Fifty Years Ago, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils Sprang from Springfield, Missouri
When the Ozark Mountain Daredevils emerged with their self-titled debut in 1973, they evoked not only the spirit of the age but the place from which they sprang: Springfield, Missouri, and the Ozarks—a place of pop, rock, country, mountain music, and much more.
The album bore the production imprint of Glyn Johns, who was an in-demand audio savant known for his work with the biggest rock groups of the day (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who) but who also had a keen interest in producing American roots music. Johns co-produced with David Anderle, a staff producer and A&R representative for A&M Records, who tipped him off to the then-unknown Daredevils. In his memoir Sound Man, Johns writes that he was intrigued by the band’s “blend of country rock and American folk music all wrapped up in wonderful harmonies.”
In shepherding the music from demos to finished tracks at Olympic Studios in London, Johns achieved something more than his signature studio microphone placement; he yielded a singular and complete statement from the Daredevils’ diverse voices and songwriting styles. The album, recorded and released fifty years ago, remains evergreen.
The material that Johns and Anderle had to work with was abundant. The Daredevils—Randle Chowning (guitar, harp, vocals), John Dillon (guitar, fiddle, vocals), Larