Ozark Mountain Daredevils: a concert preview, an historical overview & a bit of personal piffle

by Michael Kuelker

VP Fair – July 2, 1981.  The Ozark Mountain Daredevils are performing beneath the Arch on a sunny afternoon, and I am on an outing with my parents and younger sister, witness to the effects upon the masses of music, the natural elements and holiday weekend espirit.  The set-closing “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” has the place electrified.  Among the dancers catching my eye is a hairy hippie who holds his toddler as an air guitar, bouncing the kid and jamming away through the song.  Both are grinning.

And thinking about it now, so am I.

Having been turned on to the Daredevils by my high school buddies on a float trip, I had the band’s records, knew their story and was finally getting to see them for the first time.  When you are 17, every rock and roll event is school.  My concert experience had been brief but rewarding, the late seventies middle American rock and roll dream, which is to say Aerosmith, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Sammy Hagar, Springsteen, Nugent, UFO, Molly Hatchet and The Who.  But I had never been to an open-air daytime show before, and this one had the audience in a fizzy froth.  The Daredevils’ albums were the mellowest in my collection – I didn’t know till then they could deliver such a rock and roll power surge.

There are two things to say about it now.  One, the fair in those years really was the bomb – Ella Fitzgerald, Loretta Lynn and Atlanta Rhythm Section also occupied the mainstage in ’81.  And two, the Dares are coming back.

The Daredevils return to the Argosy Casino in Alton, Il, for performances on March 8 and 9.  Both shows are sold out.  Springfield, Missouri’s hillbillies with harmonies, celebrating the 40-year anniversary of their stunning debut, the self-titled “quilt album,” are these days doing limited numbers of intimate shows.

Back cover to the 1973 debut by Ozark Mountain Daredevils

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ career can be divided into four unevenly sized chunks: formation in Springfield, MO through the A&M years (1971-79); the Columbia Records and splinter years (1980-83); the reformation period as a touring unit (mid-80s to 1992); and the sunny glow years of semi-retirement (mid-90s to present).

If you don’t have tickets for the Alton dates, the Dares perform in Springfield, MO on April 6, headlining a benefit concert in support of Care to Learn.  They will also return to Steelville, MO on November 2 and 3 for what has become an annual autumnal ritual at Wildwood Springs Lodge.  These are the only 2013 concerts announced thus far.

Of the six founding members, three remain in place – John Dillon (guitar, vocals), Steve Cash (harp, vocals) and Michael “Supe” Granda (bass, vocals).  They have performed on every album and, except for a slice of the splinter years, have been the anchor-weights on every tour in the band’s career.  Randle Chowning and Larry Lee, who left the group decades ago, have among other things recorded as Beyond Reach.  The sixth founding member, Buddy Brayfield, departed in 1977 and became a medical doctor.

A Daredevils album invites the listener to embrace an amalgam of sounds and attitudes.  There is rock, there are sounds of the country including mandolin, fiddle and mouthbow; tunes range from spiritual to freewheeling, serious to silly.  Just as there were strengths in having all members write and five of them sing lead, the variety in directions could, especially with record industry pressures, prove nettlesome.

The eponymous debut, recorded in England with Glyn Johns (Led Zep, The Who), yielded the hit single “If You Want to Get to Heaven” and enduring fan favorites like “Chicken Train,” “Standing on a Rock,” “Black Sky” and others.  It is a front-to-back marvel of eclecticism showing like a prism the band’s many-natured state of being.  (Watch John Dillon play the mouthbow on “Chicken Train” from 1976’s “Old Grey Whistle Test” program in 1976.)

For the next album, A&M brought in a mobile recording truck directly to the band’s rural home base in Missouri.  Like the debut, It’ll Shine When It Shines utilized all the band’s talents, from straight country such as “Walkin’ Down the Road” and the title song to the slow, meditative  “Lowland” to the effervescent rock-with-twang “Tidal Wave.”  Watch Cash, Dillon & Granda reflect today on a mid-70s show in Glasgow, Scotland, when five thousand people sang along to “It’ll Shine When It Shines.”

But it was “Jackie Blue,” a piece of melancholy rock and roll balladry beautifully sung by Larry Lee, that put the band over the top.  The song enjoyed massive radio play, going to#3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1975.  It paved the way for wider-scale touring and would be the band’s biggest hit.

I will go to the mat to say this: The Daredevils’ opening pair of albums stand strong alongside any two studio albums in succession by any artist in popular music at the time.

