TWENTY YEARS ago, Stephen Koch might’ve told you he knew it all. Grown from Delta roots, he’d been raised bouncing on the knee of his radio DJ father, soaking up the music that would become a lifelong passion. But in 1998, when Stephen and his partner, Keith Merckx, started their two-hour program on KABF in Little Rock, Stephen started pulling threads. Drawing on his journalism background—he’d studied broadcasting at Arkansas State University before shifting into writing, newspapers, magazines—he started digging into the musicians he’d loved and realized how many pioneers of Arkansas music, whose stories had long since come to an end, hadn’t ever gotten their due. (As Stephen says, “You don’t have to be dead to be on Arkansongs—but it helps.”)
After four years at KABF, he was approached by KUAR’s Ben Fry and Ron Breeding, whose innovative thinking made Arkansongs what it is today: a weekly segment, distributed to National Public Radio stations around the state, that explores a different aspect of Arkansas music—everything from The Band’s The Last Waltz and Jimmy Driftwood to cult leader Tony Alamo’s stint as a musician. Now that the show’s been around for a while—20 years this month—you might think that Stephen’s had to scrape the barrel to find major figures of Arkansas music. Right? Turns out, however, that those threads he’s been pulling just go on and on and on.
“It wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t completely in love with it,” he says. “I just want to be the excited guy at your house with records who totally gets annoying after less than an hour. Seven minutes is probably at the tops.”
Stephen Koch’s Arkan-sampler
Six must-listens from the host of Arkansongs
1. “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” by Wayne Raney and Lonnie Glosson
“This was the No. 1 country song in the ’40s. It’s unique to me because it’s got these two great Arkansas guys who were partners, and who sold harmonicas by mail order. Hundreds of thousands of them. They were basically the Harmonica Kings of their time. It’s also doubly cool because Little Willie John, the great R&B singer from Ouachita County, did a great cover version of this song, and his producer was Henry Glover of Hot Springs, who’s someone that shows up all the time as sort of a background figure in a lot of Arkansongs episodes because he worked with Levon Helm. If you can keep up with all these crazy threads, there’s a quadruple Arkansas connection in just this one song.”
2. “Solace” by Scott Joplin
“This song is featured in the movie The Sting, which helped bring Scott Joplin back to prominence. ‘Solace’ has these two different movements that end up working together, and it’s this sort of really tragic, minor-key melody. By the end of the song, he’s doing it so boldly and forcefully, it’s almost like you’re working through the pain—like you’re striding, strongly, with tears in your eyes. Like, I can do that. It’s just a beautiful song. What a gift to be able to do that without any words.”
3. “Figure 8” by Bob Dorough (from Schoolhouse Rock!)
“If I’d’ve known that he was from Arkansas when I was a child, my mind would have exploded with joy. Man, all those songs from Schoolhouse Rock! to me are just fantastic. And that’s what helped me graduate high school, being able to review those songs in my head when I did any sort of math. To explain something like mathematics in three minutes is an amazing gift. And to do it with a melody—it’s crazy how talented he was. This song is a heartbreaking number, sort of like ‘Solace,’ just a really aching, minor-key melody. To me, it’s just a great example of Bob Dorough’s genius.”
4. “Can’t Sit Down” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
“I really like the live 1960 version recorded in Paris, where it’s just her and the guitar. And you can basically hear Jimmy Page ripping her off eight years later. She took gospel music and put it in the nightclubs, but also took the nightclubs and mixed it with her gospel, all while playing this amazing electric guitar that sounded 20 years from the future. I’m so thrilled she got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. It’s thrilling to me when it’s an Arkansas artist who gets some national attention. It’s like I’m so rooting for them—I want all of this to be as nationally known as it is in my brain.”
5. “Love is a Frozen Fishstick” by Soophie Nun Squad
“There was a really great energy in the music scene in the ’90s, and there still is. I’m still optimistic about Little Rock’s scene and the great players who are doing stuff now, but man, I loved Soophie and Ho-Hum and Magic Cropdusters. Now, they’re the legacy bands. This ‘Love Is a Frozen Fish Stick’ song is a sad number, but it’s got a kazoo solo, so it’s still fun. It’s really driven by the bass melody, but it has a lot of cool aggression. It keeps it under check for most of the song, then toward the end, the anger about the unjust nature of love finally breaks through.”
6. “Rock Doc” by Louis Jordan
“My dad gave me this 45 when I was a kid. I don’t know where he would’ve found it—but I have vivid memories of getting this little record when I was in, again, who knows, second, third grade. I have it in the archives here. And you know, it all came from Louis Jordan for me. I was able to do so much with him—I wrote the biography of him, and we did the musical on him (rest in peace, Cliff Baker). And we did the documentary film that we screened at White Water last month. He’s basically the reason Arkansongs even exists.”
Editor’s note: These answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Listen to Arkansongs Fridays at 6:51 a.m. and 6:20 p.m. on KUAR. Or visit archive.org/details/Arkansongs_Arkive for 186 archived shows.
Photo courtesy of Associated Press.