Bill Solleder, the mastermind behind the annual Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival, welcomes hundreds of international musicians and music enthusiasts to an annual festival that’s as unique as the Spa City itself.
By Jillian McGehee | Photography by Dero Sanford
Music unites people, young and old, fostering creativity and a sense of community. “There is nothing quite like the feeling when the last chord fades out from a song that has melted the crowd into one being,” says Bill Solleder, co-founder of Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival in Hot Springs. “Hearing a story in a well-crafted song has the power to erase cultural division, purge any workday frustration and spread camaraderie. It connects community – it builds it.”
Valley of the Vapors, or “VOV” as the locals and fans call it, garners international attention. Over its 12-year history, the festival has grown from one venue to 12 locations. Initially, Bill managed all of the logistics – everything from collecting tickets, running sound and introducing bands to taking out the trash. The event now boasts a passionate group of nearly 100 volunteers who invest their time and energy to produce an event as unique as the Spa City itself. “Musicians are treated with warmth and kindness by our volunteers and play to attentive and appreciative crowds,” Bill says. “These artists travel back to their homes and spread the good word about our little gem of a town in the Ouachitas. Many of them reroute their touring schedules just to be able to come back again.”
Bill is executive director of Low Key Arts, which hosts VOV. A nonprofit arts organization, Low Key Arts has been showcasing “the freshest musical ideas” since 2005, says Bill, a musician himself. In addition to the music festival, the organization offers Arkansas Shorts-A Night of Short Film, Hot Water Hills Music & Arts Weekend and KUHS Community Radio. “Our mission is to provide opportunities for all ages to experience performances and workshops by musical, cinematic and artistic innovators from around the world.”
And the organization is certainly fulfilling that mission. Just this year, VOV features more than 50 bands from around the globe. It’s not your typical music festival with “giant stages and more port-a-potties than people,” Bill notes. “VOV is a small-venue festival that encourages interaction between artists and festival-goers. It’s that accessibility that allows for an exchange of ideas.”
The intention of VOV, Bill says, wasn’t to establish an annual music festival. “I was simply setting up a performance for a friend who was headed down to Austin for a show. That booking opened a door to Hot Springs for hundreds of bands to walk through and VOV was born.”
Aaron Buckley, VOV committee member, says Hot Springs is a better place because of Bill. “Bill’s contributions are truly immeasurable, specifically related to music and film movements here. He has done more for the youth and young adult culture than anyone.”
Following VOV’s inaugural festival in 2005, Bill realized how music of this magnitude impacts the community. “It’s very simple in essence,” he says. “A person sees a band at VOV, maybe it’s their first ever concert, maybe it’s a band from Japan, Columbia, Israel, Sudan, New York or L.A. That person’s eyes and ears are opened wider than ever before and maybe they go home and stay in their bedroom with a guitar, inspired to make their own music. And then maybe that person goes on to become one of today’s most innovative musicians in the world. Maybe. That’s my dream.”
A Chicago native, Bill has called Hot Springs home for 13 years with his partner, Shea Childs. The father of two attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he and friends formed Blue Meanies, a punk rock band. From 1989 to 2015, Bill traveled the world as a musician and recorded multiple records. “A quarter of a century of creative output is habit forming,” Bill says. “The only difference now is that I am on the producing side of shows and not the performing. Still, it’s all part of the same output.”
Favorite artist or band as a child? Queen “News of the World” was my first LP. I can still sing every word on the record.
One word to sum up what music means to you? Salvation
Favorite Hot Springs spot? Kollective Coffee & Tea