Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Remembering Glen Campbell

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

We had spent the day at the Hope Watermelon Festival, and it was time to head back to Little Rock.

I was riding with Paul Austin, the head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and suggested that we not get back on Interstate 30 just yet.

Instead we would make our way through the pine woods and cattle pastures of southwest Arkansas — to Washington, Ozan, Nashville and Murfreesboro — to soak up the rural atmosphere in my old neck of the woods.

Our destination was Delight.

Glen Campbell, one of our most famous Arkansans, had died four days earlier and been buried the next day in a private ceremony near Delight.

A perk of hailing from southwest Arkansas was being able to correct people when they claimed that Campbell came from Delight.

“Well, he’s actually from Billstown,” you would say with a smile. “That’s a suburb of Delight.”

Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936, at Billstown to Carrie Dell Stone Campbell and John Wesley Campbell. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and he was one of 12 children.

“Many of his relatives were musicians, and young Campbell soon developed an interest in singing and playing,” Terry Buckalew writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He received his first guitar at age 4, performed in public by age 6 and made occasional appearances on the local radio station. The Campbell family first moved to Houston and then to Albuquerque, N.M, where teenaged Campbell began performing in nightclubs. Campbell dropped out of school in the 10th grade to spend more time on music. In 1956, he joined the Sandia Mountain Boys, a local band led by his uncle, Dick Bills. Campbell stayed with the group until 1958.

“In 1958, Campbell formed his own band, Glen Campbell and the Western Wranglers. In 1960, Campbell disbanded the group and moved to Los Angeles. He hoped to establish himself as a solo performer but found himself instead to be a sought-after studio musician and guitarist.”

Billstown is about six miles from Delight. The schools there consolidated with Delight at the start of the 1948-49 school year. Since then, Billstown has mostly been a collection of homes.

The Ozan Lumber Co. was among the area’s dominant businesses for much of the 20th century. The company owned 132,000 acres by 1956 and was sold to the Potlatch Corp. in the 1960s. As timber companies cleared the woodlands, farmers such as John Wesley Campbell turned to growing cotton in the “Pike County sandy loam” that son Glen later would reference in his song “Arkansas.”

Young Glen hadn’t been a stranger to chopping cotton in the summer and picking it in the fall.

As Paul and I headed east on Arkansas Highway 26 last Saturday afternoon, I spotted the small sign for Billstown and asked Paul to take a right. We wound down a county road on the off chance that we might see Campbell’s grave. For all we knew, it was hidden in a family cemetery well off the road.

We were about to turn around when I spotted a mailbox that had “Campbell” stenciled on it.

“Let’s keep going a bit,” I said to Paul.

Just up the road on our left was a cemetery. A wooden sign read “Campbell’s Cemetery, Billstown, AR.”


We got out of the truck and found the headstone for Carrie and John Wesley Campbell. Behind it was a freshly dug grave. At the head was a large floral arrangement from a Murfreesboro florist with a ribbon that said “Brother.”

At the foot was a vase of roses.

It was quiet on Billstown Road as the August sun baked the soil. We stood there for a minute, silently paying our respects to an Arkansas legend.

Less than 48 hours after that cemetery visit came word that we had lost another Arkansas icon, former Razorback football coach Frank Broyles. Campbell was 81 when he died; Broyles was 92. Both had Alzheimer’s at the end.

I was born in September 1959 and was coming of age in the late 1960s when Glen Campbell became a national star.

Campbell recorded “Gentle on My Mind” in 1967 and earned Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Country Vocalist and Best Contemporary Vocalist.

In 1968, he recorded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which won him three more Grammys. Songs such as “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” soon followed.

The man from Billstown became a regular on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and CBS asked him to host a summer replacement show in 1968.

In 1969, CBS created “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and the program ran through 1971.

The year 1969 also saw the release of the John Wayne movie “True Grit,” based on the novel of the same name by native Arkansan Charles Portis. Campbell had a role in the movie, which premiered at Little Rock’s Cinema 150.

In 1970, Campbell played the title role in “Norwood,” which also was based on a Portis novel.

“Campbell continued to enjoy chart success through the late 1970s,” Buckalew writes. “Among his more than 70 albums are several gospel albums recorded in the 1990s, one of which — ‘A Glen Campbell Christmas’ –earned a Dove Award in 2000.”

