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House of Songs Embraces Music of the Ozarks

April 5, 2017
Songwriting retreat inspires regional, international artists in Northwest Arkansas

In the 20 years since he became a professional roots musician, Bryan Hembree has written or co-written more than 200 songs. Sometimes, it’s like taking chisel to stone – with rough-hewn first drafts carved and polished into musical gems over several days of creative labor. “Heavy lifting,” says Bryan, from Fayetteville, Arkansas.

But on other occasions, the words and music take shape in a burst of creativity measured in mere hours.

That happened for Bryan and fellow songwriters Ryan Pickop and Kalyn Fay during a February road trip in Northwest Arkansas. Brought together for a collaborative songwriting project called House of Songs Ozarks, the trio started jamming to pass time in their van.

With Bryan working on lyrics from the driver’s seat, Kalyn in the passenger’s seat strumming out chord structures and Ryan contributing from the back, the trio completed a song, Turn Back Now, in under 90 minutes.

“Sometimes there is an immediate flash of inspiration,” Bryan says. “When you are around other creatives who are feeling inspired, it reminds you what is possible. You ride that creativity.”

The songwriting session that produced Turn Back Now was precisely the kind of moment that Austin-based singer-songwriter Troy Campbell hoped for as he planned House of Songs Ozarks.

The seven-day musical retreat, held in February, united Northwest Arkansas artists like Bryan and Ryan with respected folk and roots musicians from Sweden, Canada, Ireland, California and Oklahoma. Among the goals: To expose international artists to the musical traditions of the Ozarks and, in turn, help inject new influences into the music coming out of Northwest Arkansas.

“What we were doing wasn’t a camp, just getting songwriters together,” says Troy. “We pulled together what we saw in Northwest Arkansas that was strong, and that would fit into the larger musical ecosystem and add value to it.”

Adam Torres, of Austin, Texas, plays guitar at the House of Songs Ozarks retreat in Fayetteville, Arkansas

The Ozarks pilot was a spin-off, or extension, of Troy’s House of Songs program in Austin, Texas. For eight years through House of Songs, Troy has been bringing prominent folk musicians from around the world for immersive songwriting experiences in one of the hottest music communities in the United States.

He got the idea for an Ozarks version of House of Songs while visiting Northwest Arkansas for a documentary film he’s producing about Albert Brumley, the legendary folk gospel artist, who wrote I’ll Fly Away, one of the most covered songs in history.

Troy was impressed by the vibrant arts and culture scene in Northwest Arkansas, including the Fayetteville Roots Festival, which was founded by Bryan and his wife, Bernice, who play together as Smokey & The Mirror.

“I thought, this is where the musicians are going to be moving,” Troy says. “This is where I would move if I was just starting out – a place where I could work on my art, in a location where maybe other likeminded people would come.”

For House of Songs Ozarks, he assembled 18 songwriters at Wesley Hall, a 90-year-old, three-story dormitory at Mount Sequoyah, a hilltop retreat overlooking Fayetteville. Throughout the week, songwriters were paired up for formal songwriting sessions. Informal jams broke out during breaks and evenings.

“What we tried to do is create an environment where artists were going to thrive and feed off of each other’s creativity,” says Bryan.

Canadian folk musician Kaia Kater writes with Danish artist CS Nielsen

Over seven days, the group wrote 14 songs. Those included Stranded, co-written by San Francisco songwriter John Elliott and Swedish artist Rebeckah Digervall, whose luggage was lost en route to Fayetteville.

The pair wrote the song during a visit to a local vintage clothing store to find Digervall something to wear.

“That song got written because we put them in a situation and they made the most of it,” Troy says.

San Francisco-based musician John Elliot,with Swedish artist Rebecka Digervall

To help the artists understand the ‘sense of place’ in Northwest Arkansas, the group took excursions to places such Whitney Mountain, which has one of the finest views in the region.

“We wanted these visiting artists to experience the culture and the feel of the special places that we live in,” says Bernice Hembree. “The Ozarks are still this hidden jewel that only certain people know about.”

Troy is working on a television show and several videos about the House of Songs Ozarks experience. Individual artists plan to record and release songs they wrote during the sessions. A book project is in the works as well.

“We are hoping to create some good branding and good stories that allow the international and local artists to be able to share this experience with their audience and for that audience to become more engaged and interested in Northwest Arkansas,” Troy says.

House of Songs Ozarks musicians, including Bernice Hembree, center, at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

For Bryan, House of Songs Ozarks represents an opportunity to gain exposure for the Northwest Arkansas musical scene.

“People know what the Ozarks are, and they assume there is rich musical tradition, but they maybe haven’t had a chance to sample it, or dig into it, or to be a part of it,” he says.

“There is a lot of story to be told. It’s not just that songs have been created here in this rich tradition, but that songs are continuing to be created here.”

The Walton Family Foundation supported House of Songs Ozarks with funding to the Northwest Arkansas Council.

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