The Music of Arkansas: Where It Came From
– Five Artists Who Put The Natural State On The Musical Map
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. Synonymous with the musical output of the United States Of America, Arkansas is responsible for producing and protecting some of the country’s most pioneering performers. Sure, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Johnny Cash and Levon Helm are all Arkansas natives with famous names throughout the world – but there are plenty more musical heroes who started life in the rural landscape of The Natural State…
Born 1898; Greers Ferry, Arkansas
In the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Almeda Riddle was taught to sing by her timber-working father, J.L. James. Able to read musical notation before she could read books, Almeda’s progress worried her family who thought that the auld British ballads she was learning to sing by ear would distract her from practising note-singing. Moving on to fiddle and parlour organ, Almeda started accompanying her singing with music and that’s when she started to explore the falsetto leaps and vocal embellishments that locals came to know and love. “I’ve always had too much of a love of ballads and it didn’t particularly matter what they were about,” she said before she died in 1986. “Plain, bad, good or indifferent, I just love ballads.”
Born 1908; Judsonia, Arkansas
Another harmonica player who helped popularise the instrument both locally and across the United States, Lonnie Glosson was Mr. Entertainment. A radio personality who also regularly made live appearances, Glosson is responsible for thousands of young people from Arkansas first blowing the harp. Known as the ‘Talking Harmonica Man’, Glosson made his first recordings in 1936 and his style mixed talking blues with mountain music traditions and ensured he was a hit wherever he appeared in person or over the wireless. Glosson lived long enough to welcome the Millennium as a 91-year-old and cut records throughout his life for seminal labels such as Decca, ACME, King and Mercury.
Born 1908; Beaudry, Arkansas
The high lonesome sound of Patsy Montana helped her become the first female country performer to have a million-selling single in 1935 with her self-penned ‘I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart’. Born Ruby Blevins in Beaudry, she headed west to California in 1929 to study the violin. But it was her singing ability that turned heads when she appeared on the Hollywood Breakfast Club radio program and announced herself to the country. From there, Montana hooked up with The Prairie Ramblers who went on to back her on most of hits for ARC Records, Decca, and RCA Victor. From a poor family of ten siblings, she also became a film star with 1939’s ‘Colorado Sunset’ alongside Gene Autry, before music became her priority again and the hits kept coming, including one with an unknown guitar slinger by the name of Waylon Jennings credited on the track. Montana died in 1996 and is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame over in Nashville, Tennessee.
Forest City Joe
Born 1926; Hughes, Arkansas
Some might say it’s a long way from Hughes, Arkansas to Chess Records in Chicago, but it was all part of the rich tapestry of the blues for Forest City Joe. Born and raised on a cotton firm near Forrest City in Hughes, Joe Bennie Pugh grew-up to be a force to be reckoned with on the harmonica. Moanin’ and wailin’ his way around Hughes and West Memphis, Pugh developed his style playing the local juke joints and was heavily influenced while sitting in with Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf on radio sessions during his formative years. The legendary Muddy Waters was also a fan and, as Forest City Joe, Pugh even made it onto wax with Chess. Perhaps best remembered for the atmospheric ‘Levee Camp Reminiscence’, Joe’s humanity shone through his harmonica playing.
Born 1926; Helena, Arkansas
A distinctive stylist, guitarist CeDell Davis was born in a river town and rolled through a tough childhood of plantations, poverty and polio. The latter meant Davis had to relearn how to play the guitar left-handed, resulting in the unique way of playing he became famous for. Working fast and loose with concert and alternative tunings, the Helena native learned his trade in southern juke joints and on the road with musicians such as slide specialist Robert Nighthawk and blues hero Big Joe Williams. Confined to a wheelchair following an incident in 1957 during a police raid on a tavern in St Louis, Davis’ style morphed into a remarkable sturm und drang and his sense of time, structure and lyrical content ensured controversy was never far away from his tunes before he died in 2017.
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