Campbell was inducted into the first class of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1996 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

In the late 1960s when Glen Campbell was at the height of his popularity, we were just more than a decade removed from the embarrassment of the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis. Arkansas had lost the highest percentage of its population of any state from 1940-60.

There wasn’t a great deal to be proud of, but we had the likes of Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash on the national stage.

Like Frank Broyles, who would die less than a week after him, Glen Campbell made us proud to be from Arkansas.

Godspeed, Glen.

A Delta cultural stew

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

It was mentioned in the previous post that the Mississippi Blues Trail has placed several markers outside of Mississippi in places where blues music was important.

Few places were more important to the evolution of the blues than Helena.

A Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Cherry Street, once the top commercial street in the Arkansas Delta, outlines some of that history.

It reads: “Helena has played a vital role in blues history for artists from both sides of the Mississippi River. Once known as a wide-open spot for music, gambling and nightlife, Helena was also the birthplace of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ the groundbreaking KFFA radio show that began broadcasting blues to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta in 1941. The program had logged more than 15,000 broadcasts by 2009 and inspired Helena to launch its renowned King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1986.

“The town emerged as a major center of culture and commerce in the Delta during the steamboat era and maintained its freewheeling river port atmosphere well into the mid-20th century. Cafes, nightspots and good-time houses flourished, and musicians flocked here to entertain local field hands, sawmill workers and roustabouts who came off the boats ready for action. Many bluesmen ferried across the river from Mississippi or later motored across the Helena bridge. Others came from elsewhere in Arkansas, up from Louisiana or down from Memphis.

“Helena was at one time home to Mississippi-born blues legends Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson No 2 (Rice Miller), James Cotton, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins, as well as to Arkansas natives Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood Jr., Frank Frost, Jimmy McCracklin and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, all of whom became influential figures in the blues. Williamson, Nighthawk and Lockwood were among the first bluesmen to play their instruments through amplifiers, paving the transitional path of blues from acoustic to electric music, a development often attributed to Muddy Waters in Chicago in the late 1940s.

“Soon after KFFA went on the air in 1941, Williamson’s broadcasts on ‘King Biscuit Time’ brought blues to an audience that had seldom if ever heard such music on the radio. Up-and-coming bluesmen B.B. King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters all tuned in to the lunchtime broadcasts from the KFFA studios, or on occasion WROX in Clarksdale, advertising King Biscuit Flour and promoting their upcoming shows at local juke joints and house parties. The sponsor, Interstate Grocer Co., even introduced a Sonny Boy brand of cornmeal.

“During Williamson’s extended stays away from Helena, drummer James ‘Peck’ Curtis kept the program going with an assortment of band members. The show eventually switched to records instead of live music and continued with deejay Sonny Payne at the helm. Off the air only from 1980 until 1986, it still ranks as one of the longest-running programs in radio history. The Delta Cultural Center began hosting the broadcast in the 1990s.”

A separate Mississippi Blues Trail marker a block away on Biscuit Row in downtown Helena is devoted to Williamson.

It reads in part: “Williamson had played in Helena even before he began performing on ‘King Biscuit Time’ in 1941. He was joined by a succession of ‘King Biscuit Entertainers’ — James ‘Peck’ Curtis was a constant presence on the show, and others included Pinetop Perkins, Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, Houston Stackhouse, Elmore James and W.C. Clay — all originally from Mississippi — as well as Robert Lockwood Jr. from Arkansas and Robert ‘Dudlow’ Taylor from Louisiana. The band performed in surrounding towns to advertise King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Cornmeal, and they also played locally at theaters and nightspots.

“Venues in Helena included the Owl Café, Busy Bee, Kitty Cat Café, Mississippi Café, Dreamland Café and Silver Moon. But the best-remembered juke joint was the Hole in the Wall, operated by another native Mississippian, James Oscar Crawford. Williamson and various band members, along with Willie Johnson, Doctor Ross, Hacksaw Harney and Honeyboy Edwards, were among those recalled at the Hole in the Wall. Rumors even circulated that Robert Johnson — another associate of Sonny Boy’s — was murdered while playing here. But his death actually occurred in Greenwood, Miss., in 1938.

“During his extensive travels, Williams periodically revisited Helena and returned for the final time in 1965, telling Stackhouse, ‘I done come home to die now.’

