Our scene could be your life 

How underground music in Little Rock went national.


The recipe for the underground music scene in Little Rock in the late ’80s and early ’90s wasn’t unique. You can just about close your eyes and point on a map and find a natural confluence of boredom, repression and teen-agers. Throw in a couple guitars, a cheap amp or two and a hand-me-down drum kit and you’re well on your way to ready-made punk-rockers. Still, as a new documentary suggests, what emerged in Little Rock was somehow different.

For starters, teen-aged Little Rock punks made cookies and held garage sales. In the summer of 1992, dozens rallied together to raise money, in remarkably wholesome ways, to put out “Towncraft,” a vinyl compilation that aimed to capture the spirit of the Little Rock scene. Copies found their way across the country. Maximum RocknRoll, the influential national punk-zine, put the compilation in a top 10 list. Rumors floated in about seeing people with tattoos of these teen-agers’ bands’ names. College radio stations put the album in rotation. And high school bands started touring. It was arguably the apex of the scene.

“People felt that they were part of something that was special,” says filmmaker Richard Matson, “and they knew at the time, even as 17- or 18-year-olds, that they what they were doing was different and it meant a lot.”

The president of Matson Films, a New York-based production and distribution company, Matson grew up a part of the early-’90s Little Rock scene as the self-confessed “weak link in a lot of good bands.”

After more than a dozen years away from Little Rock, he returned last year to shoot a documentary on the 5-year anniversary of Max Recordings, the local label run by his longtime friend, Burt Taggart. But shortly after he got to town, he says he realized that the roots of the Max story were the story.

The resulting documentary, also called “Towncraft,” captures the scene with the kind of breadth usually reserved for a Ken Burns documentary. Over the course of six months, Matson interviewed 115 people (full disclosure: I was one of them). Coupled with archival material, the footage amounted to some 190 hours. Add in 2,500 pictures, and you’ve got a near defining portrait of the era.

Just from a cultural history perspective, there are dozens of fascinating nuggets. There’s Mel Hanks earnestly reporting on “How to be a Rock Star” (a three-part series!) —“You don’t have to have a big-time recording studio and be over 30 to make music. You can do it after school, homegrown.” There’s archival footage of “the first big local punk show” held at an unlikely locale, the downtown Woman’s City Club. Even better, Matson culls footage and photos of a punk show/birthday party for Jim Guy Tucker’s daughter that was held in the backyard of the Governor’s Mansion. Neighbors called the police to shut it down.

And for any local music fiend, the film includes the origins and feats and music of dozens of seminal Little Rock bands — Econochrist, Trusty, Chino Horde, Hatful Day, Soophie Nun Squad, the Big Cats, the American Princes.

But more than that, “Towncraft” captures the zeitgeist of the day, the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) ethic that was so elemental to the punk movement everywhere, but that Little Rockers embraced with staggering tenacity.

“As soon as things did start happening, there was this feeling that, ‘We have to work really hard to keep this going,’ ” says Matson.




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