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2017 Best of Arkansas editors' picks 

Pie, dog-chasing-geese watching, wrecked groceries, etc.

click to enlarge BOW AND BRIDGE: Violist Joe Joyner, owner of the Little Rock Violin Shop, directs the preparation of a row of repaired and restored violins for sale online.
  • BOW AND BRIDGE: Violist Joe Joyner, owner of the Little Rock Violin Shop, directs the preparation of a row of repaired and restored violins for sale online.

Best place to get up close and personal with a pegbox

"Rachel, are these all done? Are you working your way down?"

Joe Joyner, violist and owner of the Little Rock Violin Shop, stands behind a row of violins, each instrument sitting on its side, like dominoes, atop a workbench. Rachel Herman, the shop's bookkeeper and sales associate (and an award-winning violinist), is photographing one violin after another as part of the shop's move to offer an increased inventory of restored and repaired violins for sale online. One of the shop dogs — two chocolate long-haired dachshunds named Truffles and Omobono, the latter of whom takes his name from the son of a famous Italian violinmaker, Antonio Stradivari — barks, sensing that the attention has shifted away from him.

At first glance, even for someone who's spent time around orchestras, the violins all look pretty much the same. If you stare at the row long enough, though, variations emerge. One's a muted amber color; another a ruddy orange. A few have pristine, hard candy complexions, others have been around the sun a few more times. Each instrument contains around 80 pieces of hand-carved wood, and a few of the older models have begun to deepen and mature, as organic materials are wont to do. On those models, there's a warmer complexity to the wood, and despite an expert restoration — a replaced chinrest, a new bridge — a couple of them look like they've been around long enough to have a few good stories.

Joyner and his team do much of their business renting instruments, giving lessons and setting beginners up for a trouble-free first year, but old instruments are their passion. "Every instrument has its own story to tell," the shop's website reads, "from the fabled histories of the craftsmen who made them to the remarkable journeys of the musicians, collectors and restorers who have preserved them over the past four centuries. At LRVS we recognize our role as temporary caretakers for these tools of art whose useful life may well exceed our own."

One such temporary caretaker, Josh Wheeler (another accomplished violinist), is seated at another workbench along the shop's perimeter, violin in hand. Like Joyner, he's wearing a heavy canvas apron, and the workspace he's hunched over is lined with at least a dozen plastic bottles, stacks of small cylindrical vials and an assortment of small hand tools. Overhead, violins hang from a rack as if they were pots and pans, and a pegboard lining the wall is equipped with paper merchandise tags, bridges of various sizes and tiny drawers full of tuning pegs and screws.

Joyner picks up a violin that Wheeler restored a year or so ago. "For this one, we took it apart. It was a major restoration. It's from the 1820s, 1830s, probably." It's priced at $6,500. "With a lot of older instruments, you can't really attribute it to a specific maker. The really nice instruments — the old Italian ones that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — they spend a lot of time and effort to figure out exactly who made it." I ask about the frequency of forgeries, instruments meant to pass as an Italian rarity, worthy of a pedestal and glass case in a museum somewhere. "Absolutely," he said. "That happens, and they're not always intending to pass instruments off as fakes." He tells a story about a violinmaker in England ("one of the best in the world," Joyner says) who used an Italian antique to make what's called a "bench copy" — a replica of a treasured original made with the original instrument present, or, in violinmaker parlance, "on the bench." Once in the hands of a new owner, the violin was passed off as the genuine article and picked up by a big-name auction house, making it to the cover of the house's auction catalog before the violinmaker, seeing it, recognized his own work and called foul.

In the violin world, questions of authenticity are ever-present — and maddeningly subjective. "There are makers today that are every bit as good as Stradivarius," Joyner said. "But their instruments aren't 300 years old. They don't have these fabled histories and they don't inspire players the way playing a 300-year-old instrument does." Blind and double-blind studies tend to support what Joyner says about living violinmakers: Most often, new violins aren't distinguishable or preferred overwhelmingly to those crafted by the old masters.

Joyner should know. He's heard a lot of violins since 1998, when he began playing viola with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. After those first two seasons, Joyner headed for school in Houston, where he played with Orchestra X, the Texas Music Festival Orchestra and the Victoria Symphony. Before returning to Little Rock in 2007, Joyner attended the Bow Making School of America in Salt Lake City, where he honed the skills he'd use to start up his workbench operation the Little Rock Bow Shop, now the much more comprehensive (and tenured) LRVS.

When it comes to his own choice of instrument, Joyner's put his trust in the shop's own luthier, Wesley Rule. Rule makes his home in El Paso (White County), and is in the shop Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Like many luthiers, Rule uses measurements from the old Italian masters to make new ones. For Joyner's instrument, Rule used a pattern based on a viola by the Brothers Amati, two famous luthiers from late 16th century Cremona. "Brothers Amati violas are always my favorite violas to play on. I love the way they sound, so I commissioned him to make one." SS

The Little Rock Violin Shop is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, visit littlerockviolinshop.com.

