Music in Arkansas

The annual Arkansas Blues and Heritage festival began today at Helena-West Helena. Hopefully, the visitors and musicians will survive the heavy rains expected tonight and much of Friday. Fortunately, the forecast is calling for sunny skies on the festival’s final day Saturday.

Having worked the previous four years for the Delta Regional Authority, I’ve learned to love Helena and those who are working so hard to save this historic piece of Arkansas. The annual blues festival is the city’s biggest economic generator. It’s important for the whole region that the festival be a success.

They’ll travel from all over the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere this week to attend the festival. They’ll sit along the levee and enjoy an event that has come a long way since it was a one-day festival in 1986 with musicians playing on the back of a flatbed truck. All up and down Cherry Street, vendors will sell food, shirts, caps and more. Rather than being featured on one of the three stages, some musicians will simply play on the sidewalk for tips. It’s quite a scene.

The visitors will leave Phillips County on Sunday, but the dollars they spent will remain in the local economy.

As always at 12:15 p.m. Friday, “Sunshine Sonny” Payne will host “King Biscuit Time” on KFFA-AM from the visitors’ center of the Delta Cultural Center. Sonny usually does his blues show only on weekdays, but he adds a special weekend show during the blues festival. He’s a living legend. Sonny turns 84 next month. You owe it to yourself to get over to Cherry Street at some point and sit in while he hosts the 30-minute radio show. Aired since 1941, “King Biscuit Time” is one of the oldest daily shows in American radio.

When I worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee, he made it a point to never miss the first day of the blues festival.

You never know what might happen. As Richard Allen Burns wrote in “The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In addition to storms and occasional equipment failure, each year brings a surprise or two. In 1998, Gov. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, married a couple on the main stage a year after they had met at the previous year’s festival. Huckabee humorously noted the irony of his performing a sacred event on a blues stage, an arena meant for the secular. During another festival, a strong wind knocked over a huge inflated Budweiser can next to the main stage, which organizers repaired as thousands watched. In 1998, the late Luther Allison continued playing as he left the main stage and meandered up and down the levee wirelessly amplifying his guitar licks while photographers and the crowd went wild. The festival attracts people from all walks of life. Despite changes in the music and the occasional nontraditional sounds, as Payne once said, ‘Sooner or later, they all come back to it.”’

I’m often struck by the variety and quality of musicians this small state has turned out through the years. Mississippi does a better job of promoting its musical heritage than Arkansas. But Arkansas’ musical tradition is deeper. While Mississippi is known mostly for the blues, Arkansas adds to its great blues tradition a tradition of mountain music, bluegrass, country, rockabilly and more. From Johnny Cash to Glen Campbell to Charlie Rich to Al Green, the Arkansas musical heritage is far more complex.

The Department of Arkansas Heritage has done a fantastic job developing the Delta Cultural Center. It opened in the city’s 1912 depot in 1990. The visitors’ center a block away at 141 Cherry Street, which contains the studio for “King Biscuit Time,”  opened later. The Delta Cultural Center has gone on to include the 1859 Moore-Hornor House, the Cherry Street pavilion, the Miller Hotel building on Cherry Street and Temple Beth El, the city’s former synagogue.

Downtown Helena is such a unique treasure that the Department of Arkansas Heritage would do well to devote the vast majority of the 9 percent it receives from the one-eighth cent conservation sales tax to further develop these properties and buy additional properties downtown. In an age when more and more people are taking part in heritage tourism — looking for that which is “real” rather than theme parks — the investment makes sense.

I’m happy about a couple of things. One is the fact that the Department of Arkansas Heritage has hired my friend and eminent Arkansas historian Trey Berry as one of its deputy directors. Trey fully understands the significance of downtown Helena.

The other thing I’m happy about is that Lyn and Dana Chadwick, retired educators from North Little Rock, have bought the Edwardian Inn and reopened it. The Edwardian Inn long has been my favorite bed-and-breakfast inn in Arkansas. It closed last October during John Crow’s battle with cancer. John died in May at the too-young age of 66. The Chadwicks, though, have cleaned up the Edwardian and will operate it in the same spirit John did. You ought to head east and spend a weekend with them this fall.

Speaking of music, I have a few questions for you:

What is your favorite music venue in Arkansas? The stage on Cherry Street? A club on Dickson Street in Fayetteville? A spot in Little Rock’s River Market? The Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View? The square in Mountain View? I would be interested in your opinion.

Also, what was the best live musical performance you’ve ever seen in Arkansas and where was it? When I was in high school, it seemed that there were more big concerts at the Pine Bluff Convention Center than there were in Little Rock. The convention center was much newer and could handle more people than old Barton Coliseum. I search my memory for a favorite concert. Forrest City native Al Green has been fun on his visits here to Little Rock. Elton John did a nice job opening Alltel Arena in North Little Rock. Being a person who likes jazz, though, hearing Maynard Ferguson give it all he had on the Henderson State University campus 30 years ago was hard to beat.

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