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REX NELSON: Rockabilly in Arkansas

by Rex Nelson | June 9, 2019 at 1:52 a.m.

As Skip Rutherford and I walk around the Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67 Museum in downtown Newport, I think about the stories my father would tell about his stint as head football coach at Newport High School in the late 1940s and early 1950s. One of his tasks was to ensure that players stayed out of the clubs along U.S. 67.

If a player were caught in a club during the season, the usual punishment consisted of missing the next game. My father had to suspend a star player prior to the annual Thanksgiving Day showdown against Batesville. Newport was favored in the game that meant more to the people here than any other. With the score uncomfortably close at halftime, my father had a decision to make.

"I decided I had punished that boy enough," he said.

The star played in the second half. Newport won.

Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service at Little Rock, grew up in Batesville and understands how important that rivalry once was. Though he rooted against the Newport Greyhounds as a boy, he has always had a soft spot in his heart for this historic town along the banks of the White River.

"During the 2008-09 school year, we sent a team to do some work in Newport, and those students came up with what's now the Delta Arts Festival," Rutherford says. "Through the years, we've had five student teams work on various Newport projects."

This year's Delta Arts Festival, which ended Saturday, featured almost 240 visual artists at 13 locations in downtown Newport. There were also music and literary aspects to the festival, which is in its 11th year and attracts 4,000 people to what was a desolate downtown just a few years ago.

Artists come from across Arkansas and surrounding states. More than $170,000 in sponsorship funds have been raised this year for a series of downtown events that began in May and will last until October.

As I walk through the museum on the mezzanine of a former bank building that now serves as the home of the Newport Economic Development Commission, I can't help but think that Newport could become to rockabilly what Clarksdale, Miss., has become to the blues--a place that attracts visitors from around the world to discover musical roots in a small town with downtown restaurants and accommodations.

The NEDC was created in 2002 by a vote of Newport residents. Its director, Jon Chadwell, gets it. So does Julie Allen, the executive director of the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce. And so do Newport civic leaders such as Henry Boyce, who has made the museum his pet project for the past decade.

Rutherford and I later take a walking tour of downtown Newport while Chadwick talks excitedly about natives of Great Britain who have bought buildings here with hopes of opening restaurants and craft breweries. That's what happened at Clarksdale, where I spent time on a weekly basis during the four years I served as a presidential appointee to the Delta Regional Authority. People from other states and countries moved to the Delta city because they realized its potential for blues tourism. They bought abandoned buildings in downtown Clarksdale and opened restaurants, lofts for overnight guests and shops.

Take Roger Stolle, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Stolle, a blues enthusiast, moved to Clarksdale in 2002 and established the blues and folk art store known as Cat Head. He helped create the top blues festival in Mississippi, the Juke Joint Festival, and headed a movement designed to ensure that there's live music seven nights a week in Clarksdale. He has written books and produced documentaries and blues albums.

Though the Arkansas Legislature in 2009 designated a 111-mile stretch of U.S. 67 as Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67, what we're really talking about is rockabilly. For some reason, Arkansas legislators feared that using the term "rockabilly" would add to the state's hillbilly image. Perhaps the name can be changed to the correct title of Rockabilly Highway 67 during a future legislative session.

Clubs in the area that became famous ranged from the Silver Moon Club at Newport to Bob King's King of Clubs at Swifton.

"Several Arkansans became leading rockabilly songwriters and performers," Marvin Schwartz writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System. "A distinctly American phenomenon, rockabilly was strongly influenced by developments of the post-World War II period. They include the introduction of the single-play 45 rpm record, the early phases of the civil rights movement and the increasing mobility and purchasing power of teenagers. Characterized by a blues structure and a moderately fast tempo, rockabilly music celebrated a world of cars, parties, fast living and sexual relationships. Its use of slang, much of it from African-American origins, and its themes of rebellious youth and self-indulgence caused disfavor in many conservative groups.

"Arkansas musicians had formative influence on the development of rockabilly. They include the jump blues of Louis Jordan, the rhythmic gospel style of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the hillbilly boogie sound of Wayne Raney. Early references to rockabilly as 'hillbilly bop' suggest its origins in country music and Western swing, with additional traces of bluegrass and honky-tonk. Arkansas rockabilly artists were influenced by the increasing popularity of radio barn dance shows in the early 1950s."

Among those who played at the clubs along U.S. 67 in northeast Arkansas were Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess.

"At the height of the rockabilly era in the late 1950s, many Arkansas rockabilly groups, such as Sonny Burgess and the Pacers and Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men, had recorded for Sun Records and were rising to national attention," Schwartz writes. "Dale Hawkins, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, specialized in creating a sound (called swamp rock by some) that went on to help shape rock 'n' roll music. Bobby Brown of Olyphant in Jackson County was a popular rockabilly performer of the 1950s and 1960s, often playing at the Cotton Club in Trumann. . . . The rockabilly era ended with the decade with several of its national stars in new engagements. The popular music industry was shifting to a softer format and more banal subject matter than rockabilly's fast cars, rowdy women and rebellious partying."

The Silver Moon could seat more than 800 people at the height of its popularity. Up the road in Swifton, Bob and Evelyn King operated the King of Clubs for more than 50 years until selling it in 2003. The club burned down in December 2010.

"The club's modest appearance hid its success as a business and its influence on rock 'n' roll," writes Arkansas historian David Stricklin. "Many performers traveled in and out of nearby Memphis to record their music for Sam Phillips' famed Sun Records and went up and down Highway 67 between Little Rock and St. Louis, making one-night stands at the club easy to arrange. The fact that many of the performers who appeared at the King of Clubs early in their careers went on to become stars helped the club attract other artists. The club was also successful because it drew patrons from nearby Craighead, Independence and Lawrence counties, where the sale of alcohol was illegal."

Now, downtown Newport stands ready to be the rockabilly capital of the world. Don't laugh. Just ask the folks in Clarksdale how many music tourists there are, and how much money they spend.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 06/09/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Rockabilly in Arkansas


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