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By David Knopf, News Editor
Florence Williams has been around music – better still, been surrounded by it – all her life. The founder of the popular monthly jam sessions at Richmond’s Eagleton Center grew up with a father and brother who both played fiddle and a half-brother who strummed a guitar.
She met her husband through music, then supported him as a “fifth member” of The Rhythm Riders, a group that brought its traditional country music and rock ‘n’ roll to audiences on both sides of the Missouri River.
“I was born into a family of musicians,” said Florence, who now plays her husband’s old guitar in the Ray County Rhythm Riders, a band named to honor the memory of soul mate Roy J. Williams, who died in 1999.
Florence’s dad, B.C. Heath, brother Emmett and half-brother Charlie Burnham were among those who gathered in the Heath living room to play music, often with others joining them.
That was in Camden, where Florence’s family and later Florence and Roy lived for years and years.
“I lived in that little town for 60 years,” said Florence, who took her vows at Camden United Methodist Church.
Roy, a Camdenite and musician, lived just a few blocks from Florence’s family.
“It’s how we met,” she said. “My family was playing music and my future husband lived about two blocks down and wanted to play guitar. I thought he came to play music, but I didn’t know he had his eyes on a little woman.”
Roy and that “little woman” went on to raise a family of four sons, two of whom played some guitar, though not as seriously as their dad or the Heath musicians.
There could be a tussle someday, Florence figures, over Roy’s old guitar.
“(Son) Mike played a little, but when mom’s floating in heaven they’ll be fighting over dad’s guitar,” she said.
Right now, though, the guitar belongs to Florence, who’s making good use of it. In addition to playing rhythm in the Ray County Rhythm Riders, she opens the case the last Saturday of the month for the Eagleton jam, which attracts around 200 spectators and as many as 40 musicians.
The jams started in March and were almost an instant success. After giving her idea long thought and some prayer, Florence approached Ray County Commissioners with it. They were so supportive, she said, that Eastern Commissioner Allen Dale regularly fires up the grill and makes hot dogs for everyone.
“Allen Dale had enough hot dogs for around 20 people,” Florence said of the first jam. “I had about 10 days to put it together and the first night we had 147 people.”
The idea, Florence said, was to give Richmond something that smaller towns like Orrick, Lawson and Holt already had – a place for musicians to gather and play.
“I thought Richmond needed something to bring the community together,” she said, “just something to bring people together and have fun playing music.”
If her motivation sounds generous and altruistic, it’s because that’s what Florence is, musician Sandy Myerchin said.
“She’s a big-hearted woman,” said Myerchin, who plays several instruments in the Ray County Rhythm Riders.
Myerchin, Justin Richards – everyone calls him Spudd – Leo and Sharon Smith, and Doris Schular are the other members of Florence’s band. The group opens every jam session then calls up other musicians to join in.
The first night 27 of them showed up. They come from places like Higginsville, Lathrop, Marshall, Stet, Kansas City, Kan., Independence and Kidder – not to mention Ray County communities. So many signed up to play last time that the last instrument wasn’t put away until 11:30 – 90 minutes later than planned.
“My heart’s too big for it’s own good sometimes,” said Florence.
Others would disagree.
Spudd, the bass player, said that the jam sessions have been fun times, but have also taught him how to follow musicians he’s never played behind.
“You get to play with all different kinds of musicians,” he said. “You learn to watch people.”
The community will have an opportunity to watch Florence and her band on Sept. 22, when they hit the “big stage” to play a 90-minute set of their own at Richmond’s Outlaw Days festival.
“(Richmond News Publisher) JoEllen (Black) come up and asked if we’d do Outlaw Days and said we had to have a name,” said Florence, who settled on something fun that would also be a tribute to her late husband. “If he were still alive, he’d be right in the middle of it.”
The group will also kick off its usual Eagleton Jam, both next Saturday, Aug. 25, and again at 6 p.m. on Sept. 22.
There’s no admission charge for the jam sessions, but Florence passes the hat to collect donations, all of which go to Eagleton Center improvements. In December, she’ll raffle off a quilt and proceeds from the tickets will also go to the center.
As she’d hoped, community members have come together to enjoy the musicians’ blend of old-time country music, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll and Gospel. They love the event, the musicians say, and are an appreciative audience the pickers enjoy playing for.
“They’re a very forgiving audience,” said Myerchin, who like the others receives no pay for performing. “They’re a kind group.”