“On May 25, Williamson failed to show for the KFFA broadcast and was found dead in the boardinghouse where he roomed at 427 1/2 Elm St. His sisters buried him in Tutwiler, Miss., where fans often leave harmonicas and whiskey bottles on his grave.”

Blues music is just one part of the rich cultural mix that makes the Delta so fascinating.

The combination of those who immigrated to the region when cotton was king — Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians, etc. — is central to making the Delta a unique region.

In the previous post, I wrote about attending the 100th birthday party for David Solomon of Helena.

“David and I are the last of the Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta,” says my friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove. “The list at one time included Oscar Fendler of Blytheville and Kent Rubens of West Memphis, both deceased, along with Eddie Graumann, who was municipal judge for many years in Helena and who’s now retired in Memphis.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block, who opened a store at Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas.”

By the start of the Civil War, there were Jewish communities in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Van Buren, DeValls Bluff, Batesville and Jonesboro. Of the almost 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, at least 53 fought for the Confederacy.

Additional Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the Civil War. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 Arkansas communities were founded by Jews or named after early Jewish residents. These include Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were formed in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

In Helena, the 1870 census showed that a majority of the city’s Jews had been born in Prussia and other parts of what would become Germany. By the start of the 20th century, Jews dominated the retail trade there. There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80.

A number of the Jewish immigrants had come to Arkansas as traveling peddlers. Many of their descendants went on to become wealthy merchants and planters. Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the Great Flood of 1927.

Jacob Trieber, whose family settled in Helena in 1868, became the first Jewish federal judge when President William McKinley appointed him to the bench in 1900. Trieber, who had been born in Prussia in 1853, served as a federal judge until 1927.

Last year, Congress passed legislation to rename the federal building at Helena in Trieber’s honor. A dedication ceremony was held earlier this year.

“We owe this honor to Judge Trieber, who was a well-respected leader in Phillips County,” said Sen. John Boozman. “This is a great tribute that symbolizes the important work he did for the community and in pursuit of justice as the nation’s first Jewish federal judge.”

Congressman Rick Crawford said: “Driven by his unmatched dedication to justice and equality for all people, Judge Trieber took it upon himself to fight against all types of injustices, including institutionalized racism, which he opposed for six decades before finally being vindicated by the Supreme Court and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Trieber was born in Prussia in 1853 and moved with his family to St. Louis in 1866. Two years later, the family moved to Helena to open a store.

Carolyn Gray LeMaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1873, Trieber began studying law in the evenings under former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Marshall L. Stephenson He was admitted to the state bar in 1876 and formed a partnership with Stephenson’s brother, L.C. Stephenson, and later with Marshall Stephenson. As his adopted home, Arkansas became dear to him, although the blatant racism he saw had a lifelong effect on his life and work. He sought to communicate — through his own life and deeds and his commitment to equal justice — that racism was detrimental to the people of Arkansas and that only until the state’s race relations problem was solved could the state’s potential be achieved. He attacked Arkansas’ election laws, saying they disenfranchised black voters. … He spoke out for women’s suffrage.

“Trieber’s interest in civil rights stemmed from what he had seen in Europe as a youth. He later recalled his childhood days in Prussia, remembering how the discrimination against Jews consumed the country. He said he ‘feared any country’s future that would allow such discrimination against its citizens,’ and he hoped Arkansas could steer a different course.

“He became a member of the Republican Party in 1874, believing its policies of that day — a strong union, primacy of the U.S. Constitution, pro-business policies, greater opportunities for African-Americans and a high protective tariff — were best for the nation. He was elected to Helena’s city council in 1882, named superintendent of the state census in 1890 and elected Phillips County treasurer in 1892. In 1897, he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas and moved to Little Rock. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed him federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

“Trieber’s civic legacy in Arkansas was far-reaching. He was at the forefront of varying campaigns, such as saving the Old State House from destruction, establishing the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium in 1909 and, during World War I, serving on the Arkansas State Council of Defense and representing the state on the American Red Cross national board.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west since Trieber’s time, a lot of the artifacts from Temple Beth El at Helena went northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The artifacts are now used by the Etz Chaim congregation in Bentonville.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. … The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state.

“Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st-century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

One of the few things to remain constant in the Delta as the population has steadily declined since the 1950s is the “King Biscuit Time” radio show, which first aired on a November day in 1941 just before the United States entered World War II. Sonny Payne became a part of the show in 1951 and is still at it.

