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.
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