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State co-sponsoring U.K. festival again

by Aaron Gettinger | May 29, 2023 at 7:30 a.m.
Submitted photo of Willi Carlisle performing June 18, 2022 at Black Deer Festival, Tunbridge Wells, UK. The Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism is spending $84,000 as a co-sponsor this year of the Black Deer Festival of Americana music in Kent, England, after having first sponsored the event in 2022. Photo by Vito Valentinetti.

The Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism is spending $84,000 as a co-sponsor this year of the Black Deer Festival of Americana music in Kent, England, after having first sponsored the event in 2022.

Visit Arkansas' sponsorship of the festival, which runs from June 16 to 18 at a park about 50 minutes from London by train, includes an "Arkansas Porch Sessions" stage, marketed as highlighting the state's roots music tradition.

Photos of the 2022 festival on the Black Deer website show plenty of stars and stripes, festival-goers in cowboy hats, barbecuing and a hot dog-eating contest.

A page on the festival's website highlights Arkansas' rural character, agricultural industry, outdoor scenery and native musicians like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmie Driftwood, Levon Helm, Nick Shoulders, Willie Carlisle and Bonnie Montgomery.

Vito Valentinetti, an American who founded and edits the Music Festival Wizards website that promotes festivals around the world, said the Black Deer Festival last year was "family friendly," with a relaxed and easygoing crowd.

"It wasn't like a wild festival," Valentinetti said.

Press reports indicate the event has a capacity to handle a crowd of 10,000 festivalgoers. Black Deer Festival did not respond to a request for comment.

Other sponsors of the 2023 Black Deer Festival include the Gretsch guitar company, American motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson and British newspaper The Independent.

The amount spent to co-sponsor a music festival in England is a fraction of the state's annual revenue from the 2% travelers' tax of expenditures on lodging and attractions in Arkansas. Arkansas Tourism says 41.3 million people visited Arkansas in 2021, contributing $8 billion to the state economy and $650 million in tax receipts.

"Annual tourism collections confirm the effectiveness of Arkansas Tourism's data-driven marketing strategy," department spokeswoman Shealyn Sowers said. "The U.K. is a key international audience for Arkansas, with Arkansas outpacing the U.S. national post-covid recovery visitation numbers. ... Arkansas' natural beauty, outdoor adventure offerings, rich arts culture and diverse heritage make the state a premier vacation destination."

Sowers said the marketing package the department purchased with the sponsorship includes Arkansas "in all promotional materials." She said three staff members will work in "The Arkansas Porch Sessions booth for three full days, as well as work in the areas in which the state's artists are playing to promote travel to Arkansas."

Dr. Dede Hamm, a hospitality management professor at the University of Arkansas who specializes in events and destination marketing via tourism and travel, said the existence of the Arkansas Porch Sessions shows that the state "is getting something good out of the sponsorship."

"It does look like an experience that they're sponsoring," she said. "My guess would be that if they're doing it again, they got something out of it, enough to be able to sponsor again."

Hamm said cultivating a relationship is a good way to build up Arkansas as an international travel destination; in this case, how much fun people had at a state-branded music stage and how friendly the people from Arkansas were.

"Everybody remarks when they come to Arkansas how nice the people are," she said.

Black Deer Festival-goers with some demonstrated interest in Americana, and affluent enough to attend a music festival, are presumably a market for international travel to the state.

Hamm said the state's extant and developing outdoor recreational opportunities, especially mountain-biking in Northwest Arkansas, are attracting foreign tourists. She said the Black Deer's emphasis on camping and wholesome outdoor aesthetics make it "a good fit between what the state is trying to promote as a destination and what that festival is doing."

Bonnie Montgomery, the Jude Brothers, Dylan Earl and Melissa Carper are among the artists with an Arkansas connection booked to perform this year. A second "Ozark Holler Hootenanny" is scheduled. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, the Pretenders, Bonnie Raitt, Richard Hawley, Bear's Den and Steve Earle are headlining.

Melissa Carper, a cross-genre country singer-songwriter and bassist based now in Austin, Texas, after many years in Eureka Springs, has toured around Europe before.

"I know in England, the people over there really love American music," she said. "I think the audiences are just really super-enthusiastic, and they really get it. They don't get to hear it so much as people over here, so I think they're pretty excited when they hear it."

Cross-Atlantic cultural trends have been influencing art and culture on opposite continents for centuries. American folk music bears a significant debt to both Anglo-Irish dance tunes and balladry alongside the influence of West African rhythms and improvisation. Mid-century British youth took inspiration from Black American rock 'n' roll records to foster the British Invasion.

"Bringing that roots music over is something that I feel really good about, showing everybody that it's still alive and writing new songs," Carper said. "I think they recognize, 'Oh, this music came over from here, but they've added something different to it in America.'"

"I'm going to be touring with Willi Carlisle for several of those dates, and he does a similar thing to me: where he plays something that sounds old, but he's put his own twist to it," she said. "I feel like we're just keeping that music alive. And anybody who appreciates that style of music is always happy to hear it evolve."

Information for this article was contributed by Mike Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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