Archive for December, 2009

Hogs in the Rock

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Business leaders from Little Rock and North Little Rock held a news conference this afternoon at the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Museum to promote ticket sales for next week’s Arkansas-Baylor basketball game.

That’s a good thing.

Consider how the athletic programs at Alabama and Auburn have abandoned Birmingham.

Consider how the athletic programs at Ole Miss and Mississippi State have abandoned Jackson.

The people of central Arkansas simply cannot take for granted that the Razorbacks will always play some games here. As we’ve stated on this blog before, it’s in the best interest of the athletic department on the Fayetteville campus to have a central Arkansas presence. But it’s also in the best interest of folks in this part of the state to show their support when the opportunities present themselves.

Next week’s basketball game is a prime opportunity to make a point. With horrible crowds thus far for basketball games in Fayetteville, a good crowd at Verizon Arena will send a strong message that a holiday game in central Arkansas is a smart move. In fact, it might send a message that two basketball games are even better than one.

There was a time when the Razorbacks played two basketball games in Little Rock and one in Pine Bluff.

The central Arkansas business leaders are promoting Razorback basketball tickets as a Christmas gift idea. The game against Baylor will begin at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 30, and be telecast on ESPN2.

Plans are being made for family-oriented activities prior to the game. The 8 p.m. start will allow fans time to have dinner in either downtown North Little Rock or downtown Little Rock. Meanwhile, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Museum in Verizon Arena will stay open until 7 p.m. on the day of the game and offer half-price admission to those with game tickets.

Tickets may be purchased at the Verizon Arena box office or through Ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.com or (800) 745-3000. Tickets are $25 each.

In a nice twist, the chambers of commerce in Little Rock and North Little Rock are purchasing tickets that will be made available to those stationed at the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville. Those wishing to contribute to this effort can call one of the chamber offices.

For families who are together for the holidays, it’s a nice excuse for a night out. The tickets will make Christmas stocking stuffers. Business owners and managers might also purchase tickets as last-minute Christmas gifts for valued employees.

On Tuesday, Dec. 29, Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey will speak to the Downtown Tip-Off Club luncheon at 11:30 a.m. at the Wyndham Hotel in North Little Rock. Those desiring ticket information for that event may contact the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce at 372-5959.

The athletic department’s commitment to central Arkansas now includes two football games each year at War Memorial Stadium, a basketball game at Verizon Arena and now a baseball game at Dickey-Stephens Park. The Razorback baseball team will play Louisiana Tech at 7 p.m. on May 11 at Dickey-Stephens. Tickets may now be purchased by going to www.travs.com. Ticket prices are $15 for a box seat and $12 for a reserve seat.

Meanwhile, are you looking for some small, last-minute Christmas gifts?

Consider tickets to next week’s Arkansas-Baylor basketball game. We don’t want the folks watching ESPN2 to see a bunch of empty seats.

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Ain’t Dat A Shame

Monday, December 21st, 2009

The above headline was borrowed from The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. It sums up my feelings after the New Orleans Saints’ quest for an undefeated season came to an end at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night.

I refuse to pay extra for the NFL Network, so I found myself listening to one of America’s great radio stations, WWL-AM in New Orleans, late Saturday night as the Saints attempted to make a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback against the Cowboys.

Trailing 24-3 and having played poorly for most of the night, the Saints scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns on consecutive possessions. Then, as if a higher power were looking down on the Saints, Dallas kicker Nick Folk missed a 24-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Cowboys an unsurmountable 10-point lead with 2:16 remaining.

It was the same scenario that had occurred two weeks earlier on the road against the Washington Redskins when the Saints scored late to send the game to overtime and then won.

“When we walked out on that field, just down seven with 2:16 left, we felt like there was no doubt we were going to score and send it into OT,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.

This time, however, it was not to be. Ain’t dat a shame.

Here’s how Mike Triplett began his game story in The Times-Picayune: “The magic finally ran out. The New Orleans Saints nearly pulled off another miracle in the final minutes of a 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night at the Superdome, but this time, when they reached into their bag of tricks, it was finally empty.”

