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Arkansas Music Poll: Acts

Johnny Cash comes out on top.



1. Johnny Cash


Was there ever any doubt? Johnny Cash, that regal, weathered monument served 46 tumultuous years as the poet laureate of redemption and damnation, revolutionizing and ultimately defining the singer/songwriter tradition. Will there ever again be another figure who looms as large over the American musical landscape? Is it even conceivable that we'll ever see another artist who transcends musical cultures like the Man in Black? He's the great uniter, beloved by, yes, the country world, but idolized by punk, rap, metal and beyond. He's undeniably the greatest musician Arkansas ever produced but, beyond that, is he the greatest, most influential American musician, period? Watching video of Cash as a wiry 23-year-old, sweating through "Folsom Prison Blues" suggests that if he was, it took him years to realize it. But even then, from his first, hectic Sun sessions in 1955 to his final, frail American Recordings session, recorded days before his death in 2003, the sharecropper's son from Kingsland maintained a mythical status that's only grown larger since his passing.

2. Al Green


In 1974, Al Green, with a mangled, broken hand in a silk sling, hit the Soul Train stage in support of his new album, that future classic "Call Me." Now, it's hard to tell specifically what he was high on — other than just "a bunch" — as he turned the Lord's Prayer into a slurred, stumbling intro before purring and howling, gorgeously, through "Jesus is Waiting," a righteous booty jam in every sense. What easily could have been a humiliating disaster of a performance instead became one of the most thrilling performances ever televised. It's definitely one of the most notorious. Does Al Green contradict himself? Of course! Al Green contains multitudes! The sensuousness, the playfulness, the bold, graceful electricity of it all is still jarring. All at once, he's a man of the flesh, a man of the cloth and a man of mischief. But above all, he'll forever be known as the great Southern soul man, a vocalist in the ranks of Pavarotti and Piaf.

3. Levon Helm


Around 2000, when complications from throat cancer put Levon Helm's primitive tenor in jeopardy, not only a great voice hung in the balance; a living record of a bygone, Turkey Scratch, Arkansas dialect, clipped and round, was at stake. It's that instantly recognizable voice that rings through some of the greatest tracks from his time in The Band. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Weight" — each an untouchable classic due in large part to that Helm twang. But still, he doesn't consider himself a singer. Your favorite drummer's favorite drummer defines himself as a drummer who'll use a mic if absolutely necessary. There's never been another who could drum and sing, simultaneously, with as much style as Levon, the reedy metronome jiving and bobbing away behind his kit. And he's still at it, drumming and, against the odds, singing again. Now in Woodstock, N.Y., he opens up the barn-studio, adjacent to his house, for weekly Midnight Rambles, hours-long jams featuring a rotating cast of musicians. All of whom, you can bet, owe a debt of gratitude to St. Levon, the toothy-grinned, gentleman saint of new Americana.

4. Ho-Hum


The music industry isn't known for being just. But one day, when up becomes down, white goes black and the powers that be rediscover great music, the world will love Ho-Hum the way Little Rock loves Ho-Hum. There was a small glimmer of hope that would happen in 1996 when Universal released the band's debut, "Local." But a departmental shift at the label left the Ho-Hum without promotional support, and the band parted ways with the label. Back home, Ho-Hum became a cottage industry unto itself with Playadel, its own imprint label; and over the next 10 years, the band released nine albums full of gorgeous and deceptively witty Southern pop. Few acts are as prolific, even fewer are as outright beloved. Perhaps accidentally, Ho-Hum even spearheaded the model for local music success: bands good enough to be known nationally, but content to remain hometown heroes.

5. Louis Jordan


He's the biggest music star of the WWII era, a madcap innovator of juke blues and one of the first to cross over into the mainstream from the "race" charts, tacking 54 singles to the Billboards and spending a quarter of the 1940s in the top spot. Also —and there's really no way to put this except bluntly — Louis Jordan is responsible for R&B and rock 'n' roll. All of it. If there's a musical pioneer to be found in Arkansas's history, it's this visionary Brinkley bandleader. His radical take on "Saturday Night Fish Fry" is on the generally acknowledged "first rock song ever" short list, and it's no stretch to say that his recordings of "Pettin' and Pokin' " and "Look Out Sister," among others, provide the genetic code for what would evolve into rap. His influence has been analyzed so closely, his legacy dissected so many times over, that it's become easy to forget that Jordan simply created some of the most ecstatic, hilarious and damn fun music ever. 

