Bright Lights, Little City

Bright Lights, Little City

Ex-Stax, Motown exec heading to Bentonville


The musical potential of Bentonville has captured the attention of Al Bell, former chairman of Stax Records and former president of Motown Records.

So much so that Bell, who helped create the “Memphis Sound” and built Stax Records to become the second-largest business owned by a black person in the 1970s, is relocating his home and his Al Bell Presents business there.

Bell is president and CEO of Al Bell Presents, currently in North Little Rock. He and his wife of 55 years, Lydia, are moving, he says, because Bentonville is playing just the right tune for becoming a breakout music destination.

Al Bell Presents conducted a two-year feasibility study to determine whether Bentonville could serve as the base of operations for a global music industry, whether the city’s culture would be attractive to domestic and international music talent, and whether Al Bell Presents would be able to contribute to the economic growth of the music industry locally, Bell says.

“The conclusion was a resounding ‘yes,’” he says, partly because businesses such as Walmart Inc. have proven that a global industry can be headquartered in the region.

Bell is interested in sharing the “knowledge and experience that God has given me over half a century in this business, because I understand the fundamentals,” he says. “That’s what I want to do in Bentonville. That’s what’s motivating and inspiring me.”

The businessman says he expects to announce in the next 60 days when and where he will open the Al Bell Presents headquarters in Bentonville and satellite locations in Rogers and Fayetteville. He says he can’t sing, dance or play a musical instrument, but he knows a great performer and song when he hears them.

“The hearing and the feeling is my asset, and I’m a social science marketer, so I’m always about dealing with something that’s going to make people feel good,” he says.

Part of what makes Bentonville so enticing is the cooperation among area businesses that have performance venues and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, recording studios and content creators, says Kalene Griffith, president of Visit Bentonville, which promotes the city.

The city also benefits from Fayetteville’s thriving live music scene and the success of the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers, both of which draw performers to the area, she says.

In February, a new arts venue called the Momentary will open and feature an outdoor amphitheater, another venue that the city can promote, Griffith says.

“We want to make sure we’re looking at all of the venues that can have music in Bentonville and how we help promote that and tell that story,” she says.

The city hopes to expand its musical presence through collaboration as songwriters at The House of Songs create content and recording studios like Haxton Road Studios give the music more permanence.

The House of Songs began in Austin, Texas, 10 years ago, says Troy Campbell, founder and artistic director. He took the concept to Bentonville in 2017, establishing The House of Songs Ozarks.

Another benefit for Bentonville is its Northwest Arkansas location, which is often along the way as musicians travel to and from larger music destinations such as Kansas City, Dallas and Memphis, Griffith says.

“Multiple artists have stopped through and recorded or at least toured the studio upon hearing that we have this kind of facility in Northwest Arkansas,” Neil Greenhaw, owner of Haxton Road Studios, says in an email.

Haxton Road is a professional recording studio founded in 2011 that produces songs and other content, Greenhaw says. The studio has multiple recording rooms and staff songwriters, who write and pitch songs to record labels, artists and businesses.

Fayetteville’s Cosmic Cowboy Studio caught Bell’s attention when its owner, Ben Meade, told him he wanted to create the next Stax Records in Northwest Arkansas.

Meade says he referred to the layout of the original Stax Records when designing Cosmic Cowboy to create a studio where something as simple as moving furniture or closing a curtain can create recording spaces.

He opened the studio in July. It is also home to Cosmic Cowboy Records. The record company anticipates producing 13 albums by April 2020, Meade says. The studio stands out Meade says because it’s the only one in the region that’s recording music using solely analog equipment. All of the content is recorded on audiotape, and there’s no digital manipulation.

“This type of recording is authentic,” he says. “It’s the way you hear the real world, which is why I want to do it this way and why I think there’s been a resurgence in this type of recording.”

Meade says he hopes to attract new talent, as well as rejuvenate performers who’ve been marginalized over the years. Bell is creating a means to that end, Meade says, by getting performers such as Booker T. Jones — a Musicians Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient — and saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator Bobby Watson to record at the studio.

Haxton Road Studios offers the music production, “while House of Songs is bringing in artists from all over the world who need professional production” and who also perform concerts in the Northwest Arkansas area, Greenhaw says.

Songwriters can stay in the House of Songs house, a fully restored 1892 Victorian, for up to 11 days writing music and performing locally.

Jamie Lou Connolly, the Bentonville house manager, says about 200 artists have used the house as a creative space since it opened.

Bentonville has the building blocks to grow a global-reach music industry, Bell says.

“The most important thing is the fundamentals of the business, and that starts with content and product,” he says. “In order to have that content or product, you have to have writers, you have to have your musicians, then you have to have your recording studios.”

“It’s a music business,” he says. “There’s creativity and there’s art form, but it’s a business.”

Griffith says that with time, Bentonville hopes to attract some of the top names in music.

“We’re even going to go a little bit deeper and try to figure out those local musicians that are from Bentonville and how to tell their story to say that we’re a music destination,” she says.

Visit Bentonville officials have been attending conferences to help determine the next steps to take, talking through challenges with venue officials and the city, and inviting travel writers to the area.

“A lot of times those are the best storytellers, someone who experiences our community,” she says.

Griffith says she could see the city creating an event similar to South by Southwest in Austin, an annual music festival that attracts artists, fans and music professionals from more than 60 countries.

Such events fill up hotels and restaurants in the area. “That’s what we want to see, because that’s what ultimately helps us fund additional events and additional experiences,” she says.



Move to the Beat

Music events are featured in Bentonville throughout the year. Special events for music and more can be found through the following local resources:

Visit Bentonville at

Downtown Bentonville Inc. at

Source: Staff report

Categories: Music