Best conspiracy theory

Courtesy of Turnt Woolridge on Twitter (@twooldridge):

"2006: Houston Nutt is forced to hire Gus Malzahn in order to land Mitch Mustain. Nutt resents it, treats Malzahn badly. Malzahn leaves.

2007: In large part due to outrage over Nutt's treatment of Mustain/Malzahn, a message board FOIAs phone records that help take Nutt down.

2011: Freeze coaches ASU for one year, leaving for Ole Miss to replace fired Nutt, and getting replaced by none other than Gus Malzahn.

2017: Nutt gets Freeze fired using the same message board tactics that got him fired, which were precipitated by his treatment of Malzahn.

If Mitch Mustain hadn't decommitted from his first commitment to Arkansas, none of this would have happened."

Best pie

Everyone knows (or should) that Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village is an essential stop en route to New Orleans or the Redneck Riviera for Delta-style tamales, but don't forget pie. Rhoda's half-and-half pecan and sweet potato pie is unrivaled. The secret ingredient, I suspect, is 20 sticks of butter. Or scoops and scoops of lard. Or something else bad for you. But how can a pie so good you dream about it be bad for you? LM

Best place to see a border collie run after geese

There's a big, white bird. I've been told it is a goose but it looks to me like a swan. It hangs around MacArthur Park, near the pond. This bird is an asshole. Whenever I go running in the park and come anywhere near it, the goose-creature-thing makes eye contact, turns up its ugly face, and charges me. I run away scared. While fleeing, the lack of support from any of the other geese always pisses me off. I never get an "I'm sorry for my friend doing that" or "Oh man, the goose-swan is such a jerk, it's actually just working out its own insecurities." These other geese enable the swan-goose by milling about in total silence near the water or pooping in the grass. Their silence damns them, too. Why can't we both enjoy the park, geese? You poop; I run and step in your poop. That's harmony! There does not have to be a conflict! But, there is. So, I called the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department to learn more about my enemies, to hopefully bridge the gap even. I was only disheartened. I learn these are "resident geese." They do not migrate, sticking around the area for the entire year. This is their turf and they are not going to adjust to me. Attempts to relocate them have gone poorly, too — a rope around the pond and flashing yellow lights at night both failed. What to do then? (And, no, I am not anti-goose enough to advocate for the idea of hunting them as was proposed a few years back). But, there is a light in the darkness. "Her name is Jill," Eric Bowden, assistant facilities supervisor for Rebsamen Golf Course tells me. Jill is a border collie that runs after these geese. The geese fly away when they see Jill (safely to another spot where they can relax). "She's a certified goose dog," Bowden told me and "very effective." The geese are scared of Jill because, to them, she has "got that fox look" and so when they land they think it's a predator but it's just Jill and "a scare tactic," Bowden said. No harm to the geese. He also explained to me how the whole geese-clearing process works, he said, "If we see geese, we get her out." Here are some perks of being Jill: She has an AC kennel, she has a steady job with good benefits and she is a hero that runs after the damn geese. Go be a certified goose dog watcher and check out Jill at Rebsamen Golf Course. JR

click to enlarge A BEST, FROM WHITE COUNTY: Singer Beth Ditto, a native of Judsonia and now under the influence of Bobbie Gentry.
  • A BEST, FROM WHITE COUNTY: Singer Beth Ditto, a native of Judsonia and now under the influence of Bobbie Gentry.

Best summer jams from a White County native you haven't heard

In this age of music on demand, does a song of summer have to be one that you can't escape, that soundtracks every visit to the pool or roller rink or snow cone stand? Can't you simply decide on your own song of the summer in the comfort of your headphones at work? Of course! In that spirit, consider the new solo record from Judsonia native Beth Ditto, "Fake Sugar," especially the first half of it — tracks 1 through 6 could all be on your S.O.S shortlist. Ditto, who led the now defunct pop-punk band Gossip for more than a decade, has a voice as big as anyone this side of Adele, but until now, it's mostly been used in a kind of agro blues belt. On "Fake Sugar," the arrangements are stripped down and poppy, leaving plenty of room for Ditto to offer up the full range of her vocals. In an interview with Rolling Stone, she name-checked Bobbie Gentry as an influence on the album, and listening to Ditto's Southern-accented riffs on the title track, with lines like "hambone, hambone, where you been," does make me daydream about the possibility of a self-described queer, feminist, fat girl from White County becoming a country pop radio darling. LM

click to enlarge cover_story2-3-ed5384dc74ecacfa.jpg

Best summer jams from a White County native you haven't heard, part II

"Hopelessness is a catchy tune we can't get out of our head," Isaac Alexander sings on "Silver Line," one of the many summer bummery pop gems on his new album, "Like a Sinking Stone." Alexander, a Searcy native who lives in Little Rock, has been making music prolifically since he was a teenager (Screaming Mimes, Big Silver, The Easys, The Boondogs, Greers Ferry), but he's slowed down in recent years as he's been putting out solo records. This is his first record in five years. It's sonically and lyrically of a piece of his previous two highly recommended releases, "Antivenin Suite" (2012) and "See Thru Me" (2008): Like those albums, he recorded it in Nashville with Joe McMahan (Luella and the Sun) and other ace session musicians, and he's still writing about the sort of things all of us in middle age obsess over: love, fate, faith, identity, death, boredom. It's dark in spots, but Alexander has a warm sense of humor and an unwavering commitment to melody — the record sticks to you. LM

