It's easy to find the area's country music soul in clubs such as Bootleggers and Nashville's. The doors release the music as men and women wearing cowboy hats flow into the venues where bands play and patrons line dance.
But the heartbeat of country music also rests in places a little harder to find, places where the true roots of the sound - mountain music, gospel, and bluegrass - spring from the strings of men and women who play because they feel the music in their souls.
On Sunday, Wildwood Preserve in Toledo was one of those places. As hundreds, maybe thousands, of visitors flooded the park's trails and filled the picnic tables, they might have recognized the unmistakable melody of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" wafting from one of Wildwood's pavilions.
Inside, 20 people sat in a semicircle. Many of them played acoustic guitars, but others played bass, a mandolin, banjo, fiddle, even an auto harp.
And there in the middle was Ed Hargrove of Toledo, puffing away on his harmonica - an instrument he learned to play as a boy in Missouri.
"At the end of the week, my dad used to have everybody in the neighborhood over on the front porch. They'd just sit around and start playing music," Hargrove says. "I didn't know how to play, but I wished I could play something."
So each week he saved the small allowance his family could afford until he was finally able to purchase a harmonica that he taught himself to play so he could join the impromptu jams.
Now 78, he's the one leading the jams - not on a porch in Missouri, but in a Toledo park.
For eight years, Hargrove has brought the group together in April - first in his home, then later to Wildwood. There is no set list. A guitarist will start strumming a chord, then another, until the mandolin, bass, and harmonicas join in and the chords take the shape of a familiar song.
"I'll just listen to what they're playing. I let everyone do whatever they want to do. If they decide to play a bunch of songs I don't know, I just get up and go get something to eat," Hargrove says with a chuckle.
Watching the group, something immediately jumps out. There are some younger people playing, but many of the musicians are in their 70s. During breaks, they'll hobble off to a table, but when they play, their fingers are nimble and their feet tap in perfect rhythm to the beat. As the pace of the melodies quicken, their spirits soar and the smiles grow on their faces.
But watching the group, something else immediately jumps out. Music transcends age or physical frailties. Yes, most country-music fans in Toledo can get their fix in the clubs. But for others, the music resides in their souls, and the best place to release it is among friends.
"Where can you go to have fun like this?" Hargrove asks with a smile.
Don't forget the big show tomorrow in the SeaGate Convention Centre, 400 Jefferson Ave. Rodney Atkins will take the stage at 7, followed by Little Big Town, then Martina McBride. Tickets range in price from $35.75 to $53.75 and can be purchased at the box office, 419-321-5007; by calling 419-474-1333, or online at www.ticketmaster.com.
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