Dancing With The Devils

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In the 1930s, the country music industry in Springfield, Mo., was amorphous, yet very broadcast-centric. The area was home to powerful 50,000-watt radio stations that broadcast nationally to avid — and often metropolitan — audiences. Missouri’s countless railroad interchanges facilitated mobility and, in turn, diversity and creativity; Ozark mountain settlers were influenced during their journey west across the musical confluences of the Mississippi River, and in many ways their music became reflective of the restless American spirit.

By the mid-1950s, four “Ozark Jubilee”-style shows were nationally broadcast from southwest Missouri (for a great backstage look at this era, look no further than Live at the Ozark Opry by local author Dan William Peek). Springfield has since remained a music town — or more rightly, a musician’s town. Though modern Missouri tends to overlook the “Diamond Studded Buckle in the Bible Belt,” Springfield is still a place where the mechanic who fixes your car plays Badfinger covers at a corner bar on weekends. In the ‘60s, Springfield native Wayne Carson Thompson wrote his best songs, including “The Letter” and “She’s Actin’ Single, I’m Drinkin’ Doubles” in his hometown and demo’d them at Lou Whitney’s Studio with Morrell’s guitarist D. Clinton Thompson. ‘Nuf said, really.

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils came together in Springfield in the early 1970s. The original members were guitarists John Dillon and Steve Cash, blues harpist/singer/guitarist Randle Chowning, drummer/guitarist/singer Larry Lee, keyboardist Buddy Brayfield, and bassist-vocalist Michael “Supe” Granda. Although it was a time when many Midwestern youth migrated to the coasts for enlightenment and whatnot, many more stayed close to home to rusticate and get their freak on. A lot of kids were unreconstructed redneck hippies — down-home intellectuals in overalls who were raised on ditch weed. They listened to KAAY-AM radio out of Little Rock, especially late-night’s Beaker Street, whose evolved playlist permeated the air at tradition-bound back-porch jams and grower’s parties. The five original Daredevils got busy grafting new sounds to the mountain music they’d grown up playing. Amazingly, it didn’t take long for them to get noticed, first by the legendary John Hammond and then by A&M Records. A&M sent them to Olympic Studios in London to record their debut under the auspices of producer Glyn Johns. The self-titled debut was a stone masterpiece, thanks in part to the super-Ozarky top-20 hit “If You Want to Get to Heaven.” “The Quilt Album,” as it became known, sold well enough for Johns to bring the industry to the band and release “It’ll Shine When It Shines,” a follow-up recorded at the Daredevils’ Ruedi-Valley Ranch in Aldrich.

This album, with its big-bottomed single “Jackie Blue,” is the high point in an impressive four-LP arc that comprised the band’s A&M years. “Car Over the Lake” and “Men From Earth” followed, and although both sound brilliant to this day, neither generated a hit, and the band fell to infighting and drifted apart. Chowning got up his own band. Brayfield studied medicine. Others carried on the band name but established successful journeyman careers. For the next 20 years, many talented Springfield musicians, such as the aforementioned Thompson, drummer Ron Gemp and the late Billy Brown, backed various original members of the Daredevils, but the band’s catalog remained unimproved and often altogether unavailable.

Time, they say, eats the conscience out of things (whatever that means), and with the dawn of the 21st-century, a generation of baby-boomer Daredevil fans finally got the kids out of the house, awoke from their domestic stupors and started finding each other on the Internet. As prohibitive licensing expired, the band regained control of its catalog, then lovingly re-mastered and reissued it.

Though their official last show was in 2004, founding Daredevils Cash, Dillon and Granda have lately assembled a nine-piece touring band that features themselves and other players involved with the band’s original, groundbreaking sound. The motivation behind this particular iteration of the group, which features horns and extra keyboards (thanks to the excellent Kelly Brown) seems to be less profit driven and more of an attempt to set the record straight.

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Big Smith perform on Friday, May 4, at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, 203 S. Ninth St. Tickets start at $24, and the show kicks off at 7 p.m. Call 573-882-3781 for more information, or visit www.concertseries.org.

Kevin (aka Kelvin) Walsh considers himself a student of music’s effect on people. Since moving to Columbia in 1975, his professional ventures have included music retailer, radio show host and a brief stint as Truman the Tiger. He currently hosts “The (So Called) Good Life,” from 3 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday on KOPN 89.5 FM and streaming live at www.kopn.org

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