Rockabilly in Helena, Cash in Jonesboro

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Mississippi and Tennessee have done a far better job than Arkansas of promoting their music heritage.

We are, however, making progress in a state whose music heritage is every bit as rich as those two neighboring states.

Several upcoming events come to mind since they’ll help fund future tourist attractions.

The first will occur this weekend. My friend Bubba Sullivan of Bubba’s Blues Corner at Helena has put together what he hopes to be the first of many rockabilly festivals.

It’s called the Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival and will be held downtown on Helena’s historic Cherry Street on Saturday.

Tickets are $10 each. That’s a steal for a lineup that will include Brandon Cunning and the Stunning Cunning Band at noon, C.W. Gatlin at 1 p.m., Smackover native Sleepy LaBeef at 2 p.m., Stan Perkins at 3 p.m., W.S. Holland (who played drums for Johnny Cash for decades) at 4 p.m., Travis Wammack and J.M. Van Eaton at 5 p.m., Mississippi legend Ace Cannon at 6 p.m., Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers at 7 p.m., Ronnie McDowell at 8 p.m. and El Dorado native Jason D. Williams at 9 p.m.

Proceeds from the festival will help fund a project that Bubba has worked on for years — the American Music Museum, which he hopes to put in some of the vacant buildings on Cherry Street in order to attract more tourists to the city.

Bubba, who is about to turn 71, helped start the King Biscuit Blues Festival and the Sonny Boy Blues Society.

“Sonny Burgess and I have been friends for a long time, and he booked everybody,” Bubba recently told The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi. “All of them are up in age. They’re all respected overseas, and a bunch of rockers did tributes to them.”

On May 28, meanwhile, Helena will host the Arkansas Delta Family Gospel Fest at the Cherry Street Pavilion. Gospel great Mavis Staples will headline the 11th annual event.

The Gospel Fest is sponsored each year by the Delta Cultural Center. Admission is free. The festival will begin at 11 a.m. and run until almost 10 p.m. Other groups scheduled to perform are the Holmes Brothers, Tim Rogers and the Fellas, the Lee Boys, Gloryland Pastor’s Choir with Pastor Cedric Hayes, Rev. John Wilkins, the Dixie Wonders, the Fantastic Jordan Wonders and Voices of Joy.

As for this Saturday’s festival, Burgess and Sullivan have created what looks to be a fun event.

The Pacers were formed in 1955 at Newport. They had five singles for Sun Records. They later had a 1965 hit on Razorback Records called “The Short Squashed Texan.” As a child, I was delighted each fall when KAAY-AM, the Mighty 1090, would play that song over and over the week of an Arkansas-Texas football game.

The group has played through the years with Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline, Ronnie Hawkins, Billy Lee Riley, Ace Cannon, Charlie Rich and others.

The group, which has toured throughout the United States and Canada, was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, Tenn., in 2002.

Their motto: “They play the music of the ’50s the best because they helped invent it.”

It also must be noted that tickets are now on sale for the huge Johnny Cash Music Festival that’s scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m. at the Convocation Center on the campus of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Johnny Cash boyhood home project at Dyess.

The number to call for tickets is (870) 972-2781. Tickets may also be purchased by going to the school’s website at

“Because of Johnny Cash’s fame, visitors come to see the town where he grew up, but there’s little there that tells his story,” says Gov. Mike Beebe, an Amagon native who knows all about the music heritage of east Arkansas. “I’m pleased that the city of Dyess, Arkansas State University and others are now joining to develop a museum that focuses on his boyhood in Dyess, along with efforts to restore or re-create his childhood home. … Within five years of opening, the tourism projects are projected to have the potential of pumping more than $7 million annually into the regional economy and generating more than 80 jobs.

“For too many years, the fact that Cash spent his entire childhood in Arkansas has largely been igonored, except by his most ardent fans. Born in Kingsland in 1932, Cash moved with his family in 1935 to Dyess Colony in Mississippi County and remained there until his graduation from high school in 1950. The colony was one of the nation’s earliest New Deal agricultural resettlement communities, created to give struggling farm families a chance at a new beginning.”

There are three types of tickets:

— The $150 VIP package includes a seat on the floor in front of the stage, admission to an exhibition of Cash photos by Alan Messer and access to an artist reception to meet Cash children Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash.

