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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   Walking into Juanita’s Café and Bar at 13th and Main, pictures of current luminaries like Maroon 5, Rooney and North Mississippi All Stars vie with a plasma TV for the attention of patrons clustering around the stainless steel bar.

   Much like the images flittering across the screen, the pictures seem transitory in contrast to American icons including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Taj Mahal, Sonny Boy Williamson and Pharoah Sanders adorning the opposite blue wall. But since a smoky haze often engulfs Little Rock’s ear-candy headquarters, most won’t notice the mural until they’ve taken a seat.

   Few patrons know the history of the figures on the blue wall, but most didn’t come for a lecture about the shifting of music’s historical burden to today’s generation; they came to jam.

   Hitchhiker Entertainment promoter Erin Hurley roams the crowd to make sure they get their money’s worth. His ear for talent promises to continue the 19-year tradition of Juanita’s hosting great music from so many bands that a staff T-shirt cannot mention them all.

   “Juanita’s caters to every listener of every age,” general manager Chris Pickens says. “I think Erin does a good job. There’s a nice mix of music. Some weeks it’s mainly rock, but if the week itself doesn’t have a good mix, at least the month does.”

   Last month was no exception, as the lineup included Blindside, Bowling for Soup, 2 Live Crew, Silvertide and Five Bolt Main. While Juanita’s Summer Showcase features top up-and-coming local acts getting their music before the industry, Hurley and partner Jon Love plan to do more to increase awareness of Little Rock’s homegrown talent.

Hangin' Around - Erin Hurley occasionally climbs into the ceiling of his office at Hitchiker Entertainment.

Hangin’ Around – Erin Hurley occasionally climbs into the ceiling of his office at Hitchiker Entertainment.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to Music

   Hitchhiker Entertainment plans to release a compilation disc called “DIY” featuring six Little Rock bands. Hurley and Love had the idea for the “do-it-yourself” compilation after hearing compilation discs from Fayetteville and Dallas (via Buzzover.com). Hurley says the tongue-in-cheek title pokes fun at the industry.

   “Unless you’ve got a parent record label, everybody’s DIY,” he notes. “All of these bands are doing it themselves.”

   According to Love, the compilation disc features six local bands moving in different areas with a large following, which write their own songs and sell CDs. The bands feature professional musicians rather than garage bands. By having only six bands, Hurley says he believes the disc will provide more balance than having a disc with 15 bands playing one song each.

   The disc features modern rock from Singleminded, Indie rock from Grand Serenade, new metal from Mourningside (a side project of Evanescence’s John LeCompt and Rocky Gray), “Screamo” rock from Kingsdown, acoustic music from Adam Hambrick and rock ‘n’ roll party music from Sugar and the Raw. Three of the artists – Singleminded, Grand Serenade and Adam Hambrick – intentionally recorded new cuts for the compilation, while the other bands provide former studio cuts.

   “It’s going to be a lot of stuff people haven’t heard,” Hurley says. “We picked these bands from bands that have played [at Juanita’s].”

   The disc will be distributed as part of a cover charge at a two-night CD release party, Aug. 26-27 at Juanita’s. Three bands will play each night, with 100.3 The Edge sponsoring the release party. Hurley and Love promise this won’t be the last compilation, as they plan to make it an annual affair.

Born to Rock

   On nearly any weekday afternoon, you can find 30-year-old Hurley in the Hitchhiker Entertainment office behind the door with the Post-It that reads “The Hippie.”

   Sitting in front of his computer among a desk full of files and a stack of CDs, shelves behind him hold three tiny potted plants and pictures of his family. An Ian Moore poster looks dated among autographed concert posters from Chevelle and The Black Keys, among others. An acoustic guitar hangs in the right corner of the office, next to a window overlooking 13th Street. Above his head, removed ceiling tiles reveal a rope hanging down the wall that allows Hurley to reach a perch above his office, with a bar crossing the crevice that allows him to “hang out” when needed. When asked why, he replies, “Why not?”

   Born in Daytona Beach, Fla., Hurley grew up with music. His mom managed the bluegrass ensemble, The Coffee Brothers Band. Friends in the area had a studio where Blues guitarist Kenny Neal recorded. His parents knew the Allman brothers (yeah, those), who went to school nearby when they attended high school.

   Mom had a picture of Duane (Allman) on her bed with a joint pointed up in the air, but I cannot find that picture anymore,” Hurley says.

    While music provides Hurley’s livelihood, it also helped him meet his wife, Marlo, who works as a bartender for Juanita’s. At the time, Hurley lived with local musician Luscious Spiller, who played a few songs with blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd at Joe’s Big Bamboo. Erin asked Marlo to take pictures of his roommate. Marlo emailed pictures back to him and the rest is history. The married couple now shares their life with three daughters: 12-year-old Kylie, 4-year-old Rowan and 17-month-old Claire.

   Hurley came to Little Rock in 2000 for an internship with the 4-H Center. After waiting tables at Juanita’s and working with the previous promoter prior to her departure, Hurley started promoting at Juanita’s by bringing in the Screaming Cheetah Willies for New Year’s Eve. It previewed bands to come, including Buckcherry, Clutch, Levon Helm, Junior Brown, Southern Culture on the Skids, Pat Greene, Jerry Cantrell (formerly of Alice in Chains), Del McCoury Band, Old Crow Medicine Show and Sister Hazel … and that was just his first year.

   While he won’t take credit for any band’s ascendancy just by their appearing at Juanita’s, Hurley takes a lot of pride in the rise of Blue October.

