Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Once upon a time, Greg Spradlin had designs on becoming a rock star. He once told No Depression magazine that his former band, The Skeeterhawks, had "been sent to save rock 'n' roll."
Nowadays, Spradlin, 43, works as a consultant to non-profits, trading on years of experience as an upper-level manager for the Heifer International Foundation. He pops up on stage from time to time, stealing the show at Riverfest or playing a big-shot industry event. Ask local music nerds and they're liable to tell you that Spradlin's the best guitarist in the state. But for more than a decade now, he's been more of a nine-to-fiver than a rocker.
"I went through three failed record deals before I was 26," he says. "I got beat up and burned out pretty early."
So you'll excuse him if he can hardly believe his good fortune: Years after he'd decided, well, "fuck this," he finds himself fronting a band with guitar legend (and Spradlin's boyhood hero) David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and long-time Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas, who Tom Waits has called "one of the best rock drummers alive." How he got there is a story that sounds like a Greg Spradlin song: A whole lot of heartbreak and a whole lot of shouting that ends in, if not redemption, at least a well-earned hallelujah.
Spradlin has been playing music professionally since he was 14. While still in high school, he became a guitar mercenary for the honky-tonk bands in White and Cleburne counties. Word got around: If your guitar man fell out, there was a kid in Pangburn who already knew the pickup to all your songs. The gigs were rough — a teen-ager waltzing into grimy bars with grown men who showed up as much for the fighting as for the music. His parents made him take a pistol to gigs, just in case.
"I didn't think it was weird at the time," Spradlin says. "It never occurred to me that I might end up in a shootout."
Everyone agreed: This boy could play. These were hard-bitten and inglorious days for Spradlin — going to family-band rehearsals in creepy shacks in the boonies, playing "Sweet Home Alabama" in a Hawaiian shirt, entertaining town drunks. But let's not get off track. Spradlin is like a windup doll of redneck-Gothic memories and too-good-to-check stories; one whiskey in, he rattles off more material than could fit in these pages.
Point is, by the time he was 20, he was "hard and crusty," having spent every week of his life in dive bars, paying his dues well past the point of any reasonable return. He was playing one night at White Water Tavern when a fast-talking, long-haired guy approached him after the set.
"I'm from Arkansas and I live in L.A. now and I've got a deal with Warner Bros. and I want you to be in my band," the dude sputtered breathlessly. Figuring he was full of it, Spradlin gave him his number and forgot all about it.
But it turned out that this big talker was a guy named Bryson Jones from Newport who really did have a development deal with Warner Bros. What Jones didn't have was a band, or even an act. He had been in a hair-metal outfit that tried to make it in L.A. The band sucked, but a record-industry manager thought the charismatic Jones was cute. She hooked him up with an A&R guy, and in those heady days of fast-and-loose deals, that was all it took. The A&R man told Jones they didn't need any more metal acts. But Jones was from Arkansas and The Black Crowes were huge at the time, so how about a Southern-rock band? Why not?
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