The success of “Jackie Blue” naturally required follow-up, so Larry Lee songs in its vein appeared on subsequent albums.  While the chart position was never quite replicated, certain of those numbers hit an especially pleasing groove with me like “Following the Way That I Feel” though I always favored the harder-edged and weirder material in their catalogue.

This was also a time of changes.  Between 1975 and 1977, the band cut three more studio albums – The Car Over the Lake Album, Men from Earth and Don’t Look Down – during which they shed founding members and added on several new players.  The latter album featured four original and four new members.

Press photo from A&M circa 1977

An A&M Records ad @ Christmastime in the mid-70s

"The Little Red Record"

The tension between radio hegemony and the rangier, spiritual beatnik side of the band was nowhere more clearly demonstrated than on the “little red record.”

Inside the sleeve of 1975’s The Car Over the Lake Album was a bonus EP, a square-shaped, single-sided red plastic thing with three songs.  The tunes were deemed out of sync with the rest of the album but nevertheless necessary to include if listeners were to experience the full essence of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.  Reprinted on floppy red was a letter about “rural satire” from producer David Anderle to studio bosses explaining plainly why the songs had to be heard.

This being the seventies, there had to be a live double album; ergo, It’s Alive, a fine representation of the band’s concert energy and musical dynamics.  The record deal with A&M, though, was at an end.

Regrouping yet again but paring down, the Dares next went to Columbia Records, and of course the label wanted hits.  “Take You Tonight,” which was popular regionally (including on KSHE-95), and “Oh Darlin’” were near misses.  I recall the band opening for Willie Nelson at the Checkerdome during this period, the only audience I was a part of which competed size-wise with the VP Fair.

Then, the splinter years.  Larry Lee left and did a solo album in a Christopher Cross mode for CBS.  Steve Cash & John Dillon decided to “stand down” as they say in the military while Supe Granda linked up again with Randle Chowning and called up some other Springfield cats to tour.  I caught this incarnation at Stonehenge in Lebenon, IL in early 1983 – enjoyable though I’d been startled by the change in lineup.

After a hiatus, Cash & Dillon returned to the fold with Granda and the group toured as a five-piece.  I saw them at county fairs.  I saw them at the Oak Shore Music Festival in outstate Illinois (w/ Marshall Tucker Band and Head East).  I saw them at a “pool fest” in Fenton, MO, at a nightclub in Danville, IL, at an amphitheater in the Ozarks and in the round at the Westport Playhouse here in the 314.

As with every other classic rock artist, the Dares’ reissues breed like bunnies.  The most interesting of the lot for me is Archive Alive!, which compiles live cuts from March 1973 at the Cowtown Ballroom in Kansas City and the old Kiel Opera House in STL, when the band was opening shows playing kazoos and ending with a wholloping instrumental jam. Archive Alive! is deliciously un-redundant.  Only one of the 11 songs appeared on the debut album that year and none from It’ll Shine When It Shines.  A handful of songs never made it onto albums; the remainder would be revisited in the studio only three years later.  Such was the band’s level of creativity and productivity in these halcyon years.

Concert stub from a Daredevils show in Fenton, MO Sept 7, 1986


Ozark Mountain Daredevils today - photo courtesy of ozarkdarevils.com

The Daredevils ensemble these days features Ruell Chappell (percussion), Bill Jones (sax), Nick Sibley (guitar), Dave Painter (guitar), Kelly Brown (keys) and Ron Gremp (drums).

Each of these “Sparedevils” has a long resume in Springfield music and beyond.  Gremp, also a member seminal roots rockers The Morells, has drummed for the Daredevils for over two decades.  Ruell Chappell was a full member of the band in the late seventies.  Jones guested on Daredevils albums in the mid-70s.  Kelly Brown and Nick Sibley have been in The Skeletons, another storied Springfield-based roots rock band.  Dave Painter joined the group in 2004 after the untimely death of guitarist Bill Brown.

Today, New Era Productions of Springfield, MO is the imprint for the band.  New Era has released the double-dvd Live at Gillioz, spawned from a one-off reunion of all-original members, and Alive and Wild, recorded at Wildwood Springs Lodge.

And what else occupies the time of the still-remaining original Daredevils?

John Dillon recently co-founded ArtistSignal, a web-based platform for aspiring musicians.  Steve Cash is a writer of science fiction and has penned an ambitious trilogy (The Meq, Time Dancers, The Remembering, published between 2005 and 2011).  Supe Granda maintains numerous projects, including Supe & the Sandwiches and The Garbonzos.  (In 2013, the Garbonzos notched their 20th annual Mardi Gras performance at the Venice Café.)  Granda also recently wrote It Shined, a wonderfully rich account of his life and the band’s career.

