Even At A Distance

Even At A Distance

Peacemaker all about music, community


Though the Riverfront Amphitheater will look a little different July 24 and 25, organizers for Fort Smith’s annual Peacemaker Music Festival are confident they will be able provide the laid-back, family-friendly experience fans have come to expect from the event in its sixth year.

“The atmosphere for this festival, even pre-covid, it’s not a typical concert,” shares festival spokesperson Jordan Johnson. “It’s a picnic-style concert. It is in an intimate setting, there’s not throngs of people, there’s no mosh pits. It’s really a family-friendly, enjoyable experience that is wildly different from a typical music festival.

As its sixth year is happening in the middle of a pandemic, Fort Smith’s Peacemaker Festival has implemented safety procedures in line with the Arkansas governor’s office and the Department of Health, including opening the festival to only 46 percent of the venue’s capacity — even though, as an outdoor venue, they are allowed to host as much as 66 percent of their audience.
(Courtesy Photo/Phil Clarkin)

“And that planning was very fortuitous in this sort of thing because you don’t really have to change a lot,” he adds of the festival’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. “The expectations of people are that it’s a much more chill, much more settled type of environment.”

And so, the show goes on in the River Valley, with the venue at 46 percent capacity — well under the 66 percent an outdoor venue is legally allowed to host under the current directives from the governor and the Arkansas Department of Health. Even after issuing 250 more general admission tickets, this year’s socially distanced festival sold out quickly and will give music lovers and artists alike something to look forward to.

“We are not back on the road. Not even close. We are happy to be doing this show, but things have a long way to go for us to get back to touring,” says Wade Bowen, performing during the Friday lineup with Randy Rogers as their side project duo Hold My Beer & Watch This. The fact that the twosome is participating in the festival is indicative of their confidence in the organizers’ preparation.

“Music can provide a backdrop for celebration of the common thread that runs through us. It can provide the feeling of connection and shared experience, which is so needed right now,” Kaitlin Butts says thoughtfully. Butts is an Oklahoma native on the rise thanks to her sharp wit and her exigent storytelling. “The best thing about music is that it can tell basic truths and convey raw emotions with melodies attached that cause people to listen and feel with more depth. I think music is an important part of getting through our current situations. Writers can do so much with songs — they can bring comfort, humor and can inspire people to change for the better by touching the emotions of the listener.”
(Courtesy Photo)

“The only shows we are playing now are the ones that promise proper social distancing and follow statewide guidelines,” Bowen says. “Until this pandemic ends, unfortunately, we will continue to play random shows as much as we are allowed to do so.”

“Isolation has been tough on everyone I know. As a musician, I miss the connection with an audience and the energy and happiness I draw from it,” adds Saturday performer Kaitlin Butts, an Oklahoma native making waves with her quick-witted and wry songwriting.

“I have realized what a privilege and a simple joy it is to play live music,” she continues. “I hope people leave [Peacemaker] feeling the collective positive energy music can give us, and that they are a bit recharged and better able to face the uncertainties of this crazy year. I hope the shows provide some relief for those who have been feeling isolated, and that they are reminded of the good that exists all around us, and inspired to change things for the better when they can from wherever they are.”

“We enjoy the collaborations ‘cause we are friends first,” says Wade Bowen of his side project Hold My Beer & Watch This with friend and fellow musician Randy Rogers. “That’s where this all started. And why it continues. These projects are different because of the focus on fun, beer drinking, dancehall country music. We take our careers and albums very serious. And with these, as with anything with friends, it’s way more lighthearted and relaxed.”
(Courtesy Photo/Joshua Black Wilkins)

In addition, festival organizers are excited to welcome The Band of Heathens, also performing on Saturday, back to Fort Smith for the first time in nearly a decade. The group is preparing for the release of their new album “Stranger” in September, but if you only saw the video for recently released single “Today Is Our Last Tomorrow” (June 11), you might think the album is solely in response to the state of the world facing the covid outbreak and tensions over racial injustice.

“‘Today Is Our Last Tomorrow’ was written before the world fell apart, but I think at different times over the past few years, we’ve all had a passing feeling that the world was falling apart. I just don’t think anyone could have predicted the level and magnitude of the earthquake that we’re still experiencing,” reflects Ed Jurdi (vocals/guitar/keyboard).

“It’s impossible for the weight of the world to not have an impact on your smaller circle of family and friends. It’s inevitable for that to end up in our music,” he goes on. “Sometimes it manifests itself in an outward way, where there’s observation and commentary, like in the case of ‘Today Is Our Last Tomorrow.’ Other times, it works into things on a cellular level.

“There’s an interesting relationship between how the big ‘outside world’ creates introspection and self-assessment of all of the smaller sort of day-to-day things that we’re going through as individuals,” Jurdi adds. “As a songwriter and an artist, the goal is to present my perspective, whether that’s macro or micro.”