And here’s how Peter Finney began his column in the newspaper: “To me, it was simply a case of America’s Team spoiling America’s Dream. I say this thinking there were enough newly converted Who Dats around the country caught up in the melancholy history of a star-crossed franchise riding a magic carpet to a perfect season. That was the dream. It was a dream terminated by a group of Dallas Cowboys dedicated to ending December miseries and playing their way into another postseason. Now the more realistic dream, a Super Bowl dream, remains.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is that the nation is seeing — through the many news stories generated by this team — that good things finally are happening in New Orleans four years after Hurricane Katrina. As slow and maddening as the rebuilding has been, there’s significant progress being made.

If this team helps people in places like Des Moines and Boston realize that fact — if it helps them decide to visit New Orleans and spend money — then the Saints have provided a great service.

A feature in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times by Richard Fausset recalled one of my all-time favorite radio shows, “The Point After” with Buddy Diliberto on WWL. Fausset describes the late Buddy D. as a “sports journalist and racetrack habitue who presided over sessions of communal grieving, vented frustration and gallows humor.”

He writes: “The show was often more entertaining than the games, as callers adopted elaborate pseudonymous characters and filled the airwaves with the odd linguistic box of chocolates that constitutes spoken English in south Louisiana. Diliberto himself spoke in a deep, garbled version of New Orleans’ Brooklyn-ish brogue, peppering his commentary with malapropisms — quarterback Kenny ‘The Snake’ Stabler was ‘Steak Snabler’ — as well as withering wit. Writer Angus Lind recalled Diliberto once feigned agreement with a caller who said the Saints were three players away from the Super Bowl. ‘Dat’s right,’ Diliberto said. ‘Three players. Da Fawtha, da Son and da Holy Ghost.’ Diliberto died months before the hurricane.”

One of my favorite writers has become Wright Thompson, the Clarksdale, Miss., native who now lives in Oxford, Miss., and writes for www.espn.com. Go to that site and read the lengthy piece Thompson wrote last week on what the Saints have meant to New Orleans.

“These are strange and beautiful days in New Orleans, and they must be seen to be believed,” he writes. “I’ve visited the city dozens of times since I was a boy, lived and worked there for a spell and last week, when I went down to experience the mania over the Saints’ undefeated season firsthand, I found myself not sure whether every street was a dream. Some moments made me laugh, and others were so full of a desperate love that I had tears in my eyes.”

He later writes: “The Saints, always popular, have transcended, now lumped in with New Orleans’ institutions — Mardi Gras, Louis Armstrong and red beans on Monday. They’re woven into the fabric of the town. . . because they stayed. Private girls schools now let the students wear Saints jerseys to class on special days. A friend of mine, who lives in Uptown and grew up going to games, says the feeling about the team has changed. He’s an oil-and-gas man, a Republican, not prone to fits of hippieness. ‘The last four years have been very special in the city’s attachment to the Saints,’ he told me. ‘I am not one to do a lot of reflecting back on Katrina, but there is clearly a line of demarcation there.”’

Thompson ends his well-crafted story by stating that “the soul of the city is alive. And it is everywhere.”

One loss to the Cowboys will not change that.

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It’s that season

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Tucked inside my copy of “The Season,” the wonderful book on Arkansas duck hunting by Steve Bowman and Mark Stallings, is a note from Wiley Meacham of Brinkley.

The note is dated Feb. 10, 2005. It was written soon after the conclusion of the 2004-05 duck season.

It says: “Sorry we could not have had a better duck season. It looks as if our place is a has-been. Don’t give up on us. We may have a few more hunts. Maybe next year.”

Obviously, Wiley didn’t consider the 2004-05 season to have been up to his standards. I laugh now as I read the note almost five years later. That’s because the “place” Wiley describes is the Piney Creek Duck Club on the Monroe County-Lee County line. And it has never been a has-been. It’s quite simply one of the finest duck hunting spots in Arkansas, meaning it’s one of the finest duck hunting spots in the world.

And Wiley, who has been hunting this land for more than 50 years, is one of the state’s most famous duck guides.

