Exploring Destinations

Going MAD with Music in El Dorado

By Rebecca Bingham
Photography courtesy of Bob Tarren of Murphy Arts District

The upcoming MusicFest 2019 is only a part of the Murphy Arts District’s plans for a music boomtown in El Dorado, Arkansas.

When I heard Rolling Stone and The New York Times were sending writers to El Dorado, Arkansas, for a music festival last fall, I scratched my head and wondered what I’d been missing – especially since I live only two hours away in Hot Springs. This wasn’t any ordinary music festival. It was a multi-day event, filled with headline acts and genres you definitely don’t expect to find in a sleepy little town two hours’ drive south of Little Rock.
A couple of decades ago, I would slip into El Dorado a several times a year to play cello with the South Arkansas Symphony. I was always impressed by the enthusiasm of a core group of arts aficionados who bragged about the history of their “City of Gold.” The primary underwriter of our performances was Murphy Oil Corporation. And thanks to descendants of Charles H. Murphy, who took over the company in 1941, El Dorado is still world headquarters for the family’s business.
These days, an authentic 1940s oil derrick gushes with water to pay homage to El Dorado’s glory days. The symbolic derrick anchors the town’s newest claim to fame, the Murphy Arts District, a 50-acre complex named for the hometown family that has consistently locked arms with the local business community and state politicians to bet on the future.
Madison Murphy, the company’s current chairman, says the Murphy Arts District’s acronym is MAD, because building a music city in the middle of nowhere is, well, insane. “No one used to know where Woodstock was, either,” he says.
That same sort of passion for his city is what drives Murphy to reverse the trends of job scarcity and population decline. In 2007, Murphy Oil funded a full college tuition scholarship called the El Dorado Promise for students who attended El Dorado public schools for 12 years. Four years later, they built a new conference center for business meetings and conventions. “We stemmed the tide,” he says, “but we needed something more.”
In search of answers, El Dorado hired Destination Development International (DDI) to devise a sure-fire action plan to keep folks from leaving town for good. DDI suggested a tourism umbrella with some sort of arts and entertainment district as a way to create fulfilling jobs, enliven the community, and promote new pathways to education. From that effort, El Dorado’s Festival and Events Initiative was formed and soon took the lead in matching public and private funds to jumpstart the idea.
El Dorado stepped up with $11 million; the State of Arkansas followed with $5 million. The Murphy and Walton Foundations poured more money into the coffers, which spurred additional corporate funding. More than 100 donations put the wheels in motion, and MAD was officially born to catapult El Dorado into a magnetic destination for arts, culture and music in the South.

The crown jewels of the first construction phase were two state-of-the-art concert venues: the MAD Amphitheater, which accommodates 7,500, and the Griffin Music Hall, an indoor venue that holds a more modest 2,500.
Chief marketing officer Bob Tarren says success isn’t just about money; it’s also about reputation. “MAD metes out its funds by locking in acts that will provide a variety of monthly entertainment to people of different ages and ethnicities,” he explains. “We would rather bring in a Shakespeare theater company several times a year rather than blow everything on one epic Bruno Mars concert.”
Once the acts arrive in El Dorado, the MAD staff kicks into high gear to make sure everything goes smoothly at the MAD performance venues. “It really means something when someone like Jason Isbell, after he performed in November, goes on Twitter to tell other artists to consider El Dorado,” says Tarren. “We didn’t ask him to do that.”
MAD finished 2018 with zero debt. Private capital partners are paying attention, and plan to add a boutique hotel to El Dorado’s downtown. For now, historic Union Street Guest Quarters provides accommodations within walking distance of 50 specialty shops and 10 restaurants, in addition to the MAD performance venues.
Whether you’re looking for ‘70s-‘80s funk, classic rock, blue-collar country, blazing hot hip-hop or a family friendly festival, it’s all available in El Dorado’s new music boomtown.

MUSICFEST 2019
Murphy Arts District (MAD) and Main Street El Dorado are presenting two days of family fun and great music Sept. 27-28. This year’s lineup
includes Country, Rock and Alternative artists who have won national awards, generated millions of
downloads, and crafted chart-topping singles.
Tickets may be purchased as two-day packages or individual one-day admissions. Prices increase the week of Sept.22. For ticket information,
visit eldomad.com.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.