Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
This year's Road Trip issue coincides with an election year, one that's rife with talk of "echo chambers" — various ways in which we, faced with a universe of choices about what to think and what to consume, create our own little comfort zones and snuggle up inside them with a heaping cup of ideas that look pretty much like our own. While that talk's often focused on the political sphere, the same might be said of our behavioral patterns when it comes to hearing music. In the spirit of burning rubber on the open road — and all the possibilities that are opened up when we veer from our well-worn paths — we've decided to highlight a few undersung and far-flung (at least for our Central Arkansas readers) spots to hear original music in Arkansas: a historic bar with a sordid past on the Arkansas-Texas line, a south Fayetteville upstart that pairs punk rock with fancy cocktails, a DIY labor of love that's become the hub of Russellville's creative scene, and a 1925 vaudeville theater that's staging some of the best bluegrass shows in the state.
Just across from the federal courthouse on Texarkana's town square, there's a reliable little dive called The Arrow Bar. It's the oldest bar in town and — thanks to Jase Bryant, who tends bar and books the music — it's been home to shows this year from the likes of Dirty Streets (Memphis), Mothership (Dallas) and Slow Season (Visalia, Calif.), as well as Central Arkansas regulars Stephen Neeper & the Wild Hearts, Adam Faucett, American Lions and Iron Tongue, all of whom played on The Arrow's boxy stage lined with a corrugated metal backsplash (pierced in its center to hold up a window unit air conditioner) and decked out with Razorback flags and stray cardboard cutouts of country singers Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. Stained glass lamps, vintage beer signs, strings of Christmas lights and a barrage of photos and memorabilia create a glow around the bar. A few steps up into another room, regulars gather around pool tables. The owners, Tony and Carolyn Couch, have been constructing an informal history of the place, mostly "lots of people saying they came in with their dad and ate hamburgers and drank a Coke." Built in 1938, the cavernous rock-and-mortar building with a showy, scalloped facade was home to the Rock House Liquor Store before that business moved across the street, and later, Alfredo's, an Italian restaurant. Carolyn Couch said the bar, which she and her husband purchased six years ago, once housed a brothel: "The rooms are still numbered, and the beds and sheets are all still up there." The patrons and employees of the brothel, she said, "came out the back and could walk across the building right to the bar, which was kind of handy." The business there these days is decidedly less sordid, but it's still a charming, low-key place to grab a pint after work or a drink on Margarita Wednesdays, and it is obviously beloved; the bar tends to fill up rapidly with servers and cooks when Texarkana's restaurants close their doors for the evening.
Russellville occupies a strange middle ground: It's got just enough going on that there's a substantial pool of musicians, but little enough going on that when it comes time for those musicians to book shows, they often have to take matters into their own hands. Such was the case when The Cavern was established a few years ago, a DIY music venue near the intersection of state Hwy. 7 and Main Street run by James Thurber and lovingly nicknamed "The Thurberdome." It's essentially a large concrete room with a floor-level stage area outfitted with the sort of vibrant lighting that makes the venue's performance photos instant Instagram material, even sans a filter. Larissa Gudino (Spirit Cuntz, formerly of Mr. Tad) noted that the venue's musical bent has shifted over the years — sometimes a punk space, sometimes leaning toward solo acoustic sets — and how a collaborative approach to the space developed. "There were a few of us playing there and booking shows [Forest Hittle, of Half Raptor and Pecan Sandy; William Blackart, Poor Ol' Uncle Fatty] and we'd just keep track of them on a dry erase board. We're making the switch, maybe, to Google Calendar, where everyone who practices or books shows there is an admin." Shows begin between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., and admissions are nearly always donation-based. "If we have a band visiting that's been on a really long tour, or just needs it, we'll do a $3 cover charge just to make sure they have some gas money," Gudino said, but added that there's a "pay-what-you-can" element to the cover charge. "We'd much rather have somebody actually physically present that cares about the music," even if it means one person's $10 donation balances things out for someone else whose larder's running a little lean. Because of the nature of the performance space, it's best to watch The Cavern's Facebook page for show announcements, or go to Twitter (@RsvlCavern).
Downtown Paragould probably isn't the first spot you'd think of if you had a mind to hip some out-of-state visitors on to Arkansas's music scene, but if your visitors are bluegrass fans, you might reconsider. Thanks to KASU-FM, 91.9, and its program director, Marty Scarbrough, who hosts a vibrant daily program called Arkansas Roots, Paragould is where you'll find the KASU Bluegrass Monday concert series, which is in its 14th year. The series attracts national bluegrass touring acts like The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, Monroe Crossing and The Peasall Sisters (of "O Brother, Where Art Thou" fame), drawing in regular crowds of 300 to 400 patrons. "The first Bluegrass Monday at Sheffield's [a Jonesboro restaurant] was in September 2002," Scarbrough said. "We had no idea what the response would be for that first show, but the restaurant was filled to capacity. Soon, we outgrew that venue, and we moved to a banquet hall in Paragould." The banquet hall went out of business, so in 2008 the concerts moved to the painstakingly restored 91-year-old Collins Theatre. A host of businesses in the area cover the overhead costs of production so that KASU — which does not generate revenue from the events — can pass donations directly to the performers. "During the show we literally 'pass the hat' through the audience collecting money, 100 percent of which is given to the performers. It is a unique arrangement, but it works for us and for the bands that come to play."
