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MAX BRYAN // Times Record

From murals to motorcycles, Fort Smith has it all when it comes to festivals.

Any given calendar year in Fort Smith is filled with festivals tailored to just about anyone’s liking. These events range from an internationally-acclaimed arts festival, a rapidly growing motorcycle rally and two summer riverfront music festivals.

“You’ve seen over the last five years two things -- one, an interest to put them on, and two, the citizens’ and the region’s response to those festivals and events,” said Propak CEO and Unexpected Public Arts Festival founder Steve Clark.

The festival lineup each year is dominated by The Unexpected, The Steel Horse Rally, the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival and Peacemaker Festival. Other festivals like Ales 4 Trails beer festival and the Fort Smith Fall Festival give citizens and visitors alike options to fit their preference of event.

Clark said he is hopeful for Fort Smith’s festival scene in coming years.

“There’s no reason the current ones won’t continue and new ones won’t begin,” he said.


It still brings the blues, but Fort Smith’s second music festival each year also caters to an even more diverse musical palette.

Peacemaker Music Festival in its fourth year drew thousands July 27-28 to the Riverfront Amphitheater to enjoy a lineup of nationally-acclaimed roots rock, soul and blues among other genres. Musical acts in 2018 included soul vocalist Anderson East, hard rock act Rival Sons and Grammy-nominated roots rocker Grace Potter.

“It seems to be a really great thing, a great tradition,” said Chip Davis of Dardanelle, who commuted to Fort Smith for the festival.

People from 19 states had purchased tickets to the festival in 2018, according to festival president Trent Goins. The festival donates its ticket revenues to multiple charities, Goins said.

The festival in 2018 drew 3,500-5,000 people on both nights to watch the live music acts, Goins said.
Though he expected a larger crowd for Potter, he spoke well of all the acts in the 2018 lineup.
“It’s definitely variety,” Davis said.

Along with raising money for charity and bringing live music to Fort Smith, Goins said the festival gives locals “the opportunity to really showcase what Fort Smith can be.”

“Seeing Fort Smith progress has been one of the greater things I’ve experienced with it,” Kleck said.

“Growing up here, it was a place that you just looked forward to kind of getting out of, but now, seeing how much it’s come forward with everything, it’s really nice to go from Russellville and come back here and really enjoy something I can experience in the hometown.”


The month of May in Fort Smith is always met with the rumble of motorcycles along Garrison Avenue.

Thousands of motorcyclists from all over the United States for two days each year descend upon downtown Fort Smith for the Steel Horse Rally, which in 2018 drew an estimated 100,000 people to downtown Fort Smith and surrounding areas. Though the rally has filled Garrison Avenue in each of its four years, it expanded in 2018 to a two-state event with the addition of the Steel Horse Rally Shootout race in Pocola.

“Decades ago, I rode my Harley-Davidson across the Arkansas River Bridge from Oklahoma onto Garrison Avenue. I knew then that this would be a great place for a motorcycle rally of this magnitude,” Rally Director Dennis Snow said.

Snow in 2015 brought the inaugural Steel Horse Rally to Garrison Avenue. The rally in 2018 drew bikers from as far away as Wisconsin and Colorado enjoy a host of vendors, a parade through Fort Smith and two days of camaraderie.
Other than a handful of events at the rally, Snow called his rally “family friendly.”

“The people who come out and support the rally — the bottom line is, without them, we wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “They come out and put on their best face. It’s a nice, positive experience for everybody, and it’s a lot of fun, and we appreciate everybody who comes out.”


For two nights each year, the Fort Smith riverfront is home to howling vocals, raw lyrics and heavy guitar riffs.

Fort Smith in 2019 will hold its 29th annual Riverfront Blues Festival, which brings artists of the genre to perform at Harry E. Kelley Park on the Arkansas River. The acts form “a fun, family friendly gathering,” according to festival president Christine Ulrich.

“It’s all good here,” said festival board member Denise Messamore.

The 2018 festival lineup included Austin Calvillo, the Wanda Watson Band, BRaines Baind and Eric Mathews Band. The acts over the two nights performed original numbers and covers for the audience on the banks of the river.

“I am so excited the festival has started, and I am excited to be playing (tonight) with the BRains Band,” said the drummer of the BRains Band. “It’s been too long since I have played. This is fun.”
“There’s something for all,” board member Robert Marsh said.

The festival goers seemed to agree with the artists and planners. “All of these artists are so worth seeing,” said Natalie Simmons of Conway. “ I am loving this event.”


Practically no one can drive through downtown Fort Smith without seeing the fruits of The Unexpected Public Arts Festival.
Founded by Clark in 2015, The Unexpected each year draws muralists from around the world to Fort Smith to beautify the outsides of buildings in downtown Fort Smith for one week. International muralists including Diogo “Add Fuel” Machado of Portugal and and Alex “Pref” Geoffrey of England joined local muralists like Ana Maria and Nate “Buffalo” Myers from Oct. 22-28 to beautify the outsides of buildings on Garrison and Towson avenues and several blocks north of Garrison Avenue.

“It’s always fun to have artists in town working and to be able to talk to people on the street and what their reactions are to what’s happening in downtown and with the art, whether they like the piece or not, getting their feedback on why,” said Festival Director Claire Kolberg.

The muralists were accompanied by The Outlier music series, which on Friday and Saturday evenings filled Garrison Avenue with music leaving the doors of just about every venue on the street. Futurist Thomas Frey gave a keynote address as the festival wound down that Saturday.

Kolberg said adding different kinds of art to the festival “felt like a natural evolution.

“Having the name ‘The Unexpected’ always gives us a little bit of flexibility in how we want to do it,” she said. “We take that very seriously in the artists that we bring in. We work with our curatorial team every year to make sure the programming is fresh from an artistic perspective, but also, how can we continue to expand the brand of The Unexpected?”