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The Arkansas Mixtape, Part One

Arkansas’ Sweetheart Patsy Montana

























If you are traveling through Arkansas or live in Arkansas or want to pretend that you are in Arkansas, you’d like to have some local music to enjoy. Sure, you could spin some tunes that mention Little Rock (“I Was Made to Love Her” or…yikes!…”We Didn’t Start the Fire”), but you would rather listen to artists with true Arkansas roots. In Part one of this epic two part series, we cover country, blues, gospel, jump blues, rockabilly, and accounting technicians. As always, remember that YouTube is your friend. (Except for the Big Bill Broonzy cut, where iTunes is your friend). Or if you Spotify stream away below.

1. Patsy Montana, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Ruby Blevins was born in Beaudry, Arkansas (one of those “wide spots on the road” towns) and grew up near Hope, where she never babysat Bill Clinton. Ruby adopted the stage name Patsy Montana and this 1935 hit was the first million seller by a female artist. Nearly 30 years later she tried a comeback with an album titled “The New Sound of Patsy Montana.” The lead guitarist for her “new sound” – an unknown former bass player named Waylon Jennings.

2. Big Bill Broonzy, “Goin’ Back to Arkansas.” Broonzy grew up near Pine Bluff in the early 1900s and decided Chicago would be a more hospital environment for a young African American after he did a stint in the Army during WWI. On this upbeat 1938 recording, Broonzy is ready to head back to Jefferson County. For some collard greens and ham hocks.

3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Down by the Riverside.” The pride of Cotton Plant, Arkansas, this 1944 recording was chosen for the American Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2004. Rosetta was a pioneer in merging gospel music with electric guitar. An Arkansas boy from Dyess loved to listen to her songs on the radio in the mid-1940s – at that time he was known as J.R. Cash.

4. Louis Jordan, “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie.” Jordan grew up in Brinkley, Arkansas, the son of a local music teacher. Due to his long string of R&B and pop hits in the 1940s, he was christened “The King of the Jukebox.” This 1946 hit went top ten pop and spent a remarkable eighteen weeks at #1 on the R&B chart.

5. Lefty Frizzell, “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.” Lefty was born in Corsicana, Texas, but spent his formative years in El Dorado, Arkansas. He took this monetarily practical single to #1 on the country charts in 1950 and Willie Nelson had a #1 hit with his cover version in 1976. A few years ago, I stumbled across the Lefty Frizzell museum in Corsicana and whooped louder than a drunken Powerball winner.

6. Skeets McDonald. “Don’t Let the Stars in Your Eyes.” Either Skeets or this humble writer is the pride of Clay County, Arkansas, although I didn’t score a #1 country hit in 1952. If not for this song, the world would have a sad, empty hole where Homer & Jethro’s “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs” (if you’ve got water on the brain) currently resides.

7. Sonny Burgess, “We Wanna Boogie.” Burgess was raised in Newport, Arkansas and he not only does he still live there, but this octogenarian still regularly performs gigs across The Natural State. This 1956 number catches some of that Sun Studios rockabilly magic. Ragged, but right.

8. Billy Lee Riley, “Red Hot.” Riley grew up in Pocahontas, Arkansas, where I have found memories of playing high school football and getting beaten like the proverbial drum. Riley released this single on Sun in 1957, but the label was investing more promotional muscle in Jerry Lee Lewis at the time. Riley did session work in Los Angeles in the ‘60s and had a bit of a second career after Robert Gordon covered this song, most adroitly, in 1978.

9. Conway Twitty, “It’s Only Make Believe.” Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Conway Twitty! Harold Jenkins moved to Forrest City at the age of ten and began thinking about a career in music after hearing Elvis Presley’s version of “Mystery Train.” After acquiring a stage name (some accounts state that the first part of his pseudonym was inspired by the town name of Conway, Arkansas), he topped the pop charts in 1958 with this winning Elvis imitation. A decade later, he became a major country star and would ultimately tally 40 #1 country hits.

10. Ronnie Hawkins, “Mary Lou.” Huntsville native Hawkins hit the Top 40 with this 1959 hit about a gold digging gal. His biggest contribution to popular music was putting together the unit in Canada that would eventually evolve into The Band. Dale Hawkins of “Suzie Q” fame and Ronnie were cousins.

11. Johnny Cash, “Five Feet High and Rising.” The most critically acclaimed and commercially successful artist from Arkansas, one of the defining moments of Cash’s youth was a major flood that hit Dyess when he was five years old. Most of his family had to leave town for almost two weeks due to the severity of the rising tide. Cash would remember that potential disaster for this 1959 hit. On a personal note, I have probably been within ten miles of his boyhood home about 200 times and have never visited the place. Sometimes, I’m stunned by my own lameness.

12. Johnny Horton, “Battle of New Orleans.” Horton wasn’t from Arkansas, but this #1 hit from 1959 was penned by former Timbo resident Jimmy Driftwood. Driftwood was a backwoods renaissance man. Besides writing this tune and “Tennessee Stud,” he was actively involved in environmental causes, helped to establish the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, and served as a musicologist for the National Geographic Society. Not bad for a guy that played a homemade, plywood guitar.

13. Floyd Cramer, “Last Date.” Cramer left Hutting, Arkansas and became a session pianist for “The Nashville A-Team,” playing on hits by Elvis, Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, and The Everly Brothers, among others. This 1960 instrumental went to #2 on the pop charts and is still played by John Anderson’s band to give the lead singer a break during his show. My wife once attended a Floyd Cramer gig and automatically falls into a coma whenever I ask her about it.

14. Willie Cobbs, “You Don’t Love Me.” Cobbs was born in the almost nonexistent town of Smale, Arkansas (“What the…Smale?”) and composed this 1960 single that has been covered by The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, John Mayall, Quicksilver Messenger Service, etc., etc., etc. The original recording by Cobbs is slightly over two and half minutes. The Allman Brothers sped up the tempo and their version is over nineteen minutes long. Never underestimate the influence of Quaaludes on popular music.

15. Jim Ed Brown,  “Pop a Top.” Jim Ed, who grew up in Sparkman, Arkansas, is the kind of country star that exists solely to make accounting technicians feel hip. This undeniably good 1967 hit went to #3 on the country charts and Alan Jackson took the song back to the Top Ten in 1999. How much does rock nyc pay its crack writing staff? Not enough to write another sentence about Jim Ed Brown.

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