Though The Band of Heathens are spread out all over the country (California, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina), the group has found a way to still build connections and uplift with their music. “We’ve been able to put together a really entertaining and interesting variety show called the Good Time Supper Club, which we put on every Tuesday night and broadcast from our living room to yours,” explains singer/guitarist/keyboardist Ed Jurdi. “We’ve been able to use the show as a springboard for making music and collaborating with some of our friends like Margo Price and Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke. I’ve been really proud of our ability to make lemonade out of lemons, considering the circumstances.”
(Courtesy Photo/Jason Quigley)

Similarly, Jonathan Tyler of Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights was also preparing to release new music this summer before the virus brought the music industry to a halt along with everything else. When he realized how prescient his song “Underground Forever” — a song written sometime in the summer of 2018 — had become, he threw a video together for the single to tie the lyrics to the weirdness we’re all living in at the moment.

“The initial inspiration came from what I like to call a self-inflicted ‘media burn,’” Tyler shares. “I’d been so mentally fatigued by all the political pundits pushing agendas through news, social media and propaganda. I felt like turning it all off and going off the grid. But when the whole world shut down, I felt it was particularly poignant. So we quickly made an esoteric music video where, dressed as Uncle Sam, I rode a bicycle through the empty streets of Austin with a golden shovel strapped to my back. It’s pretty fantastic, if I may say so myself!”

Most of the artists in the Peacemaker lineup of nine can’t speak to what’s next. Some have consistent virtual programs they’ve developed — like The Band of Heathens’ Good Time Supper Club and their virtual Lifeline Tour — and others, like Tyler, have done a livestream or two, but after their appearance at Peacemaker, most don’t know the next event they’ll have to look forward to.

The same can obviously be said for fans of live music — not knowing the next concert they’ll have the opportunity to attend — but unfortunately, charities and nonprofits are suffering similarly, and that’s one of the reasons organizers felt moved to still host Peacemaker this year. Each year, proceeds from the event, which is a nonprofit organization itself, support up to five charities in the River Valley.

“Truth be told, this year, a lot of these charities that we raise money for, it’s vital to them with everything going on with covid,” Johnson says of the festival’s community impact. “A lot of these charitable organizations have either not received the funding they’ve been receiving or they’ve had to cancel some of their own events that are fundraisers. So we’re really excited that we’re going to be able to continue to put the show on.”

“It’s been pretty tough to find the metaphoric light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel,” reflects Jonathan Tyler, who is looking forward to his return to Fort Smith. “On one hand, it makes the idea of a big gathering seem pretty irresponsible. On the other hand, I don’t want to cower in fear and watch myself and the people I love succumb to all the other negative side effects of isolation. I’d rather find a middle ground where we safely experience community.”
(Courtesy Photo)

As they have in the past, this year, Peacemaker is partnering with the Children’s Emergency Shelter, Developmental Wings and Girls Inc. as the festival’s beneficiaries.

“This is a community-centric event that is focused solely on providing fun, yet safe, outdoor venue entertainment to people while also continuing to give back to these local charities that do great work in our community helping others,” Johnson asserts proudly.

Each of the artists who spoke with What’s Up addressed both the healing and uplifting capacity of music and their eagerness to get back to sharing that connection with audiences. If it can’t be live, though, here are a few suggestions from the Peacemaker artists for the music they’ve been turning to to help them get by:

Hold My Beer & Watch This: Wade Bowen always turns to Springsteen, and Randy Rogers always turns to Merle. Those both seem to have all the answers. Always have.

Kaitlin Butts: The last couple of months, I’ve really loved listening to Hailey Whitters and her new album “The Dream” for my happy and sad songs. I’m listening to Caitlyn Smith (“Starfire”) and Tenille Townes. I am forever a huge fan of Brandi Carlile, also her new project called The Highwomen — with Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. Songs like “Crowded Table” give me hope. I also listen a lot to playlists on Spotify that I’ve curated for each mood. I have one called “Make Me Happy” that I like to turn on and dance around to in the kitchen. “On Repeat” has all of my favorite songs from over the last few years. And I have others that really bring out the tears.

Ed Jurdi: There is an endless well for me — I’m always looking deeper and deeper. Of late, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan, Beppe Gambetta, Eddie Lang, Mavis Staples, Bill Withers, My Morning Jacket, Nicki Bluhm, Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff.


The community-centered Peacemaker Music Festival returns to the Riverfront Amphitheater in Fort Smith for its sixth year July 24-25. The festival will be operating at 46 percent capacity and has already sold out.
(Courtesy Photo/Phil Clarkin)


Peacemaker Festival

WHEN — July 24-25

WHERE — Riverfront Amphitheater in Fort Smith

COST — The festival is sold out, but stay tuned to the website and festival social feeds for info on possible day-of openings or additional ticket drops.

INFO — peacemakerfest.com



Peacemaker Lineup

July 24

Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights

Read Southall Band

Casey Donahew Band

Cross Rags and Young

Hold My Beer & Watch This (with Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen)

July 25

Kaitlin Butts

Kody West

Paul Cauthen

The Band of Heathens

Koe Wetzel

Categories: In The News