   “They started here with only two people coming to the show,” he says. “Every time they’ve played, it’s doubled. They’ve been so professional along the way.”

   Hurley’s overseen “phenomenal shows” from Lovedrug, Dan Dyer, Todd Snider, Damage Plan and The Black Keys, whose first show drew “maybe 150 people,” he notes. Hurley keeps records on every show to determine who draws and what night will provide the best crowds. He knows that local bands including Singleminded, The Starkz and Sugar and the Raw can sell out a show on name alone, and national bands including Clutch, Blindside and Copeland will cause lines to stretch around the Café and down 13th Street. His attention to the details assures Pickens that the crowds will continue to come though Hurley no longer “works” for Juanita’s.

Hitcher - Hurley brings quality talent to Little Rock, primarily through the Juanita's venue. He also supports the Little Rock scene by helping with the D.I.Y. compilation.

Hitcher – Hurley brings quality talent to Little Rock, primarily through the Juanita’s venue. He also supports the Little Rock scene by helping with the D.I.Y. compilation.

Finding the niche

   Hurley “left” Juanita’s in March and traveled one flight upstairs to start Hitchhiker Entertainment with Love, his former assistant promoter. While he enjoyed working for Juanita’s, the move made financial sense for all parties as Hurley had reached a salary ceiling. Instead of moving on, Hurley proposed outsourcing shows to Juanita’s, creating a “win-win” situation.

   “A lot of people think we’re making money hand over fist, but some shows lose as much as we make. When they formed their company, it took the risk of having bands off Juanita’s,” Pickens says. “Erin’s responsible for the door and paying the bands, which allows Juanita’s to worry about customer service and less about the number of people in the room, if there’s enough money for the show and breaking even on the show.”

   The corporation provided Hurley an opportunity to use his recreation degree from the University of Arkansas. Everything fell in place when 28-year-old Love became his partner, providing experience from a number of years in the public relations field.

   “When it’s a one-man show, it’s hard to do everything” Hurley says. “The partnership has allowed me to go out and get more. Before, I was inundated. Now I try to find what’s new, what’s hot … do some research to see what’s close by and maybe sway [those bands] to come this way.”

   In addition to booking bands, the company books bigger shows out of the Metroplex and co-manages Singleminded, whose “Last Show Ever” Aug. 5 at Juanita’s will feature the bands Alderbrook and Canvas and Fife opening the all-ages show. In reality, the band will not break up, but will change its name, which won’t be announced until the night of the show.

   “When you walk in that night you’ll see the merchandise and know immediately (what the new name is),” Love says.

   Love originally managed the band alone, but brought in Hurley when the two began working together full-time after working together outside of Juanita’s for five or six months.

   “We work in a yen/yang way,” Love says. “He’s more artistic and I’m more business. I’d say [Hurley’s] one of the most stand-up guys I’ve met. He’s as honest as the day is long. There’s a little bit of Bohemian in him. He loves his family and his daughters. He looks a little like Jesus from time to time.”

   Hurley seems content with the road stretching before him.

   “I’ve come to a point that it’s starting to sink in: this is what I’m doing for life,” he says. “I’m swallowing that pill and taking everything that encompasses.”

A Scenic View

   With the Clinton Library’s opening, Little Rock bands probably receive more national exposure than ever before as thousands of visitors hunt for local establishments featuring food, cocktails and entertainment.

   The phone rings constantly at the café and bar, punctuating the off-beats from the satellite radio station in the dining area or the Eddie Izard video in the bar. A waiter walks over to the blackboard next to the bar entrance to read tonight’s act, then over to the bar to ask, “So what does it sound like?”

   When it comes to Little Rock’s music scene, it’s a relevant question. Hurley will tell you “Screamo” emo bands and “kids bands” are bringing in crowds, but there’s a lot of good rock bands and a good indie-rock scene, e.g. Unwed Sailor, Chase Pagan and American Princes.

   “Blues is dead; that’s too bad,” Hurley says. “Blues is in hibernation. I was into it pretty good. I got bummed out on it.”

   Hurley says he had to cancel the Arkansas Blues Society’s 20-year run at Juanita’s since some nights only 12 people would show up. He once played bass for his sister’s blues band (prior to playing in the rock band Kind), but business is business.

   “Shemekia Copeland came to Juanita’s after she won her Grammy and there were maybe 60 people here,” he says.

   Small crowds barely cover costs, but Hitchhiker Entertainment continues finding sounds that keep the crowds coming.

   “It’s all about size and population,” Hurley says. “I’ll have bands come in here and play to 200 people, like Galactic and the North Mississippi All Stars. In other markets, it’ll be 2,000 to 3,000 people. It’s just size. The potential is there to become a Seattle, but it’s size. There’s more in larger markets.”

   From Hurley’s view, people pay more attention to Little Rock because of its Grammy winner, Evanescence. He notes the band played several shows at Juanita’s, and gave the venue props on their CD. Where few paid little attention when Hurley spoke about the Goth rock band, now they cannot wait to hear about the newest sensation.

   “‘Who’s the next Evanescence?’ I get that call once a month,” he says.

   Whoever it is, the odds seem good that Hitchhiker Entertainment will book them to play Juanita’s.

   “We like Little Rock,” Love says. “We’re not waiting for a chance to move to L.A. or New York. We’d like to say we’ve lived a comfortable life. We want Hitchhiker to turn into concert promotion. We’d like to have a chance to employ people, give them a job in the industry … then rule the world, of course.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 1-31, 2005 issue of the Little Rock Free Press.
Word Count: 1,977 words