by Robert Bell
The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies recently unveiled its plans for the Arkansas Music Festival, to be held Sept. 28-29. It’s the first of what will be an annual event showcasing the Natural State’s musical culture with a variety of programming, including workshops, presentations and, of course, live music. The bulk of performances will be at Riverfront Amphitheater, with other events happening at various spaces within the Central Arkansas Library System campus.
Festival coordinator and longtime local musician John Miller told the Times that it’s “not going to be a music festival in Arkansas. This is going to be an Arkansas music festival, so everybody featured will have a very strong connection to Arkansas. If they’re not from Arkansas themselves, then they’ll have been sort of an honorary Arkie, like if they’ve lived here for 30 years or they have a really strong Arkansas connection, someone like Hayes Carll for instance.”
As far as musical genres go, the festival is “taking submissions from any and all Arkansas artists,” he said. While it’d be impossible to capture the scope of music that’s come out of the state in one fell swoop, Miller said the festival might feature different themes or showcases that shift from year to year. One idea that’s already been floated is a Johnny Cash tribute.
Miller said he hasn't confirmed any artists yet, but that he'd have some announcements within the next week or two. Local interest has been strong, though booking large acts on the relatively short notice is surely challenging.
As the festival grows, it might need to incorporate additional venues. “Since we announced this a week or so ago, we’ve had a tremendous influx of interest and talent trying to submit different things,” he said. “So it may get to the point where some things spill over into clubs in the area.”
Organizers are trying to secure a couple of big headlining acts, but “the unfortunate thing about this is most of the giants of Arkansas music have passed,” Miller said. “There’s not a tremendous amount of giants in Arkansas music now. There’s just a handful of them who are still performing.” One way to maintain the Arkansas focus while still bringing in big-name acts could be something like the Johnny Cash tribute, which could include artists that might not be from Arkansas or who might not have that strong of a connection to the state, “but they’d be here honoring the Arkansan,” Miller said.
Another possible development is for the festival to produce events around the state during the year, he said.
Susan Gelé, assistant PR director for CALS, said the approach to the music festival would be similar to the one used for the annual Arkansas Literary Festival (April 12-15 this year), in which CALS provides seed money to get it started and then raises money and pursues sponsorships, including in-kind support as well as cash, with the goal of making the event largely self-sustaining. The seed money for the Arkansas Music Festival hasn’t been finalized yet, but it will likely be about $60,000 for this year, Gelé said.