Big Smith: An Education in Bluegrass

Big Smith is hitting the road hard these days promoting their newest studio effort “Shoots, Roots & Wings,” and after nearly 15 years of recording and touring, the members of Big Smith are beginning to show the subtle signs of age. It’s happening gracefully, but their faces are showing some lines and the beards sported by several of the guys are sprouting some gray hairs. Frankly, that’s not all bad. This is, after all, a group of serious musicians steeped in the gospel, bluegrass and hillbilly music of the Ozark Mountains who came together to play their own version of traditional music. No one wants to entrust a bunch of snot-nosed kids with America’s musical heritage.

Formed in Springfield, Missouri as a semi-traditional bluegrass band playing the music they grew up with, Big Smith is basically a family affair. Guitarist Mark Bilyeu is joined by his brother Jody on mandolin and keyboards, bass-playing cousin Bill Thomas, his brother Rik Thomas on multiple instruments, and cousin Jay Williamson on percussion and drum. Recently, non-family (and noticeably non-bearded) Molly Healy joined the band as a full-time member on the fiddle. All of the members trade vocals on various songs and share song-writing duties. And while the beards, long hair and hillbilly get-up might make you think they’re a group of backwoods hicks, the members of Big Smith are all classically trained, musically educated or, in the case of Jody, a PhD-holding ex-college professor. That doesn’t mean the backwoods look is an affectation either, it’s just another reason why Big Smith is so hard to pin down.

“ Big Smith does traditional music in a most untraditional way, which means treating it as a starting point for something more dynamic and a helluva lot more fun. The result is an eclectic hodge-podge of styles that is good-natured and infectious. ”
In their earlier days, Big Smith’s music was a more acoustic sounding blend of contemporary bluegrass with the occasional foray into blues, rock and country, but all played with at least a hint of bluegrass. They could play straight bluegrass, the stuff doled out to toe-tapping bluehairs at annual festivals, but they used that sound to turn out something uniquely hip and cool—words not usually associated with mandolins and washboards. As Mark Bilyeu says, “There’s a particular way that bluegrass fans expect their music to be played, and we don’t really play that way.” With a laugh he adds, “We could (play that way), and from a certain standpoint it would be nice to play on that bluegrass circuit, but that’s not really us.” Instead, they do traditional music in a most untraditional way, which means treating it as a starting point for something more dynamic and a helluva lot more fun. The result is an eclectic hodge-podge of styles that is good-natured and infectious without ever straying into novelty, corn or self-indulgence. Their music, along with constant touring and rollicking live shows, has resulted in a near-fanatical following in towns all over the Midwest and South. The loyalty between fans and the band is mutual.

A Big Smith show must be experienced to be understood. Recently, Big Smith booked a gig in Dallas, the first time they had played the area in seven years. The venue Big Smith was playing, a beautifully-renovated warehouse set next to a trailer park and a couple of buildings offering bail bonds in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas (what developers charitably call and ‘up and coming’ neighborhood), might not have been a place most Big Smith fans would have found on their own. But the 21st-century version of word-of-mouth (i.e. Facebook, email and Twitter) was enough to fill the house with fans from all over North Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. It wasn’t clear if the regulars at the venue were aware of what they were in for, but by the end of the show, it was clear they were having a good time. Big Smith generates that kind of goodwill.

“ The songs never stray far from the band’s musical roots, but the band’s penchant for exploring musical styles is combined with a bigger, fuller sound. The result is a collection of songs that are totally accessible, even to those who might not think of themselves as fans of country, folk or bluegrass. ”
Big Smith’s new CD “Shoots, Roots & Wings” is their first studio effort for adults in several years. (They previously released a double CD for kids, a kind of bluegrass primer, called “From Hay to Zzzz, Hillbilly Songs for Kids.”) The band’s maturity, as a group and as musicians, is all over the album. As with earlier material, the songs never stray far from the band’s musical roots, but the band’s penchant for exploring musical styles is combined with a bigger, fuller sound. The songs, music and harmonies are still tight, but there’s just more in the mix now. The styles range from the album’s opening country track to traditional blues, countrified rock (think early 70’s Gram Parsons) and even a Texas swing number that is an absolute gem. The result is a collection of songs that are totally accessible, even to those who might not think of themselves as fans of country, folk or bluegrass.

Sadly, along with getting older comes a myriad of responsibilities, and while discussing their frequent touring recently, several of the band members admitted that it’s not easy being full-time musicians. Being on the road and playing 90-100 shows a year means a lot of time away from spouses and kids. As member Jay Williamson said, “Having kids is a double-edged sword. Everyone (in the band) works around it, but you know it would be better (for the band) to be on the road all the time.” But there’s no sign that Big Smith will be calling it quits any time soon. Their passion for what they’re doing, as well as their commitment to the music and their fans, keeps them at it. Said Williamson, “We reached a point where we had a meeting last year to decide do we keep doing this full time or not. We decided to keep doing it.” That’s good news not only for the fans who continue to by their CDs and turn out for Big Smith shows, but for anyone who cares about the future of traditional American music.

FROM THE REMIXED ARCHIVES – 2010

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