Like a football coach who knows just how good his team is, though, he likes to poormouth the place. When things are slow — and they will be slow from time to time in even the finest hunting holes — he will say, “My, aren’t we having fun?”

Or he will mutter, “This used to be a good place to hunt.”

I’ve had the honor of being invited to hunt the flooded green timber at Piney Creek for almost 15 years now, and I’ve never failed to have a good time. Yes, there have been times when the ducks weren’t flying. But the trips have always been fun.

I made my first trip of the current season on Sunday. Hunting alongside Wiley, Don Thompson, Rex Johnson and Don’s grandson Ethan, the hunting could not have been better. The ducks worked well all morning. I happen to be one of the world’s poorest shots, but I figure it gives the others a chance to rib me in their good-natured way.

Following a huge breakfast after the hunt, I departed about 11:40 a.m. By the time I reached McSwain Sports Center on the England Highway at North Little Rock to have my four mallards cleaned, the line was out the side door. Lots of people hunted Sunday. And lots of people killed ducks.

I grew up in Southwest Arkansas shooting at any duck that flew within range. My father had learned to love duck hunting when he was a coach at Newport. He maintained a passion for the sport even though he spent most of his adult life in Clark County. Around Arkadelphia, we often simply sat along the edge of various creeks and sloughs, popping at wood ducks as they flew by. I didn’t know the joys of green timber hunting in east Arkansas.

The “duck club” my dad belonged to in the Ouachita River bottoms was more of a supper club, where the members would gather once a month to eat and socialize. There were few mallards killed.

It’s fitting therefore that I’m probably one of the few people with a spoonbill (technically a shoveler) mounted in my den. I was never too proud to hunt what the purists describe as “trash ducks.” To me, a duck was a duck.

There’s a story behind that spoonbill. Several years ago, I was eating dinner with my wife and two sons in the back room of Gene’s Barbecue at Brinkley with owner and duck hunting companion Gene DePriest. Gene insisted that each of my boys take one of the duck mounts off the wall of the restaurant and carry it home. I aruged with him, but Gene was adamant that each boy take a mount home. One picked a pintail. The other picked a spoonie. Both mounts remain on the wall of our den.

As the bumper sticker on the back of Wiley’s truck says: “Spoonies have green heads too.”

In “The Season,” my friend Steve Bowman (who I’ve known since he was a college freshman at Ouachita) writes: “When it gets here and it’s so cold it chills down to the bone, duck hunters anticipate the sunrise of the next day. They look forward to the clanging of an alarm clock, the trip into the darkness to sit in the cold and wait. And when the sun washes light across the sky, anticipation is measured in increasingly smaller increments. They anticipate the next hour, when surely the next wave of migrants will be enticed by the perfect cadence of hail calls and feeding chuckles. Then it comes to minutes waiting for the clock to finally tick to 30 minutes before sunrise, and the game is on. It’s present in the thoughts of when to make the next call, when to raise the gun, seeing the next retrieve or waiting for the last duck to fill the bag. Anticipation never stops.”

Thanks, Wiley, for counting me among your duck hunting friends.

My, aren’t we having fun?

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“Boom Town”

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal featured an excellent review of “Boom Town,” a 310-page look at life in Northwest Arkansas that was written by Marjorie Rosen and published by the Chicago Review Press.

The subtitle of the book is “how Wal-Mart transformed an all-American town into an international community.”

The amazing story of the economic, social and cultural transformation of Northwest Arkansas needs to be told, but reviewer Jay Greene has some problems with how Rosen went about telling that story. Greene, often a target of Max Brantley over on his Arkansas Blog, is a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The Journal also notes that he is the faculty adviser to Hillel, the Jewish student organization on the Fayetteville campus.

Greene seems to believe that Rosen entered the project with a preconceived notion and didn’t let the facts get in the way of telling the story she wanted to tell. Rosen writes of the “cold stark fear — at least among a segment of the white Christian majority, which sees its comfortable, all-white way of life fading.”

That’s not, however, the reality that Greene has found living in Northwest Arkansas. Greene is an expert in the areas of school choice, high school graduation rates and accountability. He has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs to discuss education reform. Greene, who received his bachelor’s degree from Tufts University and his doctorate from Harvard University, previously taught at the University of Texas and the University of Houston.

