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Banjo player, host dies from covid-19

by Teresa Moss | August 15, 2021 at 1:02 a.m.

Mark Jones spent the entirety of his life playing the banjo on stages such as the Grand Ole Opry to the television show "Hee Haw," but it was in Arkansas that the Nashville native found a passion for Ozark tradition.

The son of country music legends Grandpa and Ramona Jones died Wednesday in Arkansas at the age of 65 from complications with covid-19, his sisters said Friday.

Jones first moved to Mountain Home with his family in the 1980s where they opened Grandpa Jones Family Dinner Theatre. Jones joined his family in playing for guests nightly at the venue.

While other family moved away with time, Jones remained in Arkansas -- a place his family says he fell in love with.

Up until his death, Jones contributed to the syndicated radio program "From the Vault" via Ozark Highlands Radio, where he shared stories of musicians who played in the region, Daren Dortin, the program's executive producer, said Friday.

"Since he had the history of being here all these years, he could go back and put those performers in context for radio listeners," Dortin said. "It was a way for him to connect with his past and bring the music to the audience. It was without a doubt the most popular radio segment on the radio program."

The radio program, produced by Ozark Folk Center State Park and in its sixth season, is distributed by Public Radio Exchange on 140 public and community radio stations across the nation, Dortin said.

Jones followed in his father's footsteps in more than just clawhammer banjo playing, his sister Alisa Jones Wall said. He also learned how to tell a story that made others laugh.

"Everybody at the Opry knew him for telling stories," said Eloise Jones Hawkins, another sister. "They were all funny stories about something that happened to him on the road with another musician."

Outside of playing with the family he made a name for himself.

This included playing the Grand Ole Opry with the Willis Brothers, working with the Statler Brothers and traveling with Jimmy Driftwood, Jones Wall said.

"He grew up the son of a famous musician and it is not always easy to find your own path," Dortin said. "For him to be able to carve out his own career, find his own way and do it on his terms is one thing I've always respected about him. You can get jaded and lose your way, but he never did."

In his later life, he worked sound and lighting for Silver Dollar City and the Ozarks Highlands Theater. He also performed regularly at Ozark Folk Center and was a banjo instructor.

"One thing I really appreciated and noticed about him [is that] he took time to talk to the young performers in his own unique way," Dortin said. "Not to lecture then, just to be their friend and give them feedback."

Keeping the tradition of country music alive was a passion for Jones', Dortin said.

"The thing that will stick out to me in remembering Mark, was just how giving he was with his time and how important it was for him to see the traditions, of what he knew, passed on and continue to live with the next generations of musicians."

Wrapped up into his love of the music, Jones was a promoter of Arkansas, Dortin said. He'd pull his friends from Nashville, such as Marty Stuart, to the state for visits.

"He loved the Ozarks," Jones Wall said. "He was so proud to call the Ozarks his home. It meant a lot to him to live in the mountains of Mountain View, Arkansas."

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