Music, forestry brought couple together

By Brady Bauman

Bob and Melissa Atchison have made music not something one just listens to in the car or plays in the background during a chore.

For the Atchisons, the joy of music has been an active pursuit and the foundation of their life together.

Bob, a fiddler, and Melissa, a guitarist, are a Manhattan musical duo who play old-time tunes born in the Ozarks of Missouri.

They met at the University of Missouri where they were both forestry majors. After Melissa graduated a year after Bob in 1982, the newlyweds traveled the country for three years in a Volkswagen van, living their music dreams before they settled in Mountain View, Ark.

A job offer in the forestry department at Kansas State University for Bob eventually landed the Atchisons in Manhattan in 1995, and they’ve been here ever since. Melissa is a homemaker.

Their music is a little bit bluegrass, a little bit folk, and while there’s no drum, it has a beat one can dance to.

As a matter of fact, Bob and Melissa often play with other area musicians for contra dancing — similar to square-dancing, also known as barn-dancing — in Lawrence and Kansas City. They recently did a contra dance event in Manhattan, and they plan to have more this fall.

Most people may simply label the Atchison brand of tune as very good and free-spirited.

“It’s all about the joy of music,” said Bob, who was introduced to the violin in grade school. “With classical playing there’s definitely a certain discipline associated with that — and also with the structure and regiment of a public school system scenario — as opposed to this idea of just playing to have a great time.

“I especially like the interaction people have with the music.”

After a bit of a break from music in middle school, Bob got back into playing, and he’s never looked back.

When Bob, who grew up near Hutchinson, went to college at the University of Missouri, the music truly called him.

“Missouri has this rich, rich tradition in old-time fiddling,” he said. “It’s also where I met my wife.”

At the time, Bob lived at a legendary coffeehouse in Columbia called The Chez, where room and board was exchanged for work during the day. This coffeehouse also played plenty of live music — especially the top fiddlers in the region.

“It was a great place,” Bob said. “Hearing (fellow fiddlers) was so fun.”

Bob said his influences included Taylor McBaine and Gary Naughton, who were all big in the Missouri fiddling scene.

One night, Melissa, who grew up in St. Louis, was obviously impressed during one of Bob’s performances.

“The first time Bob was pointed out to me was at a fiddle contest,” she said. “A friend of mine who was also in the forestry program said he was in forestry, too. She said I should meet him.

“Meeting Bob was the reason I started playing this kind of guitar. And being able to back-up tunes is something I was able to pick up. Now it just comes natural.”

The pair decided to hit the road their VW van and play music anywhere they were allowed. It’s an experience they look back on fondly.

“We had family in New York State and had family there,” Melissa said. “We had two or three gigs there and we went through Canada, too. But mostly throughout the Midwest.”

More often than not they stayed in the van or with family.

“We tried fun things we felt passionate about, and we decided to just do it,” she continued. “It was a way to have fun by also trying to make a living at it.”

Bob said it was an adventure worth having, and at one point the duo played at the Grandpa Jones Dinner Theater in Mountain View. Jones was a famed banjo player on the TV show “Hee Haw” and is also in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“For me, it was something I wanted to try,” he said. “It’s all I wanted to do. Going on the road was just a great chance to give it a try.”

Soon, though, the Atchisons were ready to start a family, and Bob found his work in forestry in Arkansas as another passion.

Still, Bob and Melissa play as often as they can and also play at the Manhattan Mennonite Church, were they are members.

“It’s a part of who I am,” he said about his music. “I have to do it. It’s something I feel is a gift I can share with other people. Not only does it mean something to me personally, but people enjoy it, too. We just have so much fun, and those kind of things are so gratifying. There’s so much spirituality to music. It’s another language.”

Now, Bob and Melissa have four children. The youngest is 11 and the oldest is 26. Like their parents, they are also musically gifted, whether it’s the guitar, fiddle or vocals.

The Atchisons also have made sure their children are free to explore their own musical tastes, even when their daughter - the oldest - started a punk-rock band and practiced in the house.

Melissa said she supported her, despite the fact that it wasn’t the brand of music often played in the Atchison household.

“No, there were other things to say no to,” she said, laughing.

This week, the Atchisons celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary. They said the wedding was full of fellow musicians. It was quite the concert, too.

“That was a fun wedding,” Bob said.

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