Arkansas is a strange little state and my home. We constantly rank in the top five for bad things like obesity, teen pregnancy, high school drop outs, poor health care, and poverty. Any outsider might think we were a lowly and pathetic place. What they don’t know about Arkansas is it is an absolutely gorgeous and lush state, it’s also a ridiculously friendly place. Though poor, Arkansas is, per capita, one of the most generous states in America.
But it’s the musical side of Arkansas that always strikes me as most remarkable. We have a population of less than 3 million still the list of famous musicians, singers and songwriters is so stunning. This morning I spent an hour doing research (something you know I rarely do, generally my big fat opinion is enough for me). I made a list of the musicians I like who came from my lovely emerald green state.
The List: Sonny Burgess, Howlin’ Wolf, Al Bell, James Cotton, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Driftwood (he wrote Tennessee Stud and The Battle of New Orleans because he was a high school teacher and he wanted to help his students understand a history class),Ronnie Dunn of Brooks and Dunn, Lefty Frizzell (He wrote If You’ve Got the Money Honey, I’ve Got the Time),Randy Goodrum, Al Green (who is in my top five for favorite singers of all time, just ask my kids),Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helm, Scott Joplin the King of Ragtime, Louis Jordan (a contemporary of Louis Armstrong but dirtier and a lot blacker. Beans and Cornbread, Choo Choo Boogie, He had something like 14 number one hits),Buddy Jewel, Albert King, Tracy Lawrence, Joe Nichols, Charlie Rich aka the Silver Fox, Sister Rosetta Tharp( she influenced everyone in rock and roll including Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and fellow Arkansan Johnny Cash)Conway Twitty (super sleazy legendary country singer),Sonny Boy Williamson, Justin Moore, and R&B icon Ne-Yo. And of course TI did prison time right here in Arkansas. The list would have been much longer if I’d included jazz and opera stars.
I looked at other states with close to 3 million residents and they didn’t have near the musical star power and history of Arkansas. Kansas can brag about Charlie Parker, Joe Walsh and Melissa Ethridge, but that’s about it. Then there’s Utah and Nevada, both with embarrassingly shallow musical benches.
So, what is it about Arkansas? Maybe it’s the poverty that inspired so many of our country and blues greats. Perhaps the lack of educational opportunities gave the trifling young men and women time to hone their craft. One observation I couldn’t ignore. Most of the great musicians came from the uglier parts of the state. Maybe they were all just looking for a way out of this beautiful, friendly but often times impoverished state.
In less than ten years there’s another band of Arkansas players who will make my list and yours too. The Natural Outlaws. Big fat fun abrasive southern rock.
Play on boys.