Greene writes: “Ms. Rosen seems to expect that there should be especially severe problems with the acceptance of diverse newscomers in a geographical area that is, as she repeatedly puts it, ‘emphatically Christian.’ Instead, she finds that people of faith have an easy time understanding and accepting one another, including people who belong to different religious traditions, because they share a respect for religious belief. This type of tolerance is common in semi-rural Northwest Arkansas but is not so common, one suspects, in the media and political centers that dot the coasts.”

The December issue of Northwest Arkansas CitiScapes monthly magazine is one of those ”best of” issues that have become a staple of local and regional magazines. When asked the “very best thing about Northwest Arkansas,” readers rated “the people” first. The runner-up was the natural beauty of the region.

Indeed, I’ve long believed that one of the reasons for Northwest Arkansas’ economic success is the way its people not only accepted but also welcomed those who came from elsewhere (i.e. Yankees) to work for Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and the many vendors in the region. In an earlier post, I discussed how Northwest Arkansas is not really in the South, the Midwest or the Southwest. In a way, it’s its own region.

Greene points out that there really are two narratives in the book — “one shows the ease with which well-educated African-American, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu newcomers have been accepted by local residents; the other shows the difficulties that low-skilled Hispanics have experienced, many of whom were attracted to the region by jobs at Tyson’s chicken-processing plants. Ms Rosen tries hard but can’t comfortably combine the two into a single narrative about how white, rural Christians react to diversity.”

When it comes to talking about how native Arkansans accept outsiders, there’s probably a much more interesting story to tell in a place like Green Forest with its influx of low-income Hispanics than in Bentonville with its influx of well-educated outsiders.

Greene notes that big businesses like Wal-Mart and Tyson understand that the knowledge-based economy of this century requires they hire the best employees possible regardless of race or religion. He writes: “The only color they see is green. Social integration has gone smoothly because local residents, assisted by religiously backed norms of politeness, have been generally welcoming.”

If there’s resistance to change, it has come instead from some of the politicans in Northwest Arkansas. Greene says the book tells of politicians who “try to pit low-income whites against Hispanics. Clearly, they would rather be king of the Lilliputians than share a larger empire with the area’s newer residents.”

I’ve long believed that the quality of elected officials from the region has too often failed to match the economic growth of Northwest Arkansas. I have some good friends who have been elected in Northwest Arkansas and represented their constituents well. But there have also been the demagogues. Without painting with too broad a brush, it would not be entirely unfair to say that Republican politicians from Northwest Arkansas have been to Hispanic newcomers in this century what Democratic polticians from the Delta were to blacks in the previous century.

As I noted in a column in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, allowing the immigrant bashers to dominate the conversation will ensure a lack of two-party competition in Arkansas for years to come. It will keep the GOP from recruiting the kind of young voters who were attracted by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. It already takes a leap of faith for a young person to go against the political norm in a heavily Democratic state such as Arkansas. If the kind of angry, aging voters whose shrill voices too often dominate local talk radio are identified as the face of Republicanism in this state, these young voters surely will go elsewhere.

So the real story of Northwest Arkansas might be this: Most people in the region have been accepting of newcomers. That acceptance helped spark an economic boom. Now, it’s time for all of the region’s elected officials to catch up with their constituents rather than reacting to the loud but small group of sad, angry people who spend their days calling radio stations, writing letters to the editor and wishing for a past that never was.

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“We Are All Little Rock”

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Their credentials are impeccable — John Egerton, the well-known writer on Southern issues; Steven Channing, the historian, author and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker; Rex Miller, the talented documentary and editorial photographer.

They’ve been in Little Rock working on a documentary film titled “We Are All Little Rock.” If full funding can be secured — and I’m hopeful it will be — the film will be offered for broadcast nationally on PBS and distributed to schools statewide along with a web-based teaching guide.

