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A notch or two above the Magic Cropdusters and just a smidge higher than Elton and Betty White, Jim Mize sits precariously atop our running list of criminally unknown Arkansas musicians. Which is to say there is some suggestion that, soon, the Conway musician will be more widely known, but for now he’s fairly anonymous.
Well, maybe not anonymous. His latest album, “Release It to the Sky,” came out just shy of three months ago on Fat Possum, one of the biggest indie labels in the business. Tied up around the time of the release with higher-profile projects, the label just did a belated PR push, and Mize will officially celebrate the CD’s release with a concert Saturday at the Oyster Bar. (Still, in an unknown side of the ledger, at least at press time, you couldn’t get a copy of the album anywhere in Central Arkansas or on Amazon. Only Hastings in Conway and iTunes had it for sale.)
If the universe were aligned, Mize already would be part of the canon, a songwriter revered and quoted far and wide. Audiences everywhere would know his deeply soulful, blues-tinged, honky-tonk-infused rock ’n’ roll note for note — every slide riff and every lyric, even those hidden deep within his thick, gravelly drawl and creative pronunciations.
Instead, he’s a claims agent for Farm Bureau. For the last 26 years, Mize has traveled the region estimating fire and water damage to farms, homes and small commercial properties. (Like Oscar Wilde said, “It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.”) He’s followed in the wake of nine hurricanes, while working from Clarendon, Marianna, Pine Bluff and now, for a good while, from Little Rock. He says he took the job after he graduated from UCA because Farm Bureau offered a new car.
The local music scene usually fits neatly into two categories — those plugging away in hopes of getting famous, or even making a living, and those who’ve wrestled with those hopes in years past but have since resigned themselves to families and local bands with limited aspirations.
Age seems to be the main variable between groups: You give it a go, get jaded and pull out to settle down a bit. Mize’s three bandmates — Dave Hoffpauir, Jason Weinheimer and Charles Wyrick, all in their 30s — followed the former path with their bands Stella, Ho-Hum and the Boondogs, respectively. But Mize, who’s in his 50s, appears to be taking an inverse route. He’s looking toward retirement in eight years, when he says he’ll be able to do music closer to full time.
Even though music has never been completely in the foreground, it is something Mize says he’s always loved. No one in his family played an instrument, as far as he can remember. He guesses he must’ve gotten the bug while in the womb, when his parents were partying hard and listening to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Mize grew up playing guitar, idolizing Johnny Cash. When he was in the ninth grade, he dropped out and moved to Levy. Compelled to see more of the world, when he was 16 and the Vietnam War was tailing off, he lied about his age to enlist and was sent to a rural outpost in Germany. There, he played guitar and sang a little in a band with some Germans. They played a lot of oompahs and Waylon Jennings, Mize recalls matter-of-factly.
When he returned home, finished college and started moving throughout eastern Arkansas, Mize says he struggled to find a place to live, much less a band to play in. In Pine Bluff, the best he could do was a Carpenters cover group. Fed up, he sold his electric equipment, bought a dobro and started going to Mountain View on weekends to play bluegrass. The strictures of that culture proved too confining, however, so after a move to Conway, Mize went electric again and started working a loop of six VFW clubs. He says he’d do ’80s covers until the crowd got good and drunk before slipping in some wild Hound Dog Taylor slide action.
Through his friend Dale Beavers (who’s recorded with Dale Hawkins and Kenny Brown), Mize ended up recording in Water Valley, Miss., with Bruce Watson of Fat Possum. Blue Mountain, the seminal Oxford-based roots rockers, happened to be in the studio during one of Mize’s sessions and latched on to his song “Let’s Go Running,” which starts off memorably with the line, “Your mother’s dead/still worth flowers around her head.” Blue Mountain included the song on their 1995 album “Dog Days,” which Mize says inspired him to entertain professional songwriting. “Give me a little beer and sitting on my back porch, hell, man, I might come up with another one,” he says of his thoughts back then, before breaking into a quick wheezy laugh.
Again through Beavers, Mize took a break from recording to play a round of festival dates with Pine Bluff blues legend CeDell Davis, most notably backing up Davis at the W.C. Handy Awards. Other brushes with fame, at least of a particular Southern variety: He lucked into sitting in with Junior Kimbrough at his juke joint in Holly Springs, Miss., and hung out with Hazel Atkins in Water Valley while he cooked his beer and ate frozen hamburgers.
“No Tell Motel,” his debut, didn’t come out until 2001. Blue Mountain’s Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt backed him up on a good deal of it. Mize says almost dismissively today that it’s kind of “raw,” and it is, but the shambolic energy of the music meshes well with Mize’s gravelly wail — beaten and battered, but capable of great swoops of brightness.
Then there’s the songwriting. There’s a simple, plainspoken brilliance to it. Mize’s drummer Dave Hoffpauir likens Mize to Southern literature heroes like Barry Hannah and Harry Crews. “These characters that Jim creates in these songs, they’re guys you know in small towns. You could go to Oxford, or any of these little towns that Jim frequents, and find these guys.”
Mize says he’s always writing, always tinkering. “With all that windshield time [on the job], it’s kind of like taking a phone out and plugging one in,” he says. “I don’t write too much down. I figure if you can remember it, it’s more worth keeping. In other words, it’s got to be simple enough to where I can remember it and sing it. I’m not talking about some damn stupid words, like five syllables. Simple songs are the best.”
“Release It to the Sky,” the new album, frames Mize’s lyrics in epic arrangements. There are genre workouts, like the two-stepping “Acadian Lullaby” that opens the album, and the lumbering blues of “Delta Land,” but most of the album is made up of huge, chill-bump inducing songs of American unease. You’d be hard-pressed to find a song that better captures the feel of post-Katrina than the woozy “After the Storm,” inspired undoubtedly by Mize’s repeat trips to the battered Gulf Coast for Farm Bureau. “Disappear in America” charts the promise of release across the miles of the U.S.: “Thunder, it hides as lightning/the sun rides the horizon/Once we get out of here/disappear in America,” Mize wails. “Promises We Keep,” the album’s highlight, rivals anything Springsteen’s ever written.
In large part, Mize’s relative anonymity surely stems from a lack of touring. When asked over beers recently at the Oyster Bar why he doesn’t tour more, Mize takes a few beats to think about it. “Ehhh, maybe I’m chickenshit,” he finally says, laughing. “I don’t know. I just keep my day-time job.”
“Surely, you’ve got all kinds of vacation time, though?” bassist Jason Weinheimer interjects.
“Yep,” Mize replies.
“Let’s go to Amsterdam!” Weinheimer says eagerly.
“Hey, man, I’m all for it,” Mize says.
It’s hard to know if he means it.