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(Above:  The song is called “Playing the Part,” but Jamey Johnson is definitely his own man.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Jamey Johnson stood onstage at Crossroads in a black t-shirt and blue jeans. The wind that pushed temperatures to the mid-century mark on Saturday night frequently floated the long follicles of his hair and beard. Subtract the acoustic guitar and add some tattoos and Johnson could have easily been mistaken for one of the performers at Rockfest, occurring simultaneously just a few blocks away.

Call him the last Highwayman or forgotten outlaw, Johnson’s music is wedged in a narrow crevasse in today’s country landscape, too traditional for the alt. country/no alternative scene and rarely sweet and polished enough for the new/young country machine. (Johnson has tasted mainstream success in co-writing Trace Adkin’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” George Straight’s No. 1 hit “Give It Away” and his own “In Color.” He performed the latter two to great response, letting the audience take over on the chorus.)

Johnson basks in the music of his idols, both stylistically and aesthetically. Littered with signatures, his blonde acoustic guitar is clearly a tribute-in-progress to Willie Nelson’s famous six-string Trigger. Johnson’s 24-song was an immaculate honky tonk playlist, seamlessly crisscrossing between original material, Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Don Wilson, Hank Williams – both father and son – George Jones and Ray Price.

The one-third-capacity crowd oscillated in their responses throughout the 100-minute set. They were either completely invested, whooping and hollering and singing along with every word as on “Get Straight,” “In Color” and several of the better-known covers, or completely disinterested and conversing over the performance. Perhaps the consistently low-key, understated arrangements wore thin, but given their overwhelming responses at times it’s hard to believe this crowd didn’t know exactly what they were getting beforehand.

High points included a steamrolling “That Lonesome Song” that gained energy from the interplay between the pedal steel and electric guitarists. During a spirited reading of “Tulsa Time,” Johnson gave each of his six band members time in the spotlight as they passed solos across the stage. “By the Seat of Your Pants” opened with an a cappella verse capped with a rare Johnson solo on his acoustic guitar.

After slowing the set to a crawl with the romantic “Amanda” and remorseful “Walkin’,” the night ended with the crowd-pleasing “In Color” and jubilant “I Saw the Light,” the most energetic number of the night. A few more moments like this would have kept the crowd in hand more consistently.

When the houselights came up few could believe it was over. There was no encore and Johnson had barely acknowledged the crowd beyond working our town into his lyrics a couple of times. It was clear as he left, however, that Johnson was satisfied he’d made his mark.

Setlist: High Cost of Living; Lonely at the Top; Cover Your Eyes; Night Life (Willie Nelson cover); Country State of Mind (Hank Williams Jr. cover); Can’t Cash My Checks; The Door Is Open (Waylon Jennings cover); Playin’ the Part; Mary Go Round; Tulsa Time (Don Williams cover); I Remember You; That’s the Way Love Goes (Merle Haggard cover); That Lonesome Song; For the Good Times (Kris Kristofferson/Ray Price cover); unknown slow blues cover; Still Doing Time (George Jones cover); Misery and Gin (Merle Haggard cover); By the Seat of Your Pants; Give it Away; Set ‘Em Up, Joe; Amanda (Don Williams cover); Walkin’ (Willie Nelson cover); In Color; I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover).

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(Above: Al Hibbler, who wrote “Unchained Melody,” attended school for the blind in Little Rock, Ark.)

By Joel Francis

At a recent concert in Fayetteville, Ark., jazz legend Sonny Rollins remarked at how happy he was to be playing Louis Jordan’s home state for the first time.

Arkansas has never been known as either cutting-edge or influential. Not even Bill Clinton could save Arkansas from being a backwoods punchline – it’s the West Virginia of the Midwest, for readers who are mystified by what lies west of Virginia – but it’s spawned an amazing number of influential musicians. There’s Johnny Cash, who was born in Kingsland and raised in Dyess, and his brother Tommy, of course. Legendary Band drummer Levon Helm, who hails from Marvell. Those are the ones everybody knows.

Incredibly, soul legend Al Green was born in Forrest City. One of Green’s influences, gospel/rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was born in Cotton Plant. Contemporary gospel star Smokie Norfull was originally from Pine Bluff. Delight brought us Glen Campbell, Colt was Charlie Rich’s first home and Conway Twitty was born Harold Jenkins in Helena. John Hughes, a pedal steel player who worked Twitty and numerous others, came from Elaine.

Louis Jordan (Brinkley) aside, the Natural State has also produced jazzman Joe Bishop from Monticello, who wrote the staple “Woodchopper’s Ball” and free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (Little Rock).

The state’s greatest legacy might be the amount of blues it birthed, including Luther Allison (Widener), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (Helena), Son Seals (Osceola), Jimmy Witherspoon (Gurdon), Roosevelt Sykes (Elmar) and Robert Jr. Lockwood (Helena). West Memphis was the first stop north for many blues players. Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Big Boy Crudup and B.B. King all stopped there for a while. Stax pillar Rufus Thomas was a longtime West Memphis radio host.

The name Jim Dickinson (Little Rock) may not be familiar, but his work with the Dixie Flyers, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Replacements, Mudhoney and the North Mississippi Allstars – which features his sons Luther and Cody – has been heard the world over.

On the pop side, founding Evanescence duo Amy Lee and Ben Moody are also both Little Rock Natives; R&B slickster Ne-Yo was born in Camden and Perryville begat Shawn Camp, who has written songs for Garth Brooks, George Strait and Brooks and Dunn.

Arkansas may be a forgotten state that ranks in 32nd in population and 29th in area, but if you can’t experience its Ozark Mountains in person, it’s at least worth a musical road trip.

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