— The $75 ticket includes a lower-level seat and admission to the photo exhibition.

— Other tickets are $37.50 each.

Those planning to perform include Rosanne Cash, John Carter and Laura Cash, Johnny’s brother Tommy Cash, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Morris, Dailey & Vincent, Rodney Crowell and Chelsea Crowell.

If you need more information, go to

Rosanne called the possible restoration of the Cash family home “a long cherished dream.”

ASU wants to restore the home that Cash lived in from the time he was 3 until he graduated from high school to make it look like it did during the 1930s and 1940s. If the private owners won’t sell the actual home, ASU will re-create it.

The university also is restoring what was the administration building at Dyess Colony. The museum will include exhibits on Cash’s boyhood at Dyess, the influence of his family and the impact his early life had on his later music.

The former theater next door (only the facade remains) will be reconstructed to show an orientation film along with Cash documentaries.

ASU hopes to make the music festival an annual event.

Christy Valentine, the school’s communications director, said: “Since the moment the announcement was made about the benefit concert, we have received a flood of requests for ticket informtion from all over the country. We believe that this festival will be a top draw each year.”

If you like music, you would be wise to mark the next two Saturdays in Helena on your schedule along with Aug. 4 in Jonesboro.

Dinner with Brett and George

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I spent a lot of time driving around the Arkansas Delta, the Mississippi Delta, the Missouri Bootheel and west Tennessee.

Much of that time in the car was spent listening to WHBQ-AM, 560, in Memphis, a famous old radio station that has had an all-sports format for a number of years.

In the 1950s, though, WHBQ was famous for its music. It was owned by RKO General, and one of its disc jockeys was Dewey Phillips, who had a show each night known as “Red, Hot and Blue.” In 1954, Phillips played a recording by a young man named Elvis Presley. It was the first Elvis song ever played on the radio.

Phillips, who often went by Daddy-O, was a Tennessee native who began working at WHBQ in 1949 when he was just 23. He became legendary for his frantic delivery and his propensity for showcasing the music of both black and white artists.

Memphis was booming in those days, and musicians flocked there from rural towns in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Phillips introduced many of them to the listening audience. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up on his show, playing not only rhythm and blues but also country music and even jazz.

The station let Phillips go in late 1958 when it adopted a Top 40 format. He died in 1968 at the age of just 42 following years of alcohol and drug abuse.

WHBQ was a bit of a farm club for the bigger RKO stations. DJs such as Rick Dees and Wink Martindale would pass through on the way to the company’s stations in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Boston.

RKO sold WHBQ to Flinn Broadcasting in 1988.

During those years I spent driving through the flat Delta cotton fields and listening to the sports talk on WHBQ, I felt as if I knew all of the station’s on-air personalities.

Fortunately, I actually do know some of them. Those of you who listen to my Sunday morning appearances with Bill Vickery on KABZ-FM, 103.7, in Little Rock know that a frequent guest on Bill’s show is Arkansan Brett “Stats” Norsworthy.

Brett began working on the air in Memphis with George Lapides in 1992 and has become a Mid-South radio fixture during the past two decades. He’s making the trip to Little Rock on Saturday to watch UALR’s 3 p.m. basketball game against Middle Tennessee State. We’ll then have an early dinner at Doe’s.

It will be great fun since Brett and I share the same interests — sports, politics, Southern culture and good food.

What could be better than eating tamales followed by a steak at Doe’s, discussing politics and maybe even telling some old Paul “Bear” Bryant stories?

That’s another thing we have in common: Coach Bryant was a childhood hero for both of us.

Even though he lives in Forrest City, Brett helps host the pregame and postgame shows on the Ole Miss football radio network. Nobody knows Southeastern Conference football better. If you’re headed east, you can hear him each Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on 560 AM.

I mentioned George Lapides, who’s indeed a Mid-South legend. Back in the fall, my friend Keith Ingram of West Memphis invited George and me to speak to a meeting of the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce. George talked about sports. I talked about politics.

George could just as easily have talked about politics. He’s highly opinionated, well read, articulate and funny. We shared a delighful dinner afterward, which leads me to perhaps my most important point — George loves to eat out and knows the best restaurants across the South and in other major U.S. cities.

We each choose Galatoire’s in New Orleans as our favorite restaurant in the country.

