"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks and Collin Raye will be the headliners Friday and Saturday when the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies presents its second annual Arkansas Sounds Music Festival. By hosting the free festival, David Stricklin, head of the Central Arkansas Library's Butler Center, said, "We are celebrating what we think is one of Arkansas's greatest exports — music. Arkansas, pound for pound, has had a greater impact on American music than a whole lot of states."
If you don't believe him, Stricklin has got a book to sell you. In September, Butler Center Books published the "Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music," a collection of entries culled from the department's online Encyclopedia of Arkansas. It's an essential volume for any self-respecting music aficionado, full of pithy, authoritative entries on well-known artists — like Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Sister Rosetta Tharpe — as well as essays on stuff you probably don't know about. Like "The Fayetteville Polka," a composition written by an Austrian violinist, Ferdinand Zellner — who came to America with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind as part of a P.T. Barnum production and ended up sticking around in Arkansas — that may be the first sheet music published in Arkansas. Or Elton Britt, the yodeling country singer from Searcy County who learned the breath control necessary for yodeling by practicing holding his breath underwater, according to the encyclopedia.
That combination of the familiar and the more unknown is at the heart of the booking philosophy of festival director John Miller. "We want to celebrate the things people know and love about familiar bands, but also celebrate some folks on the rise," he said.
Friday night's lineup, which takes place at the River Market pavilions, might tilt to the more obscure side, but it's unquestionably worth your time. Like Douglas MacArthur, the night's headliner, Dan Hicks (8:30 p.m.), was born in Little Rock to a military man, but moved away at such a young age he hasn't been identified with the state as much as others. Miller guesses Hicks hasn't played Central Arkansas in two decades.
For the last 45 years, Hicks, often backed by The Hot Licks, has carved a unique path through so many genres, he's often described as unclassifiable. Hicks has called his style "folk jazz," but David Smay's description, from a 2007 Oxford American profile, seems most apt:
"[T]here was a time from the '20s through the '40s when swing — 'hot rhythm' — rippled through every form of popular music. That's the music Dan Hicks plays, and there's no single word for it because it wasn't limited to any one genre. Django Reinhardt ... Hank Garland, the Boswell Sisters ... and Bing Crosby all swung. You can make yourself nutty trying to define what Dan Hicks is. Then again, you could just say: Dan Hicks swings. And while he may be an idler and a roue, nobody's written ten better songs about breezing down the road than Dan Hicks."
Hicks and the Hot Licks are preceded by Tav Falco and Panther Burns (7:15 p.m.), another band that's hard to characterize, though often credited as a pioneer in "psychobilly," a psychedelic take on rockabilly. Falco grew up near Gurdon and lives in Paris (France) now, but he's most closely associated with Memphis, where he apprenticed with famed photographer William Eggleston and formed the Panther Burns, a revolving cast of musicians that included Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson in its earliest incarnation. There's no cooler Arkansas musician. He'll give a free reading from "Mondo Memphis," his encyclopedia of underground Memphis, at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Darragh Center of the Main Library.
The Smittle Band, which might be described as jazz-flecked Americana, opens Friday night's event.
Managers of country balladeer Collin Raye, Saturday night's headliner, weren't quite sold on the festival until they heard about a planned tribute to Glen Campbell, Stricklin said. Turns out that De Queen-born Raye has a tribute album to Delight-born Campbell due out this fall. So fans will get a double dose of Raye. He'll participate in a tribute to Campbell at 8:30 p.m., which will feature traditional country chanteuse Bonnie Montgomery and others, before playing his own set at 9:30 p.m.
The rest of the full day's line-up offers something for just about any musical taste: Russellville's Sound of the Mountain specializes in heavy, instrumental post-rock. Fayetteville's 1 Oz. Jig does jam-y funk. Messy Sparkles is a one-man band from Fayetteville, who uses a drum kit, samplers and peedals to create improvisatory electro pop. Epiphany, who the Times picked for its recent Visionary Arkansans issue, is one of the state's finest rappers; he'll be backed by his band Tomorrow Maybe. (On Saturday, he and local producer Ferocious will also be hosting two hip-hop songwriting and production workshops on the fourth level of the Main Library for kids ages 7 to 12 at 1 p.m. and for teens 13 and older at 2 p.m.) Little Rock's War Chief plays good-time rock 'n' roll. Mountain Sprout, partially based in Eureka Springs, is a self-described "highly energetic hillbilly music machine."
Stricklin and Miller both say they expect to expand the Arkansas Sounds footprint into more regular programming next year, after the library's Arcade Theater opens in the River Market.
Friday, River Market pavilions
6 p.m. The Smittle Band
7 p.m. Tav Falco & Panther Burns
8:30 p.m. Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks
Saturday, First Security Amphitheater
Noon: Sound of the Mountain
1 p.m.: The 1 Oz. Jig
2:15 p.m.: Messy Sparkles
3:30 p.m.: Epiphany and Tomorrow Maybe
4:45 p.m.: War Chief
6 p.m.: Mountain Sprout
7:15 p.m.: Bonnie Montgomery
8:30 p.m.: Glen Campbell Tribute
9:30 p.m.: Collin Raye