6. American Princes


The 2000s were an odd time for indie rock. With the arbiters of musical taste disavowing the rock sounds of the '90s, bands needed an angle, some sort of quirkiness or at least a sub-genre to tuck themselves into before even thinking about finding that gold standard known as buzz. Which made it a bad time to be an unpresumptuous electric guitar band. That's why the national acclaim that fell on American Princes — in Spin, NPR, Magnet — was a testament to the unembellished craftsmanship that defines their insightful, whip-smart songwriting. Rockers, yes, but with lyrics like "I don't care about real love/I just want a world that'll bear its own weight," the Princes prove, time and time again, that there are still fresh, literate revelations about youth, love, helplessness and hope in rock 'n' roll.

7. Glen Campbell


He provided guitar for "Pet Sounds" in 1965, worked with Frank Sinatra in 1966, sold more music than The Beatles in '69 and has released no fewer than three canonical albums — "Gentle on My Mind," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Wichita Lineman." But even as a household name with 50 million records sold, Glen Campbell still gets slighted. His output is well known, but not adequately appreciated. But why? Perhaps the baby-faced Delight native is so ubiquitous that we think we've already heard everything he has to offer. Maybe he's been stubbornly dismissed by many as a cheesy, square-jawed holdover from a baubled era of easy listening country-pop. But his late-'60s work with songwriter Jimmy Webb and producer/arranger Al De Lory is undeniable. Together, the three welded the lonesome yodel of Jimmie Rodgers to the grandiose, kitchen sink melodrama of Scott Walker, giving way to some of the most gorgeous pop music ever recorded. Forget what you thought about the Rhinestone Cowboy, if anyone deserves a renaissance, it's Glen.

8. Pharoah Sanders


The high schooler who wore fake mustaches and sunglasses to sneak into Little Rock jazz clubs found himself, at 24, blowing dissonant tenor sax beside John Coltrane and Sun Ra. Soon after, he became a demigod of free jazz, known for his chaotic, abrasive form and self-composed tribal rhythms. Few, if any, artists since have been able to deliver the same sort of shamanic power. In albums like "Thembi" and "Black Unity," both released in 1971, Sanders manages to very nearly immolate free jazz, stretching it to its furthest limits in a squawking, screaming, strangely therapeutic deconstruction of African, Latin and Aboriginal groove. In a word, he's furious. When he starts blowing with such volume and speed, you can practically hear his saxophone giving out. Even today, at 69, Sanders is taxing the limits of the instrument, thrillingly.

9. Sister Rosetta Tharpe


A woman shredding an electric guitar, a non-sexualized African-American pop star, a gospel singer who filtered Church of God in Christ hymns through the lens of the devil's music. One of the original musical alchemists, few artists have ever been as sensational or as joyously controversial as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Thrashing and slapping away at her signature Gibson SG, a horned guitar that even looks like the devil, the Sister signed to the legendary Decca Records at 23 and went on to incite thousands while inspiring many more. (Look no further than her recording of "All Alone" to find where Bob Dylan discovered his signature yarp.) What could have been a novelty act footnote for the era instead has defied all reasonable expectations: Sister Rosetta became a superstar and influenced — and continues to influence — generations in her wake. 

10. Sonny Boy Williamson


Aleck Miller was notorious for bloating stories about himself with legends and lies in order to throw would-be bloodhound biographers off his trail. Or maybe just to amuse himself. Did he really tour the South with Robert Johnson? Was he really a 6-year-old minister? One thing blues scholars can agree on is that the man now known as Sonny Boy Williamson II was a bit of a bastard. Beyond his mean-tempered sarcasm and enthusiasm for threatening people with knives, he shamelessly lifted his name from an already long-established Chicago bluesman in order to give himself a quick boost of recognition. And it worked. That famous piece of identity theft led to him being the face of King Biscuit Time, universally adored as far through the Delta as KFFA's Helena broadcasting tower could reach. Years later, he found himself on Chicago's famous Chess label and touring England with The Yardbirds, The Animals and Led Zeppelin. Who says theft doesn't pay?

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