Go to the website Ignore the fact that parts of the site haven’t been updated in years. Click on “Places To Eat” and enjoy yourself. You can find George’s opinion on restaurants in Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Fayetteville, Houston, Kansas City, Knoxville, Little Rock, Louisville, Mobile, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City (which George describes as a terrible restaurant city), Orlando, Oxford (the one in Mississippi, of course), Phoenix-Scottsdale, St. Louis (George shares my love for eating Italian food on The Hill), San Antonio, Shreveport and Tuscaloosa

The best part of listening to George from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m. on WHBQ is hearing him do live ads for various Memphis restaurants. I’m always hungry when I turn off the radio.

Be advised that a few of the restaurants listed on the website are no longer in business.

In his Fayetteville listing, George says his favorite is Herman’s Ribhouse. When it comes to Fayetteville itself, I agree with him. Give me a single rib for an appetizer, a gear salad and a New York strip with hashbrowns at Herman’s. But as far as northwest Arkansas as a region, I’ll usually make the trip to Venesian Inn in Tontitown for fried chicken and spaghetti or to the Monte Ne Inn near Rogers for fried chicken.

When the Memphis Tigers came to North Little Rock to play in the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament, George became a fan of Capeo in downtown Argenta. We agree on that. He called it a “don’t-miss place.”

On the Little Rock side of the river, George likes Ferneau, Brave New Restaurant and Ashley’s.

Here’s how the WHBQ website describes him: “When you think Memphis and sports, you instantly think of George Lapides. George is a native Memphian, his parents were Memphians, their parents were Memphians and his great-grandparents were raised in the Mid-South. In fact, George was part of the first-ever graduating class at White Station High School. George attended the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis. There aren’t too many people who have the firsthand knowledge of the history of this area that George does.

“George has spent nearly 50 years in the sports business , whether as sports editor of the Memphis Press Scimitar or sports director at WREG-TV. … He is in his 40th consecutive year of doing sports talk on radio. It’s the longest-running sports talk show in the country and, according to some, the second longest-running radio show of any kind.”

Though the Press Scimitar is long gone, I still cherish my copy of the afternoon newspaper that came out the day of Bear Bryant’s final game as head coach at Alabama in the 1982 Liberty Bowl. George’s column ran on the front page that day.

In 2006, George donated his sports memorabilia collection to the University of Memphis

“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do something to which I first aspired when I was in the fifth grade at Vollentine School — that is, work in journalism,” George said at the time.

Here’s a sample of the kind of history George remembers. He was asked about his memories of Russwood Park on Madison Avenue in Memphis, which was destroyed by fire in 1960. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Stan Musial had all played there at one time or another.

“It smelled,” George told The Commericial Appeal last year. “The minute you walked into the guts of the entry plaza, you could smell the hog dogs and the popcorn. I have two strong memories, and that’s one of them.

“The other memory is the unbelievable noise because everything was wood and when people started clapping for a rally, they also stomped their feet on the wood, and it was just unbelievably loud when they did that. They’d do this rhythmic clapping and stomp their feet.”

Good memories. Good stories. Brett and George — two Memphis radio personalities who make fine dining companions.

Some daylight at Dyess

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Mark your calendar for Aug. 4.

That’s when it appears a concert will be held at the Convocation Center on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro to bolster efforts to restore the site of the former Dyess Colony in Mississippi County.

I’ve written about those efforts before.

A quick recap: Johnny Cash was born in February 1932 in the pine woods of south Arkansas at Kingsland in Cleveland County. In 1936, the Cash family moved to Dyess to participate in an experimental cooperative.

Soon after having been elected president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt created a number of agencies to battle the Great Depression. The first administrator of the Works Progress Administration in Arkansas was William Reynolds Dyess, who was part of a group of politically powerful plantation owners from Mississippi County. Dyess convinced the Federal Emergency Relief Administation to purchase 16,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods in Mississippi County and then pump $3 million into the area so impoverished rural families could move there from across the state and clear about 20 acres each for cultivation.

The resettlement colony was established in May 1934. Federal officials searched the state’s relief rolls and initially brought almost 1,300 men to the area to begin building roads and homes.

By the time first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Dyess Colony in June 1936, there were about 2,500 residents. Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers Cash headed one of the five families that had been selected to move there from Cleveland County. Their son John was identified as “J.R.” in the Dyess High School yearbook when he was the class vice president as a senior in 1950.

