By D.R. Bartlette
Northwest Arkansas has long been a Mecca for the creatives, the eccentrics and the non-conformists. Here are some locals whose job it is to make this area a more interesting place to live.
Music is everyone’s birthright
A group of people stands around in a circle, men on one side, women on the other. Holding their hands to their bellies, they chant in controlled laughter: “Ha! Ha! Ha! Hee! Hee! Hee! Ho! Ho! Ho!” Standing near the center, Nancy Maier laughs along, conducting with her hand.
This is practice night for the Everyone Can Sing community choir started by Maier last year. Maier describes it as “not-so-scary singing” for people who have fears or issues about using their voice.
“My philosophy is that music is everyone’s birthright, and that philosophy is the heart of what I do,” Maier said.
Maier has been involved with music for decades. According to her website, she was born and raised in McGehee, in southeastern Arkansas, then left to get her master’s degree in poetry from Boston University. She learned to play the guitar when she was about 20 years old and began songwriting about 12 years ago, culminating in the release of her debut album, “Love Again,” in 2003.
She is also a graduate of the Gettin’ Higher Choir community choir leadership training program in Victoria, British Columbia.
“In this choir, 300 people sang and it touched you,” Maier said. “It went straight to your heart.”
Her focus with this choir, besides “providing a safe place to sing,” is to create a community of sound.
“These [community choirs] are starting up all over the country – people want to come together and sing.” Plus, she said, “It’s a lot of fun.”
Self-described “rookie” choir member David Fournet said, “I get high when I come. I was nervous at first, but I quickly relaxed.”
Maier explained, “Once people come into the group, it really frees their voice.”
One practice started with a reading from author Shakti Gawain about creating a life filled with sharing and making connections to form a sense of community. After the laughing warm-up exercises, the choir sing songs from a variety of traditions, from old-time gospel to African harvest songs.
The choir was practicing for a performance at the World Drum Project in Eureka Springs, a series of worldwide ceremonies with a focus on the environment and healing mother earth.
“I love it,” said Seajay Crosson, another choir member. “The interesting thing is that if I feel tired or I don’t want to go, once I get here, after the breathing and singing, I’m always energized. I’m always glad I came.”
Live from the sale barn
Kermit Womack, known to many as “The Colonel,” began his radio career as a freshman at Arkansas Tech in the 1950’s. After several years working in radio in Missouri and Arkansas, Womack started KURM in Rogers in 1979. He said he chose Rogers because he had studied its growth in retail sales and believed it was a dynamic region. Indeed, his son, Stephen, is currently in his third term as mayor of Rogers.
KURM is run much like an old-fashioned, rural community radio station – Womack describes it as “community involvement radio.” Programming includes farm reports, high school sports, call-in talk shows, gospel music and the ever-popular “Dial-A-Trade,” which Womack describes as “three hours a day of free want ads.”
Inside the studio, plaques of recognition and appreciation from various community groups line one wall. KURM broadcasts at 5,000 watts and is heard from Little Rock to Springfield, Mo.
Thursday mornings, The Colonel broadcasts live from the Washington County Livestock Auction. Amid the din (and smell) of mooing cows, farmers and ranchers sip coffee and bid on animals by the pound. One of the two auctioneers calls out the per-pound bids while a monitor behind him displays the current price. Bud Dennis, who works at the auction, said about 700 to 750 head of cattle come through the auction in a day.
During the auction, Womack gives a sort of “play-by-play” for his radio listeners. “I describe the animals as they come through, whether it’s a steer, a heifer or for slaughter; and the breed and quality,” Womack said. “Then I tell what [price] it brought.
“Farmers like it because they can see what they [the cattle] bring in.” He said he does this as a service to the livestock industry, which is not surprising. Besides running six radio stations, Womack and his wife, Irene, operate several cattle farms.
Besides the livestock auction broadcasts, Womack covers other agricultural events such as county fairs and often conducts interviews in the barns. Womack doesn’t worry about other radio stations competing for his market. “It’s too much work,” he said.
A grave undertaking
Al Vick has been a fixture on the Fayetteville scene for many years. Since arriving here Memorial Day weekend of 1979, Vick has worn many hats. From acoustic musician to politician (he ran for City Board of Directors in 1988 and again for City Council in 2002), Vick has never been long out of the public eye.
One of the quietest vocations Vick has engaged in has been working as caretaker for Fayetteville’s Confederate Cemetery. According to the Arkansas Parks and Tourism website, the cemetery was founded in 1872 by the Southern Memorial Association of Washington County, which paid to have the remains of Confederate casualties at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, as well as other battlefields, removed and reinterred to what remains a “picturesque and moving site.”
Vick has been the caretaker there for around 15 years and in return he gets a paycheck and free housing in a small cottage near the cemetery. His yard is overgrown with vines and shrubs and is decorated with a fake human skull, a real cow skull, a peace pole and clusters of quartz crystals. A stuffed crow stands guard at the fence and a sign on the front door reads “Treehugger.”
Vick said he wasn’t worried about taking the job at all – he said the job mostly consists of mowing, cutting up wood and picking up fallen branches. The Walker family cemetery, adjacent to the Confederate Cemetery, has recently been added to his caretaking responsibilities.
“Sometimes I have to ask people to leave when the cemetery closes after dark,” he said.
He said that he rarely has problems with people in the cemetery, but there was one rather extreme act of vandalism on one of the heavy concrete cannons.
“Somebody tried to move it, and tore it up and broke it out of its setting,” he said. “It took four or five guys to lift it and reset it.”
Vick will admit to one unexplained occurrence at the cemetery that he believes is paranormal. One summer night, he said, he was sitting on the wall playing his guitar. He said at one point, he stopped and looked up, and he saw what appeared to be a heavy-set man sitting on a gravestone, resting his chin on his hand. “The streetlight shone right on where he was sitting,” Vick said.
Vick said he thought it might have been a neighbor at first. “He sat another 10 minutes or so and didn’t move, and I didn’t bother him. Then it was time for Star Trek to come on, so I jumped down; when I looked, he was there. Then I took two or three steps and he was gone.”
Whether it be by helping to create a community with song, giving one part of the community information to help their livelihoods or keeping their final resting places maintained and respected, each of these unique jobs gives back to the community in some way. And although there were no ulterior motives for profiling these particular people other than their unusual jobs, another thing stood out as an interesting commonality: they all are, or have been, involved with independent media. Maier was the last editor and publisher of the former Grapevine newspaper. Womack, of course, owns his own radio stations and focuses on community involvement programming. Vick is a contributor and active editor of the Arkansas Independent Media website.