In 2003, Bill Solleder and Shea Childs, while expecting their second daughter, moved from Chicago to Childs’ hometown of Hot Springs to put down roots in a city where they could actually afford a house. Childs’ father offered Solleder a job as a construction project manager, but it wasn’t long before he started longing for the world he’d recently thrived in: the DIY art scene, where he sang in a band called Blue Meanies and worked for Thick Records, a small independent label. Instead of complaining about how much he missed the “cool, underground, experimental” music that was much easier to come by in Chicago, Solleder decided to bring some of it to Hot Springs.
What began as an effort to throw some shows for a few friends who would be in the area to play at South by Southwest led to the accidental formation of a festival. “Word got out that I was booking shows,” Solleder said. “Without even trying, I had booked a couple dozen — maybe three dozen bands — in no time because everybody was looking for a gig on the way to and from Austin.” The multi-night series of all-age performances, hosted in March 2005 by an earlier version of Maxine’s in downtown Hot Springs, was so spontaneously formidable that it demanded a name: the Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival.
Solleder was quick to remind me that the first VOV was almost two decades ago and therefore looms foggily, but if his memory serves him correctly, performers at the original fest included New Black from Chicago, Viva Voce from Portland, Oregon, Drove from Hot Springs, Soophie Nun Squad from North Little Rock and many more. The inaugural event was met with so much unexpected enthusiasm by both the performers and the locals that they held two more fests in 2005 — one in the summer and one in the fall — but by the close of the October affair, it became clear that the connection to SXSW artist traffic was an essential part of making the festival work, so from that point forward, VOV would happen once a year in March.
That first year, the location of VOV was constantly in flux. Movement from venue to venue across town left Solleder and Childs exhausted and led them to seek out a permanent space that could house the festival for good. They settled on a warehouse at 118 Arbor St. that had once functioned as a laundromat for the Velda Rose, a now-defunct hotel. When Solleder and Childs discovered the property, the electricity was still on, but it was mostly being used for hotel storage and had drifted into disrepair. Solleder described the building as “dilapidated” and “a breath away from being condemned,” but Childs — coming from a construction-minded family — could tell that the concrete and steel foundation meant that “its bones were good even though the roof had fallen in.”
The time crunch between purchasing the Arbor Street location — which was owner-financed — and the 2006 VOV in March was extremely tight. “The day the festival started, we had all the inspectors there to give the final occupational permit,” Childs said. “We really raced it down to the clock.” Mere hours before music started, an electrician installed a kill switch that would allow them to shut off the PA in the event of a fire. The first band to take the stage was Peelander-Z, a Japanese-American punk rock outfit. Lucero, fronted by Little Rock’s Ben Nichols, headlined a sold-out show on the second night.
While they made the transition to Arbor Street, Childs finalized the legal formation of Low Key Arts, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization under which Valley of the Vapors would exist. Solleder was named executive director. In the years since its inception, Low Key Arts has expanded its programming to also encompass the Hot Water Hills Music & Arts Festival, Arkansas Shorts Short Film Festival, Inception to Projection filmmaking workshops, and KUHS-LP 102.5 FM, the only solar-powered community radio station in Arkansas, all of which are artistically rich enough to warrant their own histories.
For the next 14 years, VOV thrived, surviving largely by way of countless unpaid volunteers. Averaging over 100 guests per night, the limits of the Arbor Street 175-person capacity were joyfully pushed. That said, it wasn’t always easy to convince musicians to pitstop in an Arkansan town they’d never heard of. “All the stereotypes that ran through their heads,” Solleder said. “They probably had the worst scenario in mind.” In order to counter these less-than-flattering expectations from traveling bands who were accustomed to playing in far hipper cities, VOV made it its mission to become known for exceptionally generous hospitality.
The heart of that welcoming spirit was the Adopt A Band program, which asked eager locals to sign up for a specific artist to take care of during their time in Hot Springs. “When bands would roll up, someone would be there waiting for them with a gift bag or a present,” said Solleder. “The present might contain something to drink or maybe some clean socks or a book or a piece of art or food or all of the above.” After that benevolent exchange, the adopter would become the point of contact for anything the musicians might need, including but not limited to a place to crash, rides to the drugstore, recommendations for vegetarian restaurants and cultural guidance regarding the spas and gangster history of Hot Springs. “Sometimes those relationships would extend way beyond just that one night,” Solleder said. “I know people that have friends from 15 years ago that they’re still in contact with.”