Here’s how they describe the film: “For half a century, Little Rock has been asked to bear the burden of America’s eternal conflict over race. From the day that troops of the 101st Airborne Division crossed the Arkansas River to redeem the Supreme Court’s promise of equality ‘with all deliberate speed,’ Little Rock — and all of Arkansas and the South — was compelled to assume the weight of the nation’s sins against its people of color. … It has been a heavy responsibility for one small Southern city to be the symbol of an entire nation’s discredited myth of white supremacy.

“As filmmakers and longtime students of the South, we came to Little Rock earlier this year with the idea of detailing for a new generation the story of Central High: the faltering end to Jim Crow, a restaging of the Civil War contest between a governor and a president, the courage, the tragedy and the lasting wounds.

“Instead, we come to you today to say that the demonization of Little Rock  and Arkansas can end. We say this not because the city has found a ‘post-racial’ solution to the dilemma of race in America. Arkansas and America continue to wrestle with that challenge. That story, as one Arkansan remarked to us, is ‘halfway there and a long way to go.’ In Little Rock, and America, the creeping re-segregation of schools, neighborhoods and minds continues to entrap not just blacks and whites but newcomers in many hues. The past is not dead, as Mississippian William Faulkner famously wrote, it’s not even past.

“But as C. Vann Woodward of Vanndale, Ark., — perhaps the greatest Southern historian of all time — wrote in his 1960 classic, ’The Burden of Southern History,’ Little Rock and the South can now acknowledge the burdens and lessons of their history: war and defeat, poverty and racism and in doing so, move on.”

Before you yawn and tell yourself, “Oh no, yet another look back at 1957,” understand that these men plan to also take a look at the years after 1957 — the Winthrop Rockefeller administration, Dale Bumpers’ legacy and more. The film even will examine the Little Rock of today.

They write: “Little Rock does have that unique history, both a burden and a redemptive promise. Our greatest ambition for this new film is to underscore how deep and alive the past is in the present, and how accepting our history can truly be liberating. … Now, after more than fifty years, the Little Rock crisis has the potential to be seen more clearly — not distanced through silence and denial, not mythologized through memorials and statues, but embraced in all its glory and pain as one of the most profound moments of change in American hsitory. That is a message needed in every school in the country, and by an Arkansas and national television viewing audience.”

Having read Egerton’s “Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement In The South,” which won the 1995 Robert F. Kennedy book award, I have high hopes for this documentary. Egerton, who was raised in Cadiz, Ky., has written or edited almost 20 books. He wrote one of the true classics on the cuisine of the region — “Southern Food: At Home, On The Road, In History.”

Channing has taught at the University of Kentucky, Stanford and Duke. His television documentaries have explored many Southern stories during the past two decades.

Miller is a New York native who in 1997 completed “All The Blues Gone,” a book/CD package documenting Mississippi blues culture.

The sponsorship of the project is being lined up by a nonprofit corporation known as the Southern Documentary Fund. The Southern Documentary Fund is dedicated to encouraging the production of media projects about the history and culture of the South. For more information and to make contributions, go to www.southerndocumentaryfund.org.

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No. 6 with a bullet

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Paste magazine has compiled its list of the 20 best magazines of this decade, and the Conway-based Oxford American finds itself at No. 6 on that list.

Paste, which is headquartered in Georgia, was founded as a quarterly in 2002. It’s now a monthly publication. The magazine focuses on music and entertainment. Like many magazines these days, it’s struggling during this recession. It issued an urgent plea to readers for donations back in May.

I love magazines. One of my favorites, Gourmet, was a recent victim of the recession.

According to my wife, I subscribe to far too many. There’s a term around our house — “working on stacks.” It means taking full days to cull the magazines that have piled up.

The Paste editors had this to say about The Oxford American: “As we toil away down here in Decatur, Ga., it’s nice to be reminded that all great magazines don’t come from New York City. Marc Smirnoff’s Oxford American has been through its share of publishing turmoil, but its uniquely Southern voice hasn’t wavered once.”

The Oxford American appears to have found its footing as a quarterly rather than a bimonthly publication and as a nonprofit publication with a governing board on which I’m honored to serve. Thankfully, the folks at the University of Central Arkansas had the vision to ensure that this nationally recognized publication is headquartered in our state.

