Mountain folk, Delta blues

Encyclopedia catalogs musical history of Arkansas

Mike Keckhaver and Ali Welky are the editors of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music, a project of the online reference Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

Arkansas has a rich music heritage that springs from the fertile soils of the Delta and stretches across the rolling hills of the Ozarks.

Yes, the Natural State has a lot of music and has produced many musical stars in just about every genre imaginable.

But is there such a thing as Arkansas music, an Arkansas “sound”?

“No,” says Mike Keckhaver, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music, published recently by Butler Center Books.

“We can’t say there is an Arkansas sound like the Chicago sound or the Memphis sound. But a lot of those musicians originally came from Arkansas.”

That includes bluesmen Son Seals and Bobby Rush, who found fame in Chicago’s blues scene, and soulful singer Al Green, who is, to many, the epitome of the Memphis sound.

And there are others with Arkansas connections who made an impact on American music and popular culture:country giants Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Glen Campbell; gospel’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe; ’40s bandleader Louis Jordan; classical composer William Grant Still; influential jazz musician Pharoah Sanders and more. Lots more.

Their stories and many others are told in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music, edited by Ali Welky and Keckhaver, staff members of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, part of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The book is distributed by the University of Arkansas Press.

Most of the music book’s material came from already written entries in the online encyclopedia.

“We looked at what we already had in music related entries and worked to fill in the gaps because we wanted to give as comprehensive a history as possible,” Welky says. “And some of the entries needed to be updated.”

The 242-page book, which sells for $34.95, has more than 150 entries on musicians, musical works and events unique to Arkansas. It took about a year to complete.

“I think people will be really surprised by the variety of sounds that come from Arkansas,” Keckhaver says. “It’s such a cornucopia of styles - everything from original Delta blues to strange rock and roll and an avant-garde cello player.”

The cellist is the late Little Rock-born Charlotte Moorman, who also was an avant-garde performance artist who was the founder of the New York Avant Garde Festival. Edgard Varese and Yoko Ono were among her friends and fans.

Arkansans’ music is, to say the least, diverse.

“Like the state itself, it is also very different, topically and geographically,” Keckhaver says. “We have the mountains in the north and the Delta in the south. Sharecroppers and the poor people have blues music, while those in the Ozarks have more of an Appalachian Mountains folk sound.”

Matt Mihalka, who teaches music history at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, agrees.

“The varying terrain has a part in the variety of musical styles in Arkansas, though its proximity to other major musical centers such as the Mississippi Delta and Memphis may also play a part.”

Mihalka’s contribution to the Encyclopedia was a piece on Ne-Yo, a popular R&B singer/songwriter and producer.

“There are quite a few popular musicians in a number of different genres with connections to Arkansas,” Mihalka says. “Cash may be the most famous, but fiddler ‘Eck’ Robertson, an earlier country musician, was also born in Arkansas and made one of the first country music recordings in 1922.”

Robertson had a hit with the much-recorded “The Arkansas Traveler.” His version was among the first 50 recordings named to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

The photographs on the book’s cover present state musicians’ variety: fiddle maker/musician Violet Brumley Hensley, bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, opera singer Barbara Hendricks, Johnny Cash, rockabilly musician Sleepy LaBeef and rocker Ben Nichols of the band Lucero.

The book’s introduction offers a history and overview of musical styles; it has an abundance of photographs and artwork. A state map pinpoints places with vital musical events and venues; an accompanying list cites some 50venues, clubs, organizations, record labels, museums and more, such as the Brockwell Gospel Music School in Izard County, the infamous Vapors club in Hot Springs, the Jimmy Driftwood Barn in Mountain View and the Silver Moon Club in Newport.

The bulk of the book is the alphabetized entries of musicians and events, which are color-coded according to musical style.

Inside you can learn more about the late Levon Helm, the drummer and vocalist with The Band; the sludge/ doom metal band Rwake, based in Little Rock, which has an international fan base and has performed at major festivals in Europe; and the bazooka, a novelty wind instrument created by Arkansas native Bob Burns, a radio and film personality. Burns described the instrument’s inspiration - blowing through a gas pipe at a plumbing store in 1905 - as sounding like a “wounded moose.” By 1920, he copyrighted the name “bazooka” for his instrument, described in the Encyclopedia as making a sound “between a trombone and a slide whistle.”

Another unique story in the state’s musical history is the work of Conlon Nancarrow, who was “best known for his compositions for player piano, many of which were so complex that they would have been impossible for live pianists to play,” Mihalka says.

Keckhaver says the book fills a unique need.

“Unlike the [online] encyclopedia, this is something you can hold in your hand, thumb through and have a fun experience flipping through it.”

For him, a highlight of working on the book was photographing noted jazz saxophonist and Little Rock native Pharoah Sanders earlier this year.

“He one of the last of the major jazz cats left alive; he’s in his early 80s now,” Keckhaver says. “He’s such a phenomenal player and has such a singular style.”

Keckhaver’s other photographs in the book include Ruby Starr of Black Oak Arkansas, which he took in 1976 when she lived across the street from him, and the cover photographs of SleepyLaBeef and Ben Nichols of Lucero.

Welky says she enjoyed corresponding with Schoohouse Rock! creator Bob Dorough.

“He was a lot of fun,” she says. “His energetic personality really came across. And I got to tell my kids I’d been emailing with the author of Schoolhouse Rock! and they thought that was pretty cool.”

The editors had their challenges.

“There were a lot of song titles and different things that had to be checked and referenced,” Welky says. “For example, Booker T. and the MGs - does it have periods after the T, M and G or not? You will see it listed one way on one album and a different way on another.”

Keckhaver and Welky settled on a period after the T but not after the M or G.

Sonny Boy Williamson also was problematic.

“Blues musicians often lie about their age and where they were born and change their names,” Welky says. “And it turns out there were two Sonny Boy Williamsons. The Arkansas Sonny Boy Williamson was sometimes called Sonny Boy Williamson II even though that wasn’t his name. His real name was Aleck Miller and he was sometimes called Rice. This Williamson was most likely born in 1912 in Glendora, Miss., to Millie Ford and took his stepfather Jim Miller’s surname.” Other names Williamson used include Reverend Blue, Willie Williamson and Willie Miller. He became Sonny Boy Williamson on the Helena radio show King Biscuit Time. The other Sonny Boy Williamson was a harmonica player from Tennessee.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music is the work of 97 writers on more than 150 entries.

“It really was a group effort,” Welky says, one that extended to the photos.

“We gathered photographs from different archives - the Butler Center, the Arkansas History Commission and the Old State House,” she says. “People in the Arkansas history community are very generous in sharing their resources.”

Yes, the state has produced many a star, but Arkansas’ impact goes deeper and, sometimes, in unexpected directions.

“We’re glad [these musicians] were born in Arkansas or are important to Arkansas and we’ll happily claim them all,” Welky says.

Style, Pages 49 on 10/20/2013