Dylan Earl is an American singer and songwriter on his way to Black Deer Festival 2021. Growing up, his Mum played all her country tapes to him: “I love those songs almost as much as our memories,” Dylan says. He’s a storyteller standing proud in a tradition, but with both eyes fixed firmly on a future that is wide open. “I spent all my 20s sweating on guitars, I hope to do it all my 30s, too. I spend most of my time behind a wheel, getting to you,” he says. You’re going to love him. Let us introduce him to you so he can introduce you to the things that make him who he is…
GREETINGS FROM ARKANSAS – BLACK DEER-BOUND DYLAN EARL IS OUR MAN IN THE NATURAL STATE
The music of Arkansas is synonymous with the music of America. Listing just a handful of talents from the state where I’m from was harder than I thought it would be and I’m undoubtedly leaving off major contributors. However, Arkansas is a very rural landscape and there are few ‘metro’ areas in our state leaving our population to only about 2.5 million (for comparison: our next door neighbour, Texas, has nearly 30 million inhabitants).
Arkansas is ‘The Natural State’ for a reason, boasting millions of acres of National Forest and Wildlife Management. In addition, the state is a farmer’s paradise: although we are largely known for our livestock and poultry production, Arkansas offers some of the most fertile land in North America. For example, we produce the most rice in the United States accounting for about half of our nation’s production! The point here is that our people are largely affected by the land around them… we are impacted by the natural beauty and ruggedness of our surroundings and challenged by the toughness it takes to forge a life here. Most of the artists I’m going to focus on came from poor and rural working class backgrounds, deep in Arkansas. Perhaps this is why their music is so inspiring and contagious. Imagine if more of us had made it out to those big city studios…
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
From Cotton Plant, Arkansas – and noted as the “Godmother of Rock and Roll” and the “original soul sister” – Sister Rosetta Tharpe began singing and playing guitar with evangelical groups around the age of four and eventually would travel and perform with her mother throughout the deep south in tent revivals. She began touring out of the church in the late 30s and 40s as a Decca recording artist and continued through the 50s. One of the first to give a microphone an attitude, but most importantly perhaps the first to rip a Gibson SG the way she did, Sister Rosetta influenced Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards’ guitar playing when they saw her on her first tour of England with Muddy Waters in 1964. Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley all credit her as their favorite singer and performer growing up. She is the unsung pioneer of rock and roll and completely changed the way guitar was played and used in music.
Best known for his album ‘Down in the Arkansas’ and songs ‘Battle of New Orleans’ and ‘Tennessee Stud’, Driftwood was a bit of a misfit and a major scholar of Ozark folk traditions. His career spans several decades of train hopping, hitchhiking, touring, songwriting and folklore education. He gained fame for his historical songwriting and for the guitar he used throughout his career: made from a fence post, an ox yoke and part of his grandmother’s headboard! He made several appearances (with this guitar) on the Ozark Jubilee, Louisiana Hayride and was a long standing member of the Grand Ole Opry. Driftwood helped cement Mountain View, Arkansas as the folk music capital of the world – but perhaps most importantly, he was an environmental advocate and helped preserve many places in Arkansas that are now national monuments, such as the Buffalo National River and Blanchard Springs Caverns.
Levon was born in Elaine and hailed from Turkey Scratch on the line of Lee and Phillips and Counties. Levon gained much of his influence hanging around the KFFA radio station as a kid (popular for its ‘King Biscuit Time’, the first all-black national radio slot and longest running radio program in American history) in Helena, Arkansas. He learned from the black rhythm and blues musicians in the area like Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lockwood Jr. and James Peck Curtis. Levon cut his chops playing around the clubs in Helena and eventually around Arkansas on weekends while he finished high school. Huntsville, Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins discovered Helm and invited him to hit the road playing rockabilly all over Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and up in southern Ontario and Quebec. In Canada, Hawkins also recruited Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson to fill out his band, The Hawks. After touring extensively, Ronnie Hawkins retired back to Arkansas leaving “the band” who would eventually back Bob Dylan when Dylan went electric. After their stint with Dylan, of course, they became The Band and the rest is history. Levon’s Arkansas influence can be found all over their records, even in the most coloquial of places.
My cousin Nick was born outside of Little Rock in the foothills of the Ouachita mountains. At a young age he moved up north into the Ozarks growing up in Fayetteville where we both live today. I first saw Nick musically as a member of the esteemed Thunder Lizards and later on the Dumptruck Boys. He has been an incredibly active member of our community and culture as both a musician and visual artist. Nick has since mastered the Ozark yodel and whistle, he has championed Ozark folk music and become an ally to the misfit and downtrodden. I’ve seen Nick throw a yodel off a bluff’s edge and heard the Arkansas call back. Check out ‘Hanks Checkout Line’ and ‘Snakes and Waterfalls’.
My uncle Bill knows every dang fiddle and banjo old time tune in the holler. Willi has spent half a lifetime mastering the practice of old time folk and neotraditional country music. I’ve seen him spread his gospel of a better south and put his boot down on the fascist all across America and abroad. He’s a master lyricist and one of my favourite performers. He is known for his work in theatre and his ‘Confederate Widow in Hell’ Is an absolute masterpiece exposing the hypocrisy and travesty of the post-civil war south. ‘Folk Art Masterpiece’ and ‘Van Life’ are among my favourites of Willi’s extensive and brilliant catalogue…
Bonnie was born in Searcy, Arkansas the daughter of a farmer and trucker. She is a classically trained opera singer, pianist and ethnomusicologist. She has worked mostly as a country singer and songwriter touring all over the country for nearly two decades and has released an extensive discography of country and western, borrowing stylings of western swing, ballads and old-time music. In addition to releasing albums, Bonnie is well known in Arkansas for her work in opera and regional cultural preservation – her most notable opera is ‘Billy Blythe’ about Bill Clinton’s childhood in Garland County, Arkansas. My favourite works of hers are ‘Forever’ (2018) and ‘Cruel’ (2012). Bonnie sings like none I’ve ever heard, hangs like none I’ve ever been around and is an absolute titan of a writer. We are lucky to call her sister.
It’s nearly impossible to list just half a dozen artists of inspiration from Arkansas. There are so many more heroes to list: Johnny Cash, Al Green, Charlie Rich, Glen Campbell… who each deserve more than I can say. The same goes for today’s list of working musicians like Melissa Carper, Adam Faucett, Sister Jude Brothers, Kalyn Fay or William Blackhart… and that list goes on. I encourage you, if you’ve made it this far in the reading, to dig deep into the Arkansas and her music. In fact, I implore you. Speak soon and see y’all in the deer park this summer.
Arkansas’s musical heritage is as diverse as the state’s landscape. From blues to folk, gospel to rockabilly, music has always been a part of life in The Natural State. For further information, please visit Arkansas Tourism Official Site.