Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Click below to hear “Country Girl.” http://www.pulitzer.com/music/01CountryGirl.mp3 while you read the article!
The Ozark Mountain Daredevils had the sound that captured the essence of the 70's, with hits like "If You Wanna Get to Heaven" and "Jackie Blue". With their eclectic and wide range of musical styles, they opened for diverse acts as Emmy Lou Harris, the Doobie Brothers and the Eagles. And yet, these guys from Springfield, Missouri never sought fame. They weren't even a bar band; they were a bunch of guys who got together and jammed on Thursday nights, "because nobody would come in." Though they certainly lived a laid-back, hippie lifestyle and called themselves "sophisticated hillbillies," they weren't quite that. All of the band attended some college and three were grads. Unbeknownst to the band, the bar owner where they jammed, Steve Canaday, taped a Thursday night session and took it to New York. There, he doggedly insisted that John Hammond, Sr., the producer for CBS Records, listen to it. John Hammond was legendary: he discovered the likes of Billy Holiday, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Hammond loved what he heard and determined to form this ragtag group of friends into a band.
I recently got to speak to a few of the founding members of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils to see what they were up to. The band members are very articulate and thoughtful. It was a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the music industry.
Larry Lee has been a whirlwind of a record producer since leaving the Ozark Mountain Daredevils in the late 1970's. He brought a pop sound to six of Alabama's top selling records. "I kept them on the radio," he notes. Lee also worked with Juice Newton, K.T. Oslin, Restless Heart and others. Interestingly, Lee has never been a big country music fan, or at least of the "Nashville Sound" that was being rolled out then. "I never really liked country music, it was pretty vanilla, like Hee Haw." He explained that a lot of the sameness of country music is due to management in Nashville being dominated by "very few people who do all the work. They go from one company to another, just switch places." He let me in on a dirty little secret of the industry: very few of the people who work in country music are country music fans. He talked about a survey done at the famous South by Southwest music convention, where 2/3 of the industry bosses don't even listen to country music. "It's all corporate, owned by Seagrams and they've got the bean counters working for them." They will sit in meetings, giving the nod of fame to people "who don't even know the purpose of a cowboy hat." Lee does admit that he likes "the good music, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline."
Lee and all the other members came from a rich musical tradition in Springfield, MO. Ragtime composer Scott Joplin shot to fame in Missouri, and the area also boasts such talents as the late classic country/gospel singer Red Foley, Porter Waggoner and Brenda Lee. Larry Lee explains that many vaudeville acts came through the area which influenced the music, along with traditional bluegrass. This makes perfect sense, when you realize that Springfield is only 40 miles from Branson.
With all the different influences, along with the pop and rock angles, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils were lucky to avoid the major showdowns common to other bands. "We were the most democratic band. There were no 'leaders'. Each guy's influence bent the others'. We enjoyed doing everything. I loved recording everything, it didn't matter if I wrote the song or not. I never got tired of it." Though Lee loves pop music, he insists that he could appreciate the charm of such songs as "Chicken Train" on its own merits.
Lee couldn't stay on the business side of music forever; recently, he teamed up with fellow OMD member Randle Chowning to put out a CD. Chowning had approached Lee with some songs, thinking Lee would shop them around the country music world. But Lee has been in the business for a long time and explained that these were "artist's songs." He told me that an "artist's song" is one that would fit that and only that artist. Plus, these songs would have been fitting a square peg into a round hole in today's country music scene; no amount of tinkering was likely to change that. Also, "to get played on a Clear Channel station is impossible. Regardless that they caught Sony and all the others with the payola, it's still part of the thing. They'll just find a new way to do it." So, Lee helped Chowning to market the CD's indie-style, through CD Baby, etc. "I told him to do it himself on the indie scene: 'You have a history.'" Lee mentioned that the CD's are also available on Napster "and it pays."
Talk about Napster's old days of free downloads with Lee and you find a very sore subject. "I think today's youth are not being brought up with the same sense of ethics." When he caught his son having the time of his life downloading songs on his Apple, he sat him down for a little chat. "You see this house we live in? That Apple you have? The truck in the driveway? The private school you attend? You wouldn't have any of that if everybody downloaded my music for free."
Speaking of buying his music, you can order a copy of his latest CD, "Beyond Reach", at www.ozarkdaredevils.com. This latest CD has tunes that have a modern pop quality, along with songs that have the distinct Larry Lee smooth sound.
MICHAEL "SUPE" GRANDA
The writer of "If You Wanna Get to Heaven" used to wear Superman costumes to work with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, thus the nickname. Supe also has moved to Nashville. He brought a harder rock sound to the ensemble, but interestingly enough, he plays in many genres now. "I'm like those plate spinners on the Ed Sullivan show, spinning 12 plates in the air!" No matter if he's playing rock, swing or polka (!), Supe says he can do good work with any band. One collaborative effort is charmingly called Supe and the Sandwiches.
