On any given Saturday evening in Arkansas you can find some free family entertainment. In addition to the seasonal cycles of blues, country, gospel and folk festivals, some town squares offer free entertainment either every Saturday evening or every other Saturday.
Here we are in front of the Union County Courthouse in El Dorado in the middle of Arkansas' oil, natural gas and timber country. For the last twenty summers a little group of downtown merchants, and some local singer/songwriters, have reenacted the opening volley of the Tucker-Parnell feud, which eventually claimed the lives of over forty residents back around the turn of the century when El Dorado was a booming oil town.
Warm up acts start at 6 pm, and vary from week to week. Entertainments on 7 July 2007 were a musical act and a clown/magician for the kids. Here's a picture of the clown/magician. The historical mini-pageant starts at 7:00 and runs about thirty minutes.
It's kind of neat to see the events reenacted on the spot where they originally occurred. The story I got from the production is that the whole thing came to a head over a building code violation. The Marshall, who didn't much like the Parnell family, shut down construction on a store they were building in town. A couple of the Parnell boys thought the Marshall was improperly using the law to harass their family. They went to the courthouse to have a talk with the Marshall, and of course they took their guns because 1) other townspeople had been killed after Tucker had taken them into custody and 2) they wanted to negotiate from a position of strength.
Predictably enough when all parties insist on negotiating from a position of strength, "somebody must have said something," and before you know it somebody started shooting. Nobody knows who said what or who fired the first shot, but the shooting continued off and on for many years. I've oversimplified the story a little, but you can make the drive to El Dorado to get the full story.
The whole point of the free show is to gather customers for the downtown bars and restaurants. One of those restaurants even has patio seating for fifty or so above and behind the spectators seating, and balcony seating above that. You can have dinner and be perfectly situated to watch the entertainments. Park benches and bleachers are provided, but some folks bring their own lawn chairs. The total crowd on Saturday was maybe three hundred give or take fifty. The free show thing must be paying off because they've been doing it for twenty years. Runs ten consecutive weeks, June 2nd through August 4th this year.
That was the showdown, now for the hoedown.
The regular town square music venues seem to be more along the lines of professional and semi-professional folk and bluegrass bands. Every Saturday evening May to October on the Front Porch Stage on the grounds of the county courthouse in Mount Ida, Possums Unlimited presents a local band. After the performance, spectators draw fiddles, banjos, guitars and mandolins from car trunks and gather in clusters to play and sing. Not kidding. Informal jam sessions follow the performances.
Yellville town square, May to September every Saturday at 7:00, music program. I haven't been to this one, so I don't know if there's a jam session following the show, but who would try to stop you if you wanted to play?
Paris town square in Logan County, same deal, May to October, free music every Saturday evening.
Bentonville, town square in Benton County way up in the northwest corner of the state, April to October, every Saturday evening, free music.
Rogers, next door to Bentonville, Saturday evenings April to October, Frisco Park.
Before you make the drive, check the local municipal websites. These are outdoor concerts so they do get weathered out sometimes. I've also listed the starting and ending month of each venue, so you'll want to verify the specific date, especially in the spring or fall. Bear in mind this is just a listing of the free stuff that happens every Saturday evening and is suitable entertainment for the whole family. By that I mean no raunchy lyrics and no booze allowed. If you're willing to part with five or ten bucks, you can broaden your choices considerably.