Best place for weird pantry supplies

Smoked paprika is some next-level stuff, and they don't carry it at my neighborhood Kroger. For that — or for beeswax, or mosquito-repellent citronella essential oil, I need to plant myself just downhill from Professor Bowl on Reservoir Road, squarely between Natural Grocers and Drug Emporium No. 240. Between these two businesses, you could score a giant vat of sunflower oil, soy-based meat substitutes you thought went out of print, a few dozen types of flour, bulk spices like cumin and chili powder, and tempeh that tastes like bacon. And, if you're so inclined, you can choose from a dizzying collection of knock-off designer fragrances the likes of which have not been seen since "Electric Youth" came out. SS

click to enlarge VROOM: Autocross around Arkansas. - COURTESY JORDAN LITTLE
  • Courtesy Jordan Little
  • VROOM: Autocross around Arkansas.

Best place to go if you have a need for speed

The heat off the pavement melts the horizon as tires scream for their lives, forced by the mountainous fury of an 8.4-liter V10. Dozens of bright orange traffic cones denote a winding track. Drivers from all across the region are competing to complete the fastest lap ... in the parking lot of War Memorial Stadium. Welcome to Autocross. The ARSCCA (Arkansas Sports Car Club of America) has been putting on Autocross events for years and have held races at War Memorial, Blytheville Aeroplex, Walnut Ridge and other locations featuring large swaths of flat asphalt. The concept is simple: Make your way through a cone track in as little time as possible. The rules are a bit more complex, however. Cars are inspected and placed into designated classes based on their performance from the factory as well as any modifications installed by the owner. If you're thinking your family sedan isn't fit to make the cut, that's all right. Motorheads of all ages can have a blast at Autocross events even as spectators. If you ask nicely, most of the drivers are happy to oblige a ride-along for those enthusiastic about speed. Stay tuned to arscca.org for scheduling or head up to War Memorial on Aug. 19 for the next event in Little Rock. JL

Best thrifting

The Goodwill store at 16924 Cantrell Road in Little Rock, a.k.a The Good Goodwill (as opposed to The Badwill on Markham), where wage slaves like you and me can pick up McMansionite castoffs galore, including designer clothes, shoes, decent furniture, solid sports equipment and housewares. It's a bit of a haul out there from downtown, but there's always a better class of junk to be had at The Good Goodwill than the stuff at your average thrift store, and all just as cheap as you'd expect. DK

Best gastronomic Everest

That would be the "Free Steak" at Brangus Steakhouse in Russellville, a mammoth 4-pound hunk of choice sirloin, which is yours free if you are able to move it from the table to inside your body in less than one hour. Sadly, you have to bring your own wheelbarrow to have yourself hauled out, groaning. The big 'un does come with two side orders and toast, though, in case you really want to tie one on. If you don't summit Mount Beef in under 60 minutes, no worries: The Free Steak becomes a $60 steak (which, come to think of it, is actually a dang good bargain for a pound of sirloin per person if you want to split that sucker with four friends). Check out their full menu at facebook.com/BrangusSteak/menu. DK

Best place to buy semi-questionable grub

When a truck hauling food crashes, the insurance company pays off. It would be a little crazy to throw all that food out, though, which is where Wild West Salvage Grocery, at 215 S. Redmond Road in Jacksonville comes in. The fare changes every week and varies by quality (and expiration date... keep an eye on that), but recent offerings in their store (photos at facebook.com/wildwestsalvagegrocery) include cans of Diet Coke 10 for a buck, jars of Heinz chicken gravy two for a dollar, five- pound bags of fully cooked and frozen popcorn chicken for $6.99, five-pound bags of raw catfish fillets for $9.98, plus grocery-store sized cases of name brand candy, orange juice, Starbucks drinks, Gatorade and more for prices that fairly scream: "Why you cheap, cheap bastard!" Yeah, you have to be a little adventurous to shop there, so if all this skeezes you out a bit, pass on by and head to the boring old grocery store, you wastrel. If you're looking for a deal, though, it's an option. DK

Best beach within reach

While we all wish we could teleport to the white sands of the Redneck Riviera down in Florida whenever we want, that day has not yet come. Until then, you can placate yourself with some of the sand beaches available on various lakes around the state. It's definitely better than nothing. Though the long, curving beach at DeGray Lake Resort State Park has been our go-to for several years, it can get a bit crowded on weekends. Our secret fallback is the little beach at Crystal Springs Campground, just off Highway 270 west of Hot Springs. Quiet, secluded, situated on a broad, clear, spring-fed inlet a good ways off the main body of the lake, it's all a bit rustic, but features a combination bathroom and changing house, built-in charcoal grills, a playground for the kiddies and — most importantly — a clean sand beach under the shade trees. The ocean it ain't, but if you're looking for a place to do some swimming, lounging and drinking on the sand, it'll do in a pinch. DK



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