Maker, performers set the tune for Northwest Arkansas

Maker, performers set the tune for Northwest Arkansas


“For many of us, Ed has come to represent the Ozarks of old,” Kelly Mulhollan muses. “A time before generic electronic media-driven culture swept over our regional identity. I think a lot us feel a nostalgia for those simpler days.”

Mulhollan, who with his wife Donna is the musical duo Still on the Hill, is talking about Ed Stilley, who passed away June 12, 2019. Stilley lived way out in Hogscald Holler in Carroll County, and he was never known as a musician. But he made an indelible mark on the musical history of Northwest Arkansas.

Stilley made musical instruments — not the slick, sensual kind made by Fayetteville luthier Bayard Blain, but something completely different. His were crafted from scraps and rusty leftovers — door springs, saw blades, pot lids, aerosol cans and “who knows what else,” as Mulhollan puts it. He never sold them, never signed them. Each he gave away, inscribed with the words “True Faith, True Light” on the top. Most of the more than 200 recipients were children.

To Stilley, the guitars and fiddles were nothing but a way to spread his faith. It was only when the Mulhollans first saw them they realized “we had stumbled on to one of the great American folk artists,” Kelly says.

Over the years, the Mulhollans became friends with the “unintentional inventor,” and they began to dream of chronicling his life and his “vehicles for devotion” in a book.

“First, we became amateur detectives,” Kelly Mulhollan explains. They set out on a quest to document Stilley’s instruments and found 50 of them. “He couldn’t tell us where they were,” Donna says.

They also went through a couple of photographers and a couple of publishers who “didn’t work out” before arranging an exhibit of Stilley’s instruments at the Walton Arts Center during the Roots Festival. And that’s when everything changed. Robert Cochran, director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies at the University of Arkansas, walked in to the gallery.

With Cochran’s help, the result was “True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley,” released by University of Arkansas Press in 2015. There was also an exhibit at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock and another at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale.

“Thanks to the Old State House and Shiloh Museum, school children have participated in workshops where they actually created simple cigar box instrument inspired by Ed Stilley’s work,” Mulhollan marvels. “That, along with countless newspaper, radio and television stories [meant] Ed Stilley’s story has truly taken on a life of its own.”

The exhibit at the Shiloh Museum remains open through Jan. 11.

“My goal from the start was simply to make Ed’s work known to the people of Arkansas,” Mulhollan says. “That happened, and so much more. It was a great privilege and joy to be able to share his work with the world.”

Cate Brothers

If Stilley represents a unique old school of musical craftsmen, Ernie and Earl Cate are the music makers every child of the ’60s dreamed of being — and 2019 saw the twins celebrate five decades of making music together.

Ernie and Earl grew up on a farm in Sonora, east of Springdale, with horses, cattle, guitars and banjos. Their father, having dreamed of being a musician, acquired instruments here and there, and the brothers used whatever they had around the house to teach themselves to play.

“We’d go to the neighbors’ that were players,” Earl reflects. “Back then, [we] didn’t have a TV, so that was your entertainment on a Saturday night or something, go to the neighbors’ and they would play and we watched them and just picked it up gradually.”

Playing the country-influenced rock of The Everly Brothers is where the pair really got their start performing. That foundation dovetailed nicely with the education the budding musicians would later get outside Ronnie Hawkins’ south Fayetteville venue, the Rockwood Club.

Hawkins’ rockabilly-esque brand of rock ‘n’ roll helped usher in a distinct sound for the region that has continued even to the present. Names known today by history buffs and music lovers — and a few that would rocket past that modicum of celebrity and go on to true fame — either emerged in the region during this time or came to the area to perform.

“Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, … that became The Band, eventually. We were friends with them and actually saw that group evolve to where it became The Band,” Earl says, pointing to one of Arkansas’ most famous musical exports. “And then like Windy Austin, Zorro & The Blue Footballs, there’s so many bands when you think back, you lose track, that were fairly successful. There’s just always been a lot of music here.”

Including The Cate Brothers Band. The pair started out with The Cates Gang in the early ’70s and released a couple albums that have been out of print for decades. When they became The Cate Brothers Band, they also landed a contract with Asylum Records. Several albums followed — with Asylum and after — international touring, and an ever-growing reputation for expert musicianship. All the while, the brothers stayed true to their country/soul roots — with a blues and R&B leaning.

“We were kind of fortunate to be in [music] at a certain time when everything was blooming,” Earl continues. “Like the mid-’70s, right before disco took over, it was a really good time, and we kind of got in on a lot of that. And being associated with Levon [Helm] and those guys, we actually played with The Band for a couple of years. And through him we got to meet a lot of people … who otherwise we wouldn’t have.”

The Cate brothers will be celebrated again on Feb. 19 when Benjamin Meade’s biopic about them — titled “Cate Bros.: Arkansas Rock and Soul Royalty” — premieres at 7 p.m. at George’s Majestic Lounge.


Part II: The impact of music in 2019 was so big, we split it into two stories. Coming Dec. 29, the future of music in the year ahead as predicted by the year just past.

Categories: Music