More good news came Tuesday when it was announced that The Oxford American will receive a $15,000 Access to Artistic Excellence grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA said it chose the magazine for a grant because it “continues to highlight the work of emerging and established Southern writers and Southern culture.”

In case you’re wondering what other magazines made the Paste Top 20 list, here they are from No. 20 counting down to No. 1 –  Interview, Vanity Fair, The Word, National Geographic, Utne Reader, Real Simple, Mental Floss, Jane, Dwell, No Depression, Good, The Week, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Oxford American, The Believer, The New Yorker, New York, Esquire and Wired.

Two of the publications on the list – Jane and No Depression — are no longer in business.

Due to the efforts of a lot of good people in Arkansas, The Oxford American hopefully is here to stay.

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Bless you boys

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Peter Finney has pretty much seen it all.

Finney, a sports columnist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, was there for all of the Super Bowls played in the city. He was there when Michael Jordan led North Carolina to the NCAA basketball championship in 1982 in the Superdome. He saw Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide win back-to-back national football championships with Sugar Bowl victories over Penn State on Jan. 1, 1979, and over Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1980.

He began writing sports in New Orleans — my favorite city outside Arkansas — in 1945 when the top two sports in the city were boxing and thoroughbred racing. Sixty-four years later, at age 81, he’s still at it.

And this is how he began his column after the New Orleans Saints went to 12-0 Sunday with an amazing overtime win over the Washington Redskins: “Maybe it’s because they’re called Saints. You break a commandment and you go on to win with one miracle after another. Seriously, this season is getting downright biblical. When a Saint named Robert Meachem broke a commandment on Sunday in broad daylight — the one that says ‘thou shalt not steal’ — you had a funny feeling. Meachem took the ball out of the hands of a surprised Redskin by the name of Kareem Moore and ran for a touchdown. Think about it. Moore, who was doing his best to run for a touchdown, had just intercepted a pass by Drew Brees, and Brees could look back and say: ‘Thank God, my only interception of the day helped turn the game around.’”

What an incredible season for long-suffering fans of the Saints. What a boost for a city that’s only a little more than four years removed from the horrors brought on by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Those of you who believe that sports don’t matter in America — that it’s only a game — haven’t been in New Orleans lately.

No, Saints victories don’t feed the poor.

No, Saints victories don’t rebuild the Ninth Ward.

No, Saints victories won’t ensure competent governance at City Hall.

No, Saints victories won’t improve the public schools.

But the season thus far has brought joy for hundreds of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast from Lake Charles in the west to Pensacola in the east. In New Orleans itself, this football team has given people confidence and a reason to smile.

Considering the lack of leadership in the mayor’s office, it would be safe to say that Brees is the most important figure in New Orleans since what’s known there simply as “the storm.” In fact, Peter King of Sports Illustrated has rated Brees as the NFL hero of the decade.

King wrote: “In 2006, the city of New Orleans was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina (it will be recovering until 3006), and Brees was recovering from postseason shoulder surgery, major surgery, in San Diego. As a free agent, he seemed headed for Miami, but Dolphins coach Nick Saban had doubts about Brees’ readiness for the season, so Brees signed with the Saints instead. There, he raised more than $5 million for projects, like three new ballfields in the city at depressed schools, and became the symbol for the area’s recovery. It doesn’t hurt that the Saints are 12-0 for the first time in their history, and Brees is the primary reason why.”

When James Carville and Mary Matalin — who have moved from the Washington area to New Orleans — brought their road show to Little Rock on Monday night, Carville was talking about the Saints to a crowd of 1,500 people at the Statehouse Convention Center. He realizes what the team has done to uplift the spirits of an entire city. In fact, I had the strong impression that Carville had much rather talk about the Saints these days than about politics.

Though I grew up in Arkansas, I have been a Saints fan for as long as I can remember. In high school, I subscribed to a weekly newspaper covering the Saints. I’m also a Cowboys fan. When the Saints and Cowboys play later this month, I will be rooting for New Orleans.

I hope the Saints go 16-0. Much like Cubs fans, who are conditioned to expect disappointment, most Saints fans aren’t getting their hopes up just yet.

