The state that produced Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and other legends now has its own country music awards show.
The inaugural Arkansas Country Music Awards take place tonight at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Hosted by singer and De Queen native Collin Raye and country music journalist Charles Haymes of Little Rock, the show features honors for musicians in 27 categories ranging from entertainer of the year to album of the year, female vocalist, vocal group and more.
Lifetime achievement awards will honor the legacies of Campbell, Cash and singer-harmonica player Wayne Raney. Singing trio The Browns -- siblings Jim Ed, Bonnie and Maxine -- whose 1959 single "The Three Bells" topped the charts and sold more than a million copies, will also be honored, along with Ed Bruce, the Keiser native who wrote, among many others, "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."
Singer-songwriter Erin Enderlin, who grew up in Conway, leads the field with nominations in seven categories, including entertainer of the year and female vocalist of the year. Her 2017 LP, Whiskeytown Crier, is up for album of the year. Enderlin lives in Nashville, Tenn., where her songs have been recorded by Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack, Luke Bryan, Randy Travis and others.
"We have some great musical history from Arkansas, and this is going to be cool to shine a light on it and promote it and celebrate it," says Enderlin, during a phone interview from a tour stop in Sacramento, Calif. "There is so much good music that comes out of Arkansas, and I'm really excited to be a part of it."
The show is produced by 41-year-old Nathan Hunnicutt, a Rose Bud native who has put on similar awards programs in Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming and other states.
"I thought this would be a good time for it to happen in Arkansas," Hunnicutt says. "We put the nominations out and made sure we had categories that represented the scene well."
Arkansas Country Music Awards
6:30 p.m. today, Center for Performing Arts — University Theater, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 5900 S. University Ave., Little Rock.
Admission: $35; $100, VIP
Artists were nominated by fans across a wide swath of the country quilt, as the awards also recognize Americana, bluegrass, acoustic and inspirational acts. Winners were chosen by fans in online polling.
You won't see current major label acts like Mammoth Spring's Ashley McBride or Poyen's Justin Moore, though. This awards show is for independent artists only.
And, in the eyes of one of the hosts at least, it's an honor just to be nominated.
"I don't view it as a contest at all," Haymes says. "The real honor is being a finalist. Winning would be icing on the cake."
Along with hosting duties, Raye, whose hits include "Love, Me," "All I Can Be (Is a Sweet Memory)," "Little Rock" and "I Want You Bad (and That Ain't Good)" will perform during the program, which is being recorded for a possible special broadcast on AETN, Hunnicutt says.
Other artists and nominees set to play include Phil McGarrah & Runnin' on Empty, Enderlin, Bonnie Montgomery, Melody Hart, Cory Jackson, Runaway Planet and Barbara Fairchild.
A pre-show VIP Stage, with host Ashton Campbell, a former Miss Arkansas, will include performances by Ten Penny Gypsy, Blane Howard, Ben Coulter, Melodie Rooker and others.
Lifetime achievement awards will recognize the state's deep country roots by honoring a group of artists -- Cash, Campbell, Bush, The Browns and Raney -- who have influenced many of the current nominees.
"Sometimes, to see where you're standing, you've got to look backwards for a little bit," Haymes says.
For Hunnicutt, including a Lifetime Achievement category was crucial. "That is something we felt strongly about," he says. "There are plenty more who could be on the list, but we can't have an 8-hour-long show."
Entertainer of the year nominee and Arkansas country music veteran McGarrah and his band, Runnin' on Empty, are planning a Cash tribute.
"We're doing three songs with my band and Diane Berry," McGarrah says. "I'll do a medley of a few of his hits and then [go] right in to 'Folsom Prison Blues.'"
McGarrah is also a big fan of another lifetime achievement recipient.
"I will say this about Ed Bruce," he begins. "He is one of the most awesome artists anyone could ever work with. That man is a jewel."
Country music runs in the McGarrah family. His granddaughter, Morgan McGarrah, is nominated in the young artist of the year category.
"Morgan can sing with the best of 'em," her grandfather says. "She's got a God-given talent."
The elder McGarrah, who has been performing for "30 something years," is also a finalist for male vocalist of the year.
Little Rock-based duo Ten Penny Gypsy -- Justin Patterson and Laura Lynn Danley -- is nominated for album of the year for its self-titled debut, vocal group of the year and Americana/Roots artist of the year. An Arkansas-centric country awards show like this, Patterson says, is long overdue.
"There are an awful lot of us out here doing this," he says. "There are good days and bad days, and anytime you can get recognized like this, it just changes everything."
And as for the competitive aspect, Danley says, she sees it more as a "celebration of all of the talent in Arkansas."
For Enderlin, the attention the event will bring to Arkansas country music is what the show is really about.
"I'm happy to see a new avenue for country music and artists in Arkansas to be recognized and promoted," she says. "I feel like it's such a cool, creative time to be in Arkansas. I see it in Nashville, too. My buddies [Northwest Arkansas native] Lance Carpenter and Ashley McBryde and all these other people are making kick-ass music and representing Arkansas in awesome ways. I'm really excited about this time in Arkansas country music."
Hunnicutt sees this first show as the beginning of an annual gathering to acknowledge Arkansas' twangier musical side.
"We want to keep it going, to not only keep Arkansas' musical heritage and tradition alive, but also to create a new tradition of recognizing the accomplishments, talent and hard work of people in the state."
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Cory Jackson, Phil McGarrah, Hannah Dunlap photo illustration.
Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell (shown) will be remembered with lifetime achievement awards.
ActiveStyle on 06/04/2018
*CORRECTION: Winners of the Arkansas Country Music Awards were chosen by fans in online polling. An earlier version of this story misreported how winners were chosen.
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