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For being a relatively small state, Arkansas can boast several quality music festivals, including the long-running King Biscuit Blues Festival and the burgeoning Johnny Cash Music Festival, both of which are coming up the first weekend in October.
This weekend sees the inauguration of Arkansas Sounds, a festival that sets itself apart from the rest by showcasing the music of the Natural State. The festival, organized by the Central Arkansas Library System's Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, takes place Friday and Saturday at the Riverfest Amphitheatre, Main Library and the River Market Pavilions.
The festival was CALS Director Bobby Roberts' idea, said David Stricklin, head of the Butler Center. "[Roberts] really made it very clear that he wasn't much interested in another music festival in Arkansas — there are some great ones already — but he wanted a music festival about Arkansas music," Stricklin said.
Sure, Arkansas's musical heritage might not compete with the likes of some of its neighboring states, particularly Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas.
But there's still plenty to celebrate. Some of the finest and best-known musicians of the last century were either born in Arkansas or called the state home at some point in their lives. Times readers can probably rattle off a list of the familiar names: Johnny Cash, Al Green, Levon Helm, Louis Jordan, Sonny Boy Williamson, Glen Campbell, Big Bill Broonzy, Lefty Frizzell, Pharoah Sanders, Robert Lockwood, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Hawkins and Jimmy Driftwood, among many others. And there are also the many young and up-and-coming, several of whom will be performing this weekend.
John Miller, coordinator for Arkansas Sounds, said he has been contacted by scores of musicians since word got out about the festival. "I had people hand me stuff at gigs when they'd run into me, I had people mail me stuff completely unsolicited," Miller said.
The Butler Center first announced the festival and Miller's hiring in March, giving Miller less time to book acts than more established annual events.
"As far as the lineup, there were some people that we tried to get that we couldn't because of scheduling issues," he said. "Next year will be a little bit different. We'll have a little bit more time. By the time we got to the point where we could make offers and talk to people, a lot of people were already booked up for the summer and fall."
In a sad turn of events, two of the artists Miller was working on bringing in died. Levon Helm and Michael Burks had both expressed interest in performing, Miller said. But Helm succumbed to cancer in April and Burks died suddenly in May after returning from Europe. On Saturday, there will be a tribute performance to both of the late musicians. Honoring the state's late musical legends is something that will likely become a regular feature of Arkansas Sounds.
When it comes to qualifying "Arkansas music," Miller and the other organizers take a fairly loose approach over any sort of rigid, hard-and-fast rules. It could be someone who played alongside a notable Arkansas musician or someone with a strong personal connection to the state. Texas singer/songwriter Hayes Carll, who attended college in Arkansas, was one example Miller mentioned.
Attendance will be a measure of success for this Arkansas Sounds, Miller said. But in terms of interest from musicians, next year's festival is already a success, Miller said. "I've got some irons in the fire that I'm not ready to talk about yet, but if one or two of them happen, it's going to be a really awesome year next year."
Admission is free and there will be food trucks and other vendors on site offering beer, soft drinks and snacks. There will be cash machines on hand, and drink tickets for beverage purchases. All beverage proceeds will be used to pay the bands, Miller said. Attendees can bring chairs and blankets, but no coolers or outside food or drinks.
All events at River Market Pavilions
5 p.m. — Amasa Hines
6 p.m. — Sleepy LaBeef
7 p.m. — Tyrannosaurus Chicken
8 p.m. — Black Oak Arkansas
All events at Riverfest Amphitheatre, except as noted
10 a.m. — Peppersauce Alley
10:30 a.m. — Lela Bloom Music & Books, Main Library
11 a.m. — Runaway Planet
Noon — The See
1 p.m. — Sonny Burgess and The Legendary Pacers
2 p.m. — The Salty Dogs
2 p.m. — Celina Bree Teen Concert, Main Library
3 p.m. — Billy Jones Bluez
3 p.m. — Shamrock Strings Concert, Main Library
4 p.m. — Rodney Block & The Real Music Lovers
5 p.m. — Shannon Boshears Band
6 p.m. — Velvet Kente
7 p.m. — The Cate Brothers
8 p.m. — Tribute to Levon Helm and Michael Burks
9:30 p.m. — Lucero