. “I like the gospel music, the old gospel songs,” Thomas Rowell said. “I just really enjoy it. I just hope we can keep doing it.”
Jack Berry, a resident of Lee County, has been playing music his entire life. He grew up in the rural community of Roxanna where he learned to play guitar from his father and brother. He grew up playing for his own entertainment and for “dances” in his community. He has been in several bands, and he currently plays bluegrass-gospel at local churches. He and his wife, Bonnie, live a quiet life in Opelika. He hopes to be able to play music throughout the rest of his golden years. (Interview By: Patrice Awbrey & Katie Crumpton)
George Boyle grew up in Pennsylvania and starting playing music as a young boy in coal country. He came to Alabama following a career in the military. George is the fiddle player for the group and his wife, Alice, is a regular in the audience. (Interview By: Bobby Dyer & Michael Giddens)
Tommy Dozier worked in a tire factory for 21 years until his retirement. Due to an accident in the factory, he lost two fingers on his left hand leaving him unable to play guitar. Forced to turn to a different instrument, he found a new love in the bass. Now Tommy plays around the area with different bands in order to bring music to those who enjoy hearing it performed live. While it’s not a lucrative career, Tommy says he loves music and the joy it brings. (Interview By: Brett Frizzell & Dom Jattuso)
Cecelia and Clarence Newman live on their former dairy farm land in Lafayette, Ala. They love to travel and spend time with family. Cecelia now works as a substitute teacher and sings at Loachapoka United Methodist Church. Clarence enjoys listening to her sing original songs and perform with the church group. (Interview By: Laura Jean Mueller & Ashley Spence)
Tom and Jessie Tyson are active players in the local music scene. Tom plays a variety of instruments; his favorite being the mandolin. Jessie plays the stand up base and sings as well. They hope to pass the tradition along to their son, Aaron, who is as much a part of the Loachapoka group as they are. (Interview By: Alex Cowden & Alex Schmitt)
Old souls continue the legacy of bluegrass music, but an being an old soul does not necessarily mean being old in years. Fourteen-year-old musician Emily Urquhart continues the legacy of bluegrass music in her community.
The youngest music leader in the Alabama Baptist Association, Urquhart enjoys plays in nursing homes and in jams with other bluegrass musicians. Being the youngest isn’t daunting for her, she enjoys the company and wisdom of her seniors. (Interview By: Taylor McCormick)
West Dickens is an Auburn University student working as a student pastor at Loachapoka United Methodist Church. He has been working with the church since August 2012 and has enjoyed seeing the church and the bluegrass group grow over the past year. West loves the people and says everyone is welcome to join in on the fun. (Interview By: Reed Stewart)
Special thanks to Dr. Ed Youngblood’s Producing Podcasts class for editing these interviews.
Related Story: Peck Rowell Picks Loachapoka