“Band now forming. If you play a musical instrument and would like to audition please call ext. 342 and ask for Terry. The audition will be held this Wednesday at 5:30 P.M.” As Ruth entered the elevator the notice taped to the wall caught her attention. She had been looking for something to occupy her free time and the idea of being part of a band seemed just the ticket. There was a slight problem however; Ruth didn’t play a musical instrument.
Ruth worked for the Bell Telephone Company in Springfield, Missouri. Her job there kept her busy but in 1969 the energetic young lady knew that she had to be a part of something as exciting as a band. With that thought in mind Ruth called the Baldknobbers Theatre in Branson, Missouri and asked for instructions in mastering the art of playing the washboard.
The first person she spoke with considered the call to be a prank and hung up on the ambitious musical prodigy but Ruth was determined and called the theatre once again. This time she was able to convince the skeptical, and noticeably quiet, listener that her interest was sincere. Ruth’s call was transferred to a musician in the theatre’s band who, after listening to Ruth’s question, asked if she knew what “Hog rings” were. “Sure do,” answered Ruth. “Well then, sew some on the fingers of an old glove; are you right or left handed?” “Right,” Ruth answered in a curious voice. The musician continued, “Alright then, sew the hog rings onto the fingers of an old right-hand glove and use that glove to move up and down on the washboard. That’s all there is to it.” Well that seemed easy enough and Ruth ended the call, “I can do that, thanks a lot.”
It was readily apparent to the members of the soon to be quintet that Ruth’s musical attributes were at best amateurish but the possibility of adding a washboard, and later an upside down metal tub transformed into a bass to the band, far outweighed everyone’s concerns over the newcomer’s musical shortcomings.
The group needed musicians and everything else that made up a successful band. In the minds of Ruth and the other participants of the newly formed ensemble that included costumes that would create the group’s identity, so Helen was added to the band. Helen played the guitar but of even more importance was her proficiency with fabric and thread. Helen fashioned red and white jackets for the men and the same colored plaid design was used to make skirts for the ladies.
The band, like every band, needed an identity; a name, and several ideas were bantered about but it was eventually agreed that the group’s name would be “The SKUMS,” an acronym for Service Keeps Us Mostly Sober. The group had ties to the telephone industry’s “Pioneers,” a telephone industry philanthropically guided organization, and their goal was to entertain, without compensation, at nursing homes, hospitals and other venues where the audiences would otherwise be unable to listen to live music.
The members settled in and finally a gathering of five musicians came together. Terry played the guitar, Doyle the fiddle, Smitty the banjo, Madonna the bass tub and Ruth moved her hand back and forth on the washboard and occasionally tried her hand with the washtub bass. The group’s membership remained relatively unchanged over the years as the band traveled to venues in places such as Joplin, Excelsior Springs, Kansas City and others.
The musicians played their arrangements of songs that prompted applause, and at times laughter, from the appreciative audiences. Ruth moved the hog rings attached to the glove over the washboard as Smitty sang “I’ll Be Loving You Always.” Smitty loved to sing that song so much. Ruth, on the other hand, was known as the band’s comedian. She sang and was known to regularly turn her backside to the audience, and to the amazement of everyone, throw up her red and white plaid skirt exposing her pantaloons which had the printed message, “Ma Bells Best, 28 Years.”
Ruth’s time with the band came to an end in 2010. She no longer has the washboard and there is no room in Ruth’s home for the metal washtub bass. But, there is room for the wonderful memories that Ruth has for that time in her life; a time when she sang and played with her friends in the band, and to the wonder of all, threw up her skirt revealing the message written on her pantaloons.
For some, reflecting on what once was brings a sad tear or two, but not for Ruth. She now resides in a small, but comfortable, apartment in the town of Noel. The apartment is not far from the house her grandparents’ once called home where she, as a little girl, sang and danced. Her daughter, Wendy, ensures that the life she now enjoys while in her eighties is a happy one. When Ruth talks about her many years spent working for the telephone company one can detect a sense of pride in her voice. Once Ruth’s words transition into talk of her time spent with the “SKUMS” a smile comes over her face and, as she leans back in her chair, the quickly spoken words are interrupted only by moments of brief laughter.