Supe credits his own sound to being a "St. Louis kid," growing up listening to St. Louis' favorite son, Chuck Berry. He also was influenced by the sounds of New Orleans: Fats Domino and Alain Toussaint. Supes' sound got a little edgier after the British invasion of the 60's. He admits that his sound today reflects a lot of what his dad used to listen to, the big band swing records. "I rejected them when I was younger," he sighs.
When I asked Supe if it's hard to break into radio, between Clear Channel and Walmart's domination of CD sales, the answer is a flat-out "yes." He notes that it was hard to break in 20 years ago, "It was tough then. I don't know if I'd be able to compete today. It's conglomerates who are bought up by conglomerates who are bought up by mega-conglomerates."
Supe still has his foot in the Nashville insiders' door, though. The documentary "Dancing Outlaw" was released about 10 years ago: award-winning director Jacob Young produced the film for public television about a mountain dancer and derelict whose favorite song was "If You Wanna Get to Heaven". People in the industry know who Supe is and what he's accomplished.
These days, Supe finds himself playing gigs in Nashville, St. Louis, Springfield and Chicago, often working with Southern rocker Trent Summar. As for promotion, Supe considers himself a "one-man army, I do whatever I can." His CD's are for sale on www.ozarkdaredevils.com and www.supeline.com.
Supe has another project in the works, as well: he is completing a memoir of his days with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, but is still looking for a publisher.
Both sides of John Dillon's family in southeast Arkansas were musical. His mother played "great country," Dillon reminisces. He took piano as a kid and sang in the church choir. Later, taught himself some guitar licks. Still, Dillon doesn't consider himself a musician; he feels his gift was always in song writing. Though Dillon's fame exploded in the 1970's, he feels his style has a "more 1950's style, more about self expression, beatnik, with the layers of language added to the music. More than a 1960's style."
These days, Dillon is a partner in an advertising agency in Ozark, Missouri, Meridian Creative Alliance. Meridian brought him in initially to formulate some musical concepts for accounts, create jingles. But soon, "It evolved into a career change. I found myself in the studio more than when I was recording!" Now, he has famous accounts, such as nationally known O'Reilly Auto Parts. Dillon admits that "at first, it was difficult. I thought it would be too structured. I had come from a life on the road for 30 years. Now it was the 'real world'!"
Now Dillon is something of a hometown hero. After touring the world, he realized that one of the mainstays of an area's culture and community is through its architecture. Missouri was in danger of losing its historic 1870's and 1880's buildings. Dillon got onto his local planning and zoning board to make the town put sidewalks on both sides of the street and to reduce light pollution. "This country has been slow to get on the bandwagon of that! We have to reshape the attitude," he notes. Dillon gets quoted by his local paper "a lot" and there's even been talk about running for mayor. But he does not see that on the horizon; "I'm too radical for this area. I didn't realize I moved right into the center of the Bible Belt. I'd be assassinated by someone on his tractor," he jokes.
While Dillon had been performing for decades, when his guitarist and friend Bill Brown died in a tragic fire last year, he decided "it was time to take a break." But the Ozark Mountain Daredevils are still busy with fans, since they released their collection on CD. When "Dancing Outlaw" came out, "It validated that we are definitely a cult band. Jesco White! He is the epitome of our fans," Dillon laughs.
After 33 years on the road, Steve Cash is taking a hiatus: "We never truly break up!" These days, Cash is a successfully published author, living in Springfield with his whole family nearby. As a youth, he was always writing short pieces or poetry. "I had to hide it! Kids want to play sports, they don't want to know that you can read and write," he laughs. But, as he says, "I thought of writing a novel all my life! My daughter was saying, 'I'm tired of hearing about you doing a novel one day,'".
After decades of success as a musician, Cash had to start at the beginning to get published. He discovered the "Catch-22" that he needed an agent to get published, but needed a track history of being published to get an agent. He had a friend, Francis Bissel, who was a published cookbook author. She showed his work around and got him published in England with McMillan. She later became his bona fide agent. Then, she convinced Random House in the US to take on his trilogy: The Meq, Time Dancers (which will be released in May) and another that Cash is working on now. The New York Times has reviewed his work; Cash says they pronounced his work, "mesmerizing". His books are available at bookstores nationwide and at Amazon.com.
Cash is the one responsible for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils being on the Dancing Outlaw soundtrack. "I was in charge of publishing. We owned our publishing. Somebody had to handle it." As he tells it, a man who worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting contacted him about a series he was running, "A Different Drummer". He knew that he needed permission to use the song in the upcoming documentary. "It became an instant underground thing! Bus drivers and roadies were telling us about it, everyone had seen it."
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