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CALS hosts a tribute to Sonny Burgess.

click to enlarge ARKANSAS WILD MAN: The Legendary Pacers pay tribute to their longtime frontman, the late Sonny Burgess, at CALS' Ron Robinson Theater Friday night. - NATHAN WILLIS
  • Nathan Willis
  • ARKANSAS WILD MAN: The Legendary Pacers pay tribute to their longtime frontman, the late Sonny Burgess, at CALS' Ron Robinson Theater Friday night.

Not all rock stars die young. In 2016, a white frosted sheet cake was decorated with tiny 16th-note figures and the lyrics to Salt-N-Pepa's "What a Man" in honor of the 87th birthday of "The International Godfather of Rockabilly," Sonny Burgess. The man whose stage antics made Elvis' hip swivels feel like milquetoast by comparison was, by this time, a warm but reticent octogenarian — a rocker who never missed a show and who put in time on the treadmill at Advanced Physical Therapy in his hometown of Newport to make sure all those biological trains ran on time for "We Wanna Boogie." Filmmaker Nathan Willis spent a good amount of time with Sonny Burgess during Burgess' final years — the musician died last year — and the resulting documentary, "The Arkansas Wild Man," will be screened at Central Arkansas Library System's Ron Robinson Theater at 7 p.m. Friday, May 18, as part of the Arkansas Sounds series. Afterward, Burgess' longtime bandmates and companions, The Legendary Pacers, will perform. We talked with Willis ahead of the tribute.

There's a fantastic bit in your short film "The Arkansas Wild Man" in which W.S. Holland, Johnny Cash's longtime drummer, talks about how wild Sonny Burgess was in the 1950s, recalling the way he used to do "mosh pit dives" before the term "mosh pit" existed. When Sonny died last August, The New York Times quoted from Colin Escott's book "Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway: Art and Trash in American Popular Music," saying Sonny was "punk before punk, thrash before thrash." How did this sort of stuff escape the headlines while Elvis' moves were the stuff of scandal?

I was in awe anytime someone spoke about how wild Sonny used to get in his shows. It's really fun for me to imagine Sonny jumping into the crowd with his guitar, since I only first met him when he was in his 80s and slowing down. I wish there were footage of some of those early shows, but I was never able to find any, so the images of the true "Arkansas Wild Man" will have to live in the memories of those who saw it — and the imaginations of people like me.

There is this sort of surreal (and maybe sad) dimension to seeing the pioneers of that spirit playing in these run-down halls on domestic soil, with makeshift posters taped to the front of the stage, and then getting this revered treatment in the U.K. How did you grapple with that — with ideas about empathy and dignity toward your film subjects — when you were making this?

This is a great question. This was one of the primary motivators of me making this film. When I told most people in Arkansas I was making a documentary about Sonny Burgess, they'd look at me with a confused look. I had never heard of him and most Arkansans I talked to had never heard of him, either. As I learned about the way his European fans revered him, I knew I had to see it for myself, since it is such a contrast to people from his home state.

There's an entire generation of lost stories from the early years of rock 'n' roll. Many of the musicians from that generation have passed away. Most of the dance halls have been torn down. Many of the film and audio recordings no longer exist. It was why I thought it was important to tell Sonny's story while I could.

While most of Sonny's American shows in his later years were in smaller dance halls, I think even these smaller shows are what kept him going for as long as he went. For me, as an artist, it was inspiring. If people are still willing to pay me to create my art at the age of 80, I'll count myself extremely lucky.

There's a little bit of irony in his nickname, which you take as a title here, "Arkansas Wild Man," because the Sonny we see under your lens is this subdued, modest man — one who shies away from showboating about his impact and his success. In the film, he does mundane things. He yawns. He pumps gas. He exercises. Was it difficult to get him to open up for this film?

Sonny was very closed off at first. It took a while to get him to open up to me, but I think once he learned I was interested enough in him to travel to England with him on my own dime, he realized I wasn't in this for any other reason than to tell his story in a way that hadn't been told before. There are still so many questions I wish I could have asked him.

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