Last year, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council awarded a $337,888 grant to Arkansas State for restoration work at Dyess Colony. The actual home where Johnny Cash was raised remains in private hands, though it appears a restoration will be built as part of the interpretive exhibit.

Proceeds from the August concert will be used to supplement the work already being done by Arkansas State and the National Trust for Historic Preservation at Dyess.

Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, is expected to host the benefit concert. Among those invited to perform are Rosanne Cash and George Jones. Rosanne, in fact, has already posted a newspaper story about the event on her official website at

Following the release of the critically acclaimed movie “Walk The Line” in 2005, there was a significant increase in the number of tourists coming to Dyess. They came from not only across the United States but also Canada and Europe. There was a large tour group from Ireland, for example. A Belgian cooking show filmed an episode there. Unfortunately, there was little for these visitors to see or do.

The movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, chronicled Cash’s early life in Arkansas, his interest in music and his move out of Arkansas to join the Air Force. Once the movie was released, some of those still living in Dyess began efforts to increase awareness of the community, hosting music events in the old school gym there.

In 2008, Kirkley Thomas and Carmie Henry, who both work for the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives in Little Rock, were lamenting the fact that the state wasn’t doing enough to capitalize on the Cash legacy and other parts of Arkansas’ rich musical heritage. Millions of tourists flock to Nashville, Memphis and Branson each year. Why, Thomas and Henry asked, was this state not doing more to capture those dollars?

Dyess seemed to have potential. It’s located just off Interstate 55, which connects cities with strong music traditions — Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. It’s a short day trip from Memphis and its many music-related attractions — Graceland, Beale Street, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Sun Studio, the Gibson Guitar factory, etc.

Thomas and Henry headed to Dyess to visit with the mayor, Larry Sims. In 2009, they enlisted the help of Ruth Hawkins, who heads up Delta heritage initiatives at Arkansas State. Hawkins had been instrumental in establishing the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center at Piggott and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum at Tyronza. She also led efforts to restore the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.

In July 2009, a meeting of various stakeholders in the project was held in Little Rock. Then-state Sen. Steve Bryles of Blytheville helped secure money for a master plan. After proposals were solicited nationally, the firm John Milner & Associates of Pennsylvania was chosen to conduct assessments and offer recommendations for a redevelopment project at Dyess.

The Dyess Colony redevelopment master plan was completed in March of last year. Soon after that, Arkansas State received the NCRC grant to begin the first phase of the rehabilitation effort.

Working with Hawkins, Beth Wiedower of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others, the group behind the project began discussing the idea of a Johnny Cash music festival to raise funds and increase awareness of their initiative at Dyess.

Hawkins made contact with Bill Carter, a Nashville producer who was an attorney for the Rolling Stones and has extensive contacts in the music industry. Carter agreed to produce the August event. He had attended college at Arkansas State and is friends with everyone from Reba McEntire to Tanya Tucker.

Among those who will be invited to perform at this or future festivals are Kid Rock, Ronnie Dunn, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Travis Tritt.

Meanwhile, restoration work on the Dyess Colony administration building began Jan. 17 with a completion date set for May.

In other words, there’s real progress being made.

John Carter Cash, 40, is the only son of Johnny and June Carter Cash. He has long worked as a music producer for artists ranging from Vince Gill to Elvis Costello to Willie Nelson. The first CD of his own music was released in 2003. He’s also the author of his mother’s biography, “Anchored In Love.”

John Carter Cash has even written two children’s books with a third scheduled for release in 2012. He owns and operates the Cash Cabin Studio near Nashville.

Rosanne Cash, 55, is the oldest child of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. She was born in Memphis in May 1955. Johnny Cash was taking radio broadcasting classes at Keegan’s School of Broadcasting and working as an appliance salesman for the Home Equipment Co. in Memphis at the time. Johnny Cash divorced his first wife in 1968.

Rosanne Cash joined her father’s television show at age 18 and went on to study drama at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. She has relased 12 albums through the years and recorded 11 No. 1 singles. She won the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1985. Rosanne also has had a collection of short stories, a children’s book and a memoir pubished.

Having the Cash children involved in this effort is huge.

Finally, it seems, good things are happening for Dyess.

Time to cash in on Johnny Cash

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville.  Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

Let’s dream:

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

Let’s get to work.

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

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 — — 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.