SXAR: That's the colloquialism for the string of Arkansas shows the weeks before and after the SXSW (read: "South by Southwest"), when hundreds upon hundreds of touring bands tear up and down Interstate 30 on the way to Austin's stalwart music festival.
Sure, the annual festival is a reliable blast, but it can also be alienating for musicians, as legions of both music industry men and those foul, disdainful creatures known as rock critics come out in droves to capitalize, bash or butt-sniff nearly anyone toting a guitar.
Arkansas's venues, bookers and music fans yearly pride themselves on providing a little Southern hospitality in contrast to the temporary Texas chaos. And anyone would be hard pressed to find a better example of that SXAR friendliness than Hot Springs' annual Valley of the Vapors festival.
Founded in 2005, the week-long festival has earned a unique reputation amongst the SXSW-bound as an idiosyncratic, grassroots palate cleanser.
"Going to a festival where there are more port-a-potties than stages — or people, even — it really takes out a lot of the personal experience," says Bill Solleder, who co-founded the VOV in 2005 with his wife, Shea Childs.
A musician himself, known far and wide for his time fronting '90s ska-core radicals Blue Meanies, Solleder understands the appeal of the VOV's homespun intimacy.
"There's 10,000 bands there [at SXSW] all trying to get someone's attention, so they can take another step in the industry, and we're here, giving them homemade food and hospitality."
It's that hip cordiality that's largely responsible for the growth of the festival.
"The amount of bands writing and calling, saying they heard about us from their friends, saying they want to play, has forced us to expand it into a seven-day festival," he says.
While the week's lineup is lengthy, no doubt, it packs a punch as well, sporting no shortage of big names in independent music.
"I keep throwing these names out and ... and it's ridiculous," laughs Solleder. "Japanther, Surf City, A Place to Bury Strangers. I mean, bands like Parts & Labor, who are a top-of-the-bill name at SXSW, are having to take second-billing!"
Another festival highlight: Nora O'Connor of Chicago, who has collaborated with Andrew Bird, Neko Case and Jakob Dylan and recently provided all of the backup vocals for Mavis Staples' most recent album, "You Are Not Alone," which was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and took home this year's Grammy award for Best Americana Album.
More than shows, the festival also offers film screenings at the historic Malco Theater, lectures at the Garland County Library and a number of music workshops, including an effects pedal-building session led by Oliver Ackermann, guitarist for A Place to Bury Strangers and pedal engineer for Nine Inch Nails and U2.
The week's festivities begin on Sunday, March 20, with what's being billed as "The All-Day Band Blitz," an 11-band marathon that kicks off with popular Ozark country act Big Smith at 1 p.m. and, throughout the day, gets more experimental, culminating with A Place to Bury Strangers, the roundly-praised noise-rock outfit from Brooklyn known as one of the outright loudest bands of all time and the most distinguished act of the festival.
For more information and a complete lineup, visit valleyofthevapors.com.