words: Dwain Hebda
images:courtesy Murphy Arts District and Main Street El Dorado
From September 27 through October 1, a trove of iconic musicians will be performing in El Dorado, Arkansas. Lyle Lovett, Train, ZZ Top, Ludacris, Brad Paisley and Smokey Robinson, headline four days of music along with many other great musicians.
El Dorado drew this stellar card to help christen the new Murphy Arts District, a multi-million dollar effort to turn the oil town into a major music destination. This is the story of the scrappy town’s hard work, community pride and a whole lot of creative energy.
September is a big month for El Dorado, Arkansas native Austin Barrow, who’s heading the development of the Murphy Arts District (MAD), scheduled to open later this month.
There was a time when Austin couldn’t have imagined that he’d be back in his hometown, having split after high school with no intention of coming back. Austin had his eye on the performing arts and despite its romantic-sounding name, the hard-baked oil fields of El Dorado hardly seemed like a launching pad for such a career. So, he got a theater degree from Louisiana Tech and spent a decade in Chicago, Los Angeles and a couple of other ports of call before settling into life as a college professor.
But returning to Union County, Arkansas? The thought never crossed his mind.
So, when he got a call from the folks back home asking if he’d return and head up a project called the Murphy Arts District (MAD), no one was more surprised than Austin, who was then teaching college drama in Georgia.
“I couldn’t think of a better excuse to move back home than to bring all of the education and experience I’d had being a gypsy all over the country and bringing that back to El Dorado,” he said.
Now, as president of El Dorado Festivals and Events, Austin has watched the dream of the arts district become a reality. The project is divided into two parts, and on September 28, Phase One will open to the public. The downtown development includes the Griffin restaurant, a farm-to-table eatery housed in a factory that once turned out Model Ts; an 8,000-seat amphitheater; a kids’ area with a playground and splash pad; a music hall that will seat 2,000; and a more intimate music venue that seats 200.
The Grand Opening slate includes ZZ Top, Smokey Robinson, Train, Ludacris, Migos and Brad Paisley and a private donors-only concert will host Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Robert Earl Keen.
The MAD facilities will enhance El Dorado’s existing reputation as a premier mid-south concert venue. The town’s MusicFest, which will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary this month, has been named Arkansas Festival of the Year a record six times since 2007.
Phase Two, which is still to come, will include an art gallery and exhibition hall with artists in residence programs and renovation of the Rialto, a 1920s vaudeville theater.
It’s hard to decide if the idea of a former oil boomtown recasting itself as an arts and entertainment hub is as preposterous as it first sounds. The city’s founding was especially inauspicious: Matthew Rainey allegedly became stranded there and opened a retail store in 1843 to sell off his belongings and raise some cash, an enterprise which begat El Dorado.
The town even has a celebrated blood feud to its credit, a violent spat that was equal parts OK Corral and Hatfield v. McCoy. The civic hostilities were touched off by a spurned lover who started a bona fide gunfight in the street, resulting in three deaths including that of the would-be Romeo. Animosity over the incident simmered between the local Tucker and Parnell clans over the next three years, with acts of violent retribution and counter-retribution that would claim between thirty to forty additional lives. At one time, deployment of the state militia was required to keep the peace.
But of course, the grandest chapter in the town’s history came when local speculator and physician Dr. Samuel T. Busey struck oil January 10, 1921, and started a boom that transformed El Dorado from a sleepy farming hamlet of 4,000 to a major player in the state’s economy. The population rose quicker than a wildcat gusher, more than sevenfold in four years, spawning tent neighborhoods because there weren’t enough structures to house everybody. At one point, El Dorado boasted fifty-nine oil contracting companies, thirteen oil distributors and refiners and twenty-two oil production companies.
The oil business continues to play a major role in El Dorado’s fortunes, but the community has suffered hard times in other ways and the population steadily decreased. In fact, when Beth Brumley, executive director of Main Street El Dorado, moved here in 1994 the population was around 27,000; in the twenty-three years since, it’s dropped to around 17,000.
But, as Beth noted, the city’s fortunes have been shaped not by those who’ve left, but by the resolve and creativity of those who’ve stuck around.
“For south Arkansas, El Dorado is the hub,” Beth said. “Most people who don’t go below Little Rock have no idea. We’re 17,000 people, but we have within thirty miles several other towns that depend on us. Most of their workforce drives to El Dorado to shop, to eat, to work. We want to be the best we can be, and I think everybody has that same mindset and wants El Dorado to thrive.”
Main Street El Dorado was in the 1980s what MAD proposes to be today, a means of promoting the city, attracting new residents and creating an environment where businesses can thrive and grow. Thanks in part to the group’s efforts, the city’s core is in good shape, at about ninety percent occupancy.
Beth, who has been in her role since March, said the addition of MAD fits into the overall picture, just as Main Street El Dorado did with the town’s various other promotion and economic development organizations.
“We get that question a lot: ‘How do you have a downtown business association, a chamber of commerce, a main street organization and all get along?’” she says, emphasizing the fact that they work great together. “We each try to pick a point and say this is what we’re going to do and we come together when we have to. But we all kind of take a separate spot and call it ours.”
About the time Main Street El Dorado was being formed, the community was also discovering the power of tourism. Its recreation of the Tucker-Parnell gunfight has been packing them into downtown every Saturday night in the summer for three decades.
Austin said he’s looking for MAD to provide something for every taste from major touring acts to more eclectic offerings. “We’re not necessarily trying to be everything to everybody, but I want to have a continuity of programming here,” he says. “I want people to say, ‘Hey, I wonder what’s going on at MAD this weekend?’ because we’ve got enough different types of options that you begin to trust us as curators of your entertainment experience.”
Murphy Arts District
Grand Opening Celebration
September 27-October 1
Main Street El Dorado