Regardless of where the season goes from here, I can think of no professional sports franchise that has ever meant quite as much to a city as have these Saints the past three months.

Bless you boys.

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Steak time

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Thanks to all of you who have commented on the AETN documentary about our Delta tamale tour. The program had its debut Wednesday night and hopefully will be airing again soon.

Just as cooler weather increases my appetite for tamales, it also makes a big steak sound better than ever.

Last Saturday, after watching Arkansas State defeat North Texas in the final home football game of the year in Jonesboro, my 12-year-old and I stopped at Josie’s Steakhouse at the intersection of U.S. Highway 49 and Arkansas Highway 14 in Waldenburg.

The grilled shrimp — with just the right amount of garlic — were wonderful as an appetizer. Our steaks — heavily seasoned — were even better. We sat near the open kitchen and joined the cooks in watching the first quarter of the Arkansas-LSU football game on a large flat-screen television.

My son, very much a city boy, was amused by the fact that pickup trucks only were parked out front before our arrival in an SUV. He also liked seeing the large sign out front that said “Welcome Hunters.”

Indeed, Josie’s has much the same atmosphere of some of the better east Arkansas duck clubs I’ve had the pleasure of visiting through the years. It was the perfect place for two hungry guys to go after having attended a college football game. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say it’s now high on my list of places with the best steaks in Arkansas.

Josie’s in Waldenburg is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Over in Batesville, meanwhile, there’s Josie’s on the White River, a place that often features live entertainment. The Batesville Josie’s, open Monday through Saturday for dinner and Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, was built on the site of a lockhouse that once served boat traffic on the White River. Steve and Beth Carpenter came over from Waldenburg in February 2004 to open the Batesville location. History buffs will like the photos and artifacts about river travel that are displayed in the restaurant.

So what Arkansas restaurant serves your favorite steaks? Try giving me the name of a place I might not know of without your help. Somebody recently mentioned Jerry’s in Trumann. I’ve been there. I like it. That’s just the kind of place I’m in search of. Does the Waldenburg-Trumann combination make Poinsett County the steak capital of Arkansas?

In the meantime, if you find yourself in west Poinsett County on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, you owe it to yourself to head to Waldenburg for dinner.

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Arkansas music

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Two great CDs that feature the music of Arkansas have been released.

One comes with the 11th annual Southern music edition of The Oxford American. As always, that issue has a Southern music CD that accompanies the magazine. But there’s something new this year. For the first time, the OA is also including a CD devoted entirely to the music of one state. And that state is Arkansas. You can hear artists ranging from Billy Lee Riley to Carolina Cotton to Maxine Brown on this CD.

There also has just been a CD-DVD set released to promote the Arkansas Delta Music Trail. The artists featured on this CD range from Robert Jr. Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson to Al Green and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Arkansas Delta Music Trail is a joint project of the Rural Heritage Development Initiative, the Arkansas Delta Byways Tourism Promotion Association and Main Street Arkansas.

Let’s start with the OA’s Southern music edition. It’s one of the largest issues ever at 192 pages and the two CDs include 52 songs.

In the words of OA publisher Warwick Sabin: “We are very pleased to inaugurate this new concept (of focusing on a state) by focusing on Arkansas. Besides being our home state, we also feel that Arkansas has never received the attention it deserves for its rich musical history and experience. The Oxford American — with its outstanding reputation and credibility among music experts and music lovers worldwide — is in a unique position to place Arkansas among the vanguard of musical heritage sites.”

As the chairman of the magazine’s board of directors, I must note that this special Arkansas CD and the section on Arkansas in the magazine would not have been possible without the support of the state Department of Parks and Tourism, the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas and Tyson Foods. To my friends — Richard Davies and Joe David Rice at Parks and Tourism; Doug White, Kirkley Thomas and Carmie Henry at the Electric Cooperatives; and Archie Schaffer at Tyson — I want to say “thank you.” These are people who care deeply about the history and culture of our state.

Richard Davies and his associates at the Parks and Tourism Department continue to do a great job promoting mountain music at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View. Meanwhile, the folks at the Department of Arkansas Heritage do a fine job over at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena promoting the music heritage of east Arkansas.