Formerly the Capitol Theater, the building had its grand opening in 1925, when it showed silent movies. Through the 1930s, it joined the Home Theater in Blytheville and the Empire Theater in Jonesboro as part of the vaudeville and Broadway show travel circuit. A remembrance from Orris F. Collins, the son of the Capitol's original manager John A. Collins, recalls performances from Edgar Bergen, Yodeling Jimmy Rodgers, Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Smiley Burnett, Cliff Edwards as Ukelele Ike, Lash LaRue and Johnny Downs and Mary Karnman, members of the original "Our Gang" series, a flood-relief show featuring Will Rogers, and the day that George White's show "Scandals" came to town, having been booted from a performance in Jackson, Miss., by the city's fathers, who deemed the show too risque.
Far south of the cultural and culinary boom that's transforming Bentonville and Bella Vista, South School Street in Fayetteville is home to time-honored venues like George's Majestic Lounge and JR's Lightbulb Club, as well as newer spots, notably Greenhouse Grille, the locally sourced restaurant run by Bryan Hembree and Jerrmy Gawthrop. The two are also champions of local music: They founded Fayetteville Roots Fest, which has grown from a one-day small-scale affair in 2010 to a four-day festival across multiple venues with headliners like Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark, John Prine, Fiona Apple and The Del McCoury Band, selling out tickets in short order. Nomads is a newcomer to the neighborhood, but it's also connected to an old Fayetteville mainstay — Clunk Records. Chris Selby, a DIY show promoter deservedly credited with raising the collective musical consciousness for a particular generation in Northwest Arkansas, launched what would become Clunk Music Hall in 1998, a venue that brought acts like Damien Jurado, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, The Shins and Wesley Willis to Fayetteville, and inspired the sort of loyalty that keeps the affiliated Clunk Records unicorn T-shirts in supply online, even though the venue closed its doors 14 years ago. Jeremey Brown, who renamed the spot The Music Hall, booked shows there until 2009, including sold-out shows from The Get Up Kids and All American Rejects, "where they played to, like, 30 people," before those bands began touring the large-venue circuits. After a stint in Australia, Brown returned to Fayetteville in 2012, and started looking for a new show venue. "I found the Nomads location after Tanglewood Branch Beer Co. had closed for business. The same week they closed, I took over the lease," Brown said. Nomads Music Lounge opened in January 2015, and Brown said he's done about 250 shows a year, including art receptions, stand-up comedy shows, farm-to-table dinners and live metal, punk, bluegrass, hip-hop and blues shows from Fayetteville area acts like Shawn James and the Shapeshifters, Iron Iris, Listener, High Lonesome, Witchsister, Brick Fields, Cutty Rye and Cosmic American, as well as some out-of-towners. Don't let the former gas station exterior fool you, either; Nomads is serving "hangover elk burgers" with avocado for its "Kegs n' Eggs" brunches; unusual brews, like Boulevard's Hibiscus Gose and Tropical Pale Ale; and craft cocktails, like the Sriracha raspberry margarita in the evening hours.
Get into the groove
Seven places in Arkansas to get your vinyl fix.
Arkansas Record & CD Exchange
North Little Rock
This warhorse of a record store looks like a pawnshop on the outside and a library on the inside, and librarian Bill Eginton has been at the helm since the shop opened in 1984. It's easily the most respected vinyl shop in the state, a place where the collection of new vinyl and the curator's prowess keep customers returning so frequently that many of them have earned nicknames from Eginton. 4212 MacArthur Drive, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Back Beat Music
Back Beat's heavy on the musical instruments — an appealing wall of beautiful guitars hangs on the wall for sale below a ceiling of vintage bass drums monogrammed with names of bygone bands. There's a collection of vinyl, though, along with a selection of compact record players waiting to liven up an Arkansas State University dorm room. 613 Southwest Drive, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.
Been Around Records & CDs
John Harris' shelved stockpile of used vinyl is dizzying, but then, he's been growing it since 1980. Perusing shelves can be a little slower going than flipping through horizontal racks, but if you can allow at least an hour or so to disappear into the used jazz collection, odds are good you could emerge with an out-of-print gem in your hands. 1216 S. University Ave., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Big Fish Vinyl Records & Uniques
A tiny newcomer on the scene, Big Fish packs a lot of vintage vinyl into a small space, accented by the metal Scooby Doo lunchboxes, happy face clocks and Nag Champa you'd find in a head shop, as well as some locally made knick-knacks. 310 W. Emma St., 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat.
Block Street Records
Wade Ogle, co-owner of JR's Lightbulb Club, knows his records, and as of 2014, that savvy's being put to use at the shop right next door to the club. The sky blue walls are lined with no-frills wooden racks loaded with pristine vintage albums and new releases from the likes of Angel Olsen, Bon Iver, Nick Cave and Nina Simone. The staff is just as on point, and they keep some vintage stereo equipment on hand, too. 17 N. Block St., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat., noon-6 p.m. Sun.
Pour Jon's Coffee & Vinyl
Modeled after a London pub, Pour Jon's has been "helping people avoid meaningless existence since 2011," according to the shop's owners. If you take your analog music with a lavender lemonade or a cup from Onyx Coffee Lab or Savoy Tea Co., this stylish little spot is just right. 223 N. Wright St., 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon-Fri., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
Pat Strachota's undersung little shop in Pine Bluff has an eclectic inventory: hookahs, biker apparel, vinyl, lingerie, swords, knives, incense, T-shirts and, occasionally, swimwear. It's been in business for over 40 years and has become a fraternity/sorority favorite in the Bluff. 2801 S. Olive St., Suite 36A, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
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