The author of this article circa 1980. He has only simulated the smashing of instruments.

Another memory: May 1982.  I was 18 and restless, having just graduated from high school with plans to begin studies at St. Louis University in the fall.  In the midst of a life pause which turned into a funk, I was what the French existentialists would call entre oui et non, weirded out and feeling very strange.  And just then, an offer from a friend of mine came in to work on his family’s farm outside of Newark, Ohio.  I didn’t know what to do.

The immensity of an uncertain future bore down hard, so I narrowed my fears and made it a question of whether I wanted to give up the part-time job I had bagging groceries by leaving for the summer.  It was work I enjoyed for decent money.  On two occasions I consulted with my father, who gave me two sides of the coin, suggesting at one moment carpe diem and, later, cautioning me about the quality of part-time work I would find upon my return.

The take-away for me was that I need to figure this out myself – which I did, in our basement in front of my stereo listening privately to Ozark Mountain Daredevils.  The ’73 debut is an album of classics – not just the hit single but the tasty easy listening opener “Country Girl,” the timeless “Standing on a Rock” and down-home “Chicken Train,” the acoustic gospelly “Beauty in the River,” all of them; but it was the last cut on side A, “Colorado Song,” that put me over the edge and on my way out the door.

Sung by John Dillon over acoustic guitar and a backing that builds into little crescendos (more like the hills of Missouri, actually, than the Rocky Mountains), “Colorado Song” is lyrically spare –

I’m going back to Colorado

Rolling down the highway

Just my life to carry

It’s written the wind again

I will drink from the river

That runs down from the mountain

Just my life returning

I feel it in the wind again

It is a two-minute number with a mellow three-minute outro which invited my imagination though not because it’s a storytelling road song or anthem for change.  It made me wonder how life transacts renewal through an experience with nature, and I liked how the singer went from specific image to an immaterial idea, of something being inscribed in the wind.

I had already made the song mine prior to this moment in the basement – had my guitar teacher show me the bass figure Supe is doing before lines three and six and usually lifted the record player needle early in the long outro.  But this time I was drawn to “Colorado Song” for much the same reason that Emerson would capture me later with the idea of nature as both process and result and of the “endless circulations of divine charity [which] nourish man.”

So I went to central Ohio and worked on a produce farm for thirty dollars a day plus meals and a room.  I did the kind of hard physical labor which rarely fails to produce meaningful insight (the chief nugget being that I was grievously unsuited for farm work).  It was a time to lose baby fat, and humbling experiences abounded.  My friend’s father, age 60, who ran the farm, had the stamina of a horse.  When he & I were picking corn from the stalks in parallel rows, five dozen to a bushel, he clowned me.  I was thoroughly outworked.  The family, I must say, was very nice to get to know.

As for time to sip the spring waters of hinterlands Ohio, I had none.  What I had were 12- and 15-hour workdays, six a week, which by the end left me either falling directly into bed after dinner or chilling vegetatively on the porch with music, talk radio, farm talk and cicadas.  Other avocations that summer were few.  I had a very quiet and clichéd crush on two of the farmer’s daughters.  I shot a gun for the first and only times, surprising myself by how much I really wanted to kill the furry little bastards who were nipping at our crops (but I missed).

When I would be assigned easy hours manning the cash register at the farm’s little roadside market, I’d play Ozark Mountain Daredevils music.  At the time I was big into southern rock and country-rock – mostly artists who were either familiar to the local clientele (Marshall Tucker, Waylon Jennings, Hank Jr.) or who were too out there (Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” anyone?) for the situation.  I enjoyed knocking people over, or at least sparking some discussion about, my special Daredevils mixtape.  It had the deep cuts not the hits – “River to the Sun,” “Kansas You Fooler” and “Noah,” all the stuff I liked best.

So I rang up produce, bagged the goods and bonded over music with people considerably older than I – another new experience for me.  One man with a hoarse voice who appeared to be my parents’ age wanted to return the favor of learning about the Daredevils by gifting me with the greatest hits of Johnny Cash.  About the man in black I knew zip.  The man was stirred with good natured indignation over my musico-cultural ignorance, handed me a cassette and said, hoarsely, “The whole goddamn tape is Johnny Cash.”

This was summer school, brought to me in part by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.