The OA’s annual Southern music issue has won two National Music Awards and numerous other honors since the first music issue came out in 1999. The New York Times once wrote: “The Oxford American may be the liveliest literary magazine in America. … The CDs are so smart and eclectic they probably belong in the Smithsonian.”

If you don’t have an OA subscription, the music issue hit the newsstands this week. Also, take time to check out the magazine’s great website at www.oxfordamerican.org.

Meanwhile, the Delta Music Trail project is being coordinated by one of my favorite people in Arkansas, Beth Wiedower. Beth, a Little Rock native and Hendrix graduate, is a preservationist who moved to Helena-West Helena in 2006 to head up the Rural Heritage Development Initiative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Another of Beth’s projects is a website — www.arkansasdeltamade.com — that allows you to purchase items from food suppliers, artists and others. You should check the site out as you begin to buy your Christmas gifts.

The Rural Heritage Development Initiative covers 15 Arkansas counties and focuses on preservation-based economic development. The program operates on a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and partners with the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, Arkansas Delta Byways, Main Street Arkansas and the Main Street programs of Blytheville, Dumas, Helena-West Helena, Osceola and West Memphis. The initiative is involved in heritage tourism, local business development, preservation education, landmark preservation and branding efforts.

The Arkansas Delta Music Trail follows the Great River Road and the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, both national scenic byways. Beth says those traveling through the region can “listen live to the daily ‘King Biscuit Time’ radio broadcast in downtown Helena at the Delta Cultural Center, hear Louis Jordan’s alto sax playing at the Central Delta Depot in downtown Brinkley, listen to the ‘voice of southeast Arkansas’ at KVSA in McGehee and visit Twist, where B.B. King ran back into a burning juke joint to save his beloved Lucille, the fabled guitar everyone now knows by name.”

The Delta Music Trail CD/DVD package is available by calling (870) 972-2803. The 15 Arkansas counties included in the trail are Clay, Greene, Craighead, Mississippi, Poinsett, Cross, Crittenden, St. Francis, Lee, Monroe, Phillips, Arkansas, Desha, Drew and Chicot.

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Tamale time

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

It’s December, and it’s time for tamales. Actually, I love tamales at anytime of the year. But when the temperatures cool, they’re even better.

On Wednesday night, Dec. 2, at 6:30 p.m., the Arkansas Educational Television Network will debut a program titled “On the Tamale Trail.” Last year, AETN camera crews followed Kane Webb, Bill Vickery and me through the Delta regions of Arkansas and Mississippi in search of the best tamales we could find.

In Arkansas, we ate Pasquale’s tamales in Helena-West Helena and Rhoda’s tamales in Lake Village. In Mississippi, we visited Hicks’ and Abe’s in Clarksdale, John’s in Cleveland, the White Front in Rosedale, Doe’s in Greenville and Maria’s (in Shine Thornton’s backyard) in Greenville.

If you get a chance to watch the documentary Wednesday night, let me know what you think.

And let me know where you go to find the best tamales.

Delta tamales, of course, are different from Mexican tamales. I like both. My Mexican-American mother-in-law, on the other hand, hates Delta tamales. It’s apples and oranges.

If you have any interest in the subject, I urge you to go to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Delta Tamale Trail website at www.tamaletrail.com.

SFA director and Southern food expert John T. Edge writes: “So what is this food, so often associated with Mexico, doing in the Mississippi Delta, you might ask. Isn’t this just an aberration? Like finding curried conch in Collierville, Tenn., or foie gras in Fort Smith, Ark.? It’s not that simple. Tamales have been a menu mainstay in the Mississippi Delta for much of the 20th century. Indeed, along with catfish, they may just be the archetypal Delta food. Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson sang about them in the song ‘They’re Red Hot,’ recorded in 1936.”

My mother remembers a tamale vendor roaming the streets when she was growing up in Des Arc.

My father remembers a tamale vendor when he was a child in Benton.

I’m glad we can still find Delta tamales. Eat up. It’s tamale time.

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