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.

12 Responses to “Music in Arkansas”

  1. Andy Glover says:

    Best live performance – Paul Thorn at George’s – Dickson Street in Fayetteville.

    When you write of Arkansas’ musical heritage, don’t forget Levon Helm! He lists listening to King Biscuit on the radio as one of his early musical influences.

  2. Rocky Fawcett says:

    Back in the 1980’s Jed Clampet wherever he was at or Bob Hayes at the old Shakey’s pizza places were always very, very good.

  3. floyd says:

    The best live performances that come to my mind:

    1. Johnny Cash and June at the old Indian Fieldhouse in Jonesboro in about ’77 or ’78. If you remember the fieldhouse, you can imagine what an intimate venue it was. I can still feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when the sombreroed (sp?) horn section stepped up and played the intro on “Ring of Fire”.
    Johnny mentioned that it was the first time he had been in Jonesboro since the early fifties when he and Elvis had played a twin bill at the armory that drew a few hundred folks.
    Emmylou Harris opened for him and came back and sang with him later. It was amazing.

    2. The Rolling Stones at War Memorial Stadium sometime in the early nineties. The atmosphere was electric and the Stones were at the top of their game. Their later visit to Alltel was like seeing a tribute band compared to that night.
    I also remember being concerned for my safety after the show because of the crush of the enormous crowd, but it was a great show.

    A tie for 3. Ringo Starr and his All Starr band in 1992 at the short lived but fantastic August in Arkansas festival at the Riverfront Ampitheater. I remember Todd Rundgren, Burton Cummings, Joe Walsh and others putting on an outstanding show. It seemed like they were having as much fun as we were. And-
    Ricky Skaggs at the bluegrass park off 107 south of Vilonia sometime in the mid 80’s. A cool evening under huge oak trees with a truly incredible musician. Bill Clinton sat a few lawn chairs down from me.

    4. This was also in War Memorial and it was probably in 1977 or ’78. It was The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett and maybe the Cate Brothers. The sun was hot, the sound system was poor, the time between acts was too long and the crowd was sparse. But it was the first time I had ever heard a Jimmy Buffett tune. I left the concert and drove directly to Peaches Records and Tapes and bought the eight track version of A1A, which I played until it wore out. Been a Parrothead ever since.

  4. Jimmy says:

    The Cate Brothers at George’s on Dickson, the Gunbunnies at Juanita’s and both Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor at Barton have been a few of the great shows I have seen in these many years.

  5. Barbara says:

    My husband and I bought some property between Leslie and Mountain View, mainly for his deer hunting, but also for a get-away. We have taken friends into Mountain View several times over the past three years, and I have discovered true folk music, not the twangy, blue grass that I had previously thought that mountain musica was all about. I have trully grown an appreciation for this piece of history, still performing in the Courthouse Square there in Mountain View, and also at the Ozark Folk Center Auditorium.

  6. scott t says:

    I saw the Stones , Eagles, Stevie Ray , even Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, way back in the day, but the best live act time and time over was Zorro and the Blue Footballs at the Swinging Door on Dickson St. in Fayetteville back in the 70’s…. Can I get an Amen?

  7. Schirm says:

    Late 70’s early 80’s (my college years) definitely hold memories…Bob Hayes at Shakey’s in LR and Zorro and the BF’s at the Swinging Door in Fayetteville, Leon Russell in some small joint in Fayetteville too. REO Speedwagon and Kansas (separate concerts) in Barnhill in ’79 or ’80 were memorable. Molly Hatchet, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Doobie Bros (and one other band I can’t recall) all together in War Memorial during same time period in July when it was 100+ degrees. Dan Fogelberg (RIP) in Barton Coliseum 1983…Great times marked by great variety of music.

  8. Dave says:

    RIP, Windy Austin, Zorro and The Blue Footballs and Windy Austin & The Hot House Tomato Boys. An incredible talent. He will be missed.

  9. Jay Hayes says:

    Fond memories of saturday night get togethers for pickin’ at Lonnie Lee’s living room in Fox (Stone County) in the early ’70’s. Pure magic.

  10. Ted Mathews says:

    Jay’s got it right, indigenous Arkansas music at its best, Lonnie Lee’s living room around the old pot bellied stove. Guitars, Banjos, Mandolins, Fiddles on and on.

  11. freda hershberger says:

    My name is Freda lee Hershberger I am Lonnie Lees granddoughter. I currently own the old Lonnie lee house. I am doing research on My grandfather and his music. I was blessed to be old enough to remember the Saturday night musicals as a kid. My Grandpa and Granny Lee was amazing people who touched many lives. I am proud to say that I named my first son Lonnie Dale after one of the most wonderful men I had ever met. Lonnie Lee him self. Please if their is any history that you can share with me on my grandpa I would like to hear from you. My home phone is 8703634593. and my mailing address is 126 Lonnie lee rd fox ar. 72051.

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