Arkansas’s Delta has contributed its share of innovators in two genres of popular music – blues and rockabilly.
The blues sound grew in the Deep South in the late 19th century and moved up the Delta. One major early proponent of the blues was KFFA radio in Helena-West Helena. Established in 1941, KFFA provided a venue for African-American blues musicians during its “King Biscuit Time” show, which aired every day at noon when farmhands took their lunch breaks. Today, “King Biscuit Time” is the longest-running blues radio show in the country and broadcasts from the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena. The show still opens with these famous words uttered by longtime announcer “Sunshine” Sonny Payne: “Pass the biscuits, it’s King Biscuit Time.”
KFFA was an important influence on B.B. King, who was steeped in gospel music as a child. The legendary bluesman played juke joints up and down the Mississippi River. At a club in Twist, a fatal fire prompted him to henceforth call all his guitars “Lucille.” Two men accidentally started the blaze, fighting over a woman named Lucille. Today, Twist is a mere dot on the map, but there is a historic marker placed on the site where the club once stood, a necessary stop for any real blues fan.
The legacy of the blues also lives on at the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival held in Helena-West Helena in October.
A little-known fact is that The Beatles touched down on Arkansas soil on September 18 and 20, 1964, in Walnut Ridge on US 63/67. The band landed a chartered plane at the airport on a Friday, desiring anonymity as they caught a smaller plane to fly to a retreat in southern Missouri. But three teenaged boys recognized the group, and on Sunday morning, hundreds of residents gathered to bid adieu to the Fab Four. Walnut Ridge recently built a park memorializing this moment with a unique sculpture depicting the Abbey Road album cover.
But before the greatest rock group in history could even exist, there had to be a precursor ... rockabilly. Johnny Cash, an icon in country music, also made his mark on the rockabilly scene. Cash’s sound and song lyrics were inspired by his humble surroundings, having been raised on one of Roosevelt’s WPA projects at Dyess, called “Colonization Project No. 1.” Today, you can tour the administration building and home at the Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home just off
AR 14 on 297. The home has been restored to appear just as it would have looked when Johnny was a kid. All tours begin in the administration building where there is a fine collection of photographs, relics and memorabilia.
Along the way: Newport is the birthplace of rockabilly guitarist Albert “Sonny” Burgess. Tyronza is home to the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, worth a stop and a stroll when you need to stretch your legs.