Additionally, bands grew fond of the upstairs green room area at Arbor Street that VIP ticket holders were encouraged to mingle in. Outfitted with a pool table, old furniture and, briefly, a halfpipe for skateboarding, it was a spacious and grungy oasis that facilitated meaningful interactions between musicians and fans over shared drinks and eats.
Another way VOV stood out from other festivals was in its commitment to doing secret shows. While the majority of the concerts took place at the Arbor Street building or Maxine’s, it quickly became a tradition to announce last-minute, one-off performances in notoriously cramped and nontraditional spaces. Some of the most memorable locations for these spontaneous gigs include the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a moving school bus, the steps of the Ozark Bathhouse and a Waffle House.
As for what kind of music the festival has become known for, the question of genre is less important than you might think. Solleder initially did most of the booking on his own, and his guiding metric was authenticity. “I think I have a pretty good radar for what feels sincere,” he said. “Agents used to ask me what I was looking for, and I would just say ‘anything with heart.’” When Bobby Missile — who became the artistic director at Low Key Arts in 2016 and was previously acting as VOV’s pro bono talent buyer since moving to Hot Springs in 2006 — designs each year’s bill, he’s looking for “unique, original” and “cutting edge” groups that “people wouldn’t hear on the regular,” regardless of their stylistic leanings. “We’ve had country, rockabilly, indie, hip hop, folk. Last year, we had a duo from New York that was just double bass and violin. It was operatic,” Missile said. “We do not limit ourselves to anything.”
Per the Low Key Arts website, VOV “has hosted nearly 3,000 musicians and artists from such faraway places as Japan, South Korea, China, Norway, England, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Canada,” but some of Solleder and Missile’s favorite acts to come through over the years include Fenster, Jamaican Queens, Juicebox, Lost in the Trees, Andrew Anderson, Grandchildren, Weaves, A Place to Bury Strangers, Guerilla Toss and Joan of Arc.
In 2016, Solleder stepped down as the executive director of Low Key Arts to take a job at Visit Hot Springs and relinquish the role to someone with a younger spirit. His job was split in two and filled by Missile as artistic director and David Hill, author of “The Vapors,” as interim executive director. The next year, Sonny Kay — a DIY veteran, visual artist and the founder of indie record label Gold Standard Laboratories — was recruited to be the organization’s permanent leader.
Like so many scrappy entities, the pandemic hit Low Key Arts hard. With the halting of in-person programming, paying rent on the Arbor Street building was unsustainable, leading its owners — Solleder and Childs — to sell it in 2020, the only year in which VOV was canceled. When the festival returned on a year-and-six-months-late weekend in October 2021, social distancing was still being widely practiced and the idea of gathering hundreds of people indoors felt irresponsible. Beyond concerns about coronavirus outbreaks, Kay viewed the moment as an “opportunity to examine the model that we had established” and made the decision to indefinitely move the festival outside.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Kay had some of his first concert experiences in outdoor venues like the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theatre, both of which are “theatrically lit” with “dramatic backdrops.” “For my money, it’s the most compelling, exciting and enchanting way to see live music,” he said. After Kay discovered that Cedar Glades Park — just a few miles away from the former location — had an already existing and underused band shell, everything clicked into place. The humble, triangular stage, which Kay described as “something you might imagine in a country jamboree,” needed a bit of electrical work, but it wasn’t something that a few hundred dollars worth of rewiring couldn’t solve.
Since relocating, VOV volunteers — which make up about 90% of those involved in the fest — have worked tirelessly to turn Cedar Glades Park into a spectacle. Through an experimental combination of lighting, lasers, digital projections, analog televisions and creative backdrops, the breathtaking natural beauty of the Ouachita Mountains is tastefully accented. Additionally, the new location has allowed the fest to grow in size, with a new average of 400 to 500 people per day.
Another advantage of moving to Cedar Glades Park is that VOV is now a camping-friendly festival. On top of providing attendees with more of a chance to immerse themselves in the foliage of Arkansas, it also makes overnight stays more accessible to out-of-towners who might otherwise struggle to pay for a hotel in Hot Springs on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, one of the busiest times of the year. The number of campers so far is modest, but it’s growing.
When I spoke with Solleder and Childs about the direction the festival has taken since their departure, I expected at least a hint of resentment around the loss of their charmingly disjointed home base on Arbor Street, but that wasn’t the case. “Arkansas is The Natural State,” Solleder said. “For those bands who are coming to play and for the people who are coming to visit the festival, being outside with that grove of pine trees behind you is just magical.” “Bill and I are like, ‘Why didn’t we ever think of bringing it out here?’” Childs said. “It’s just gorgeous. The hillside and that little valley is beautiful.”
On Saturday, March 18, I drove down to Hot Springs for day two of the 19th Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival, my first time in attendance since the transition to Cedar Glades Park. On the gravel pathway guiding me to the music — which had already been rumbling for a couple of hours before I arrived — were dozens of vendors, almost exclusively of the crystals, jewelry, tye-die and tapestry persuasion. Incense burned generously, chafing interestingly with the indie rock pulling me in. With the stage finally in sight, which had been decorated to look like a giant, toothy mouth, I immediately ran into both Sonny Kay and Bobby Missile, proving just how intimate and inviting — how the opposite of faceless — this festival really is.
About 15 feet from the stage was a little creek area fenced off for safety, creating a seemingly unintentional divide between those who like to get up close and personal with their live music and those who prefer to listen from several sets of steel bleachers up on a hill a little further from the blaring speakers. I hopped up to the front and bobbed my head to the final 30 seconds of Truth Club, the only band on the day’s bill who I’d even really heard of. I wasn’t disappointed, though, because the VOV experience is supposed to be one of discovery.
In the time between bands, I wandered, admiring the tall trees that swayed above us due to a frigid breeze. Near a pavilion equipped with crafting supplies, I found an exact replica of the iconic red door that once led into the old Arbor Street building, erected by Leslie Blackstone, a longtime volunteer who’s leant her construction expertise to over a decade of VOVs. Looking around, I recognized the diversity of ages by which the festival distinguishes itself. Retirees, middle agers, young parents, teenagers and small children were represented in almost equal measure. It was much colder than ideal, which understandably kept some folks at home, but there were still about 100 people in attendance. Most were bundled in some kind of blanket or heavy coat, except for the fearless kids, who roamed blissfully, enamored by the sudsy theatrics of an entertainer by the name of Big Poppa Bubble, who dipped specialty wands into a deep bucket of soap to create bubbles both grand in size and number.
Eyeing the merch tables on the vendor strip, I chatted with Gil Carroll, the guitarist from Living Hour, a Winnipeg-based band whose performance I missed. I followed the VOV vibe and bought a vinyl record from him because the cover caught my eye, despite never having listened to their music. Like most performers at VOV, Carroll was on his way back from SXSW, where he made some good connections but was also drained by the cruel churn of bands ushered on and off stage by burnt-out sound engineers struggling to stay sane. Here in Hot Springs, he was more at peace, charmed by the slower pace and the “hippies” scattered around. His mention of the bohemian got me further examining the demographics, which were sort of hilarious and sweetly dissonant when you notice how different the dressed-mostly-in-all-black performers are from the rest of the crowd. Clearly, no one was even slightly bothered by this contradiction, and it was beautiful.
The first full set I saw was from The Foreign Resort, a trio from Denmark that makes dark, new wavy songs. Think: the Killers at their absolute heaviest and angstiest. The electric guitar, warped by effects pedals, soared and cut through desperate and driving music, but no one rushed to shield their children. Everyone seemed like they were here for the right reasons: to be exposed to something challenging and novel.
The next band was CDSM, a strange and campy collective from Atlanta with multiple synth players and a snarky saxophone. Anchored by dancy drums and spooky vocals more forcefully spoken than sung by a man with a hood and sunglasses, it was another example of a group that might turn off a mainstream listener, and yet the audience was having a blast. Even if the music wasn’t for everyone, the visuals were hard to look away from. As the sun drifted downward, VOV’s complete arsenal of aesthetic playfulness took hold of the stage. Through the work of a concealed camera and anachronistic filters, the band’s likeness was projected behind them in distorted, VHS-tinged glory, overlaid with footage from old films. I was too cold to stay for another band, but I’m fairly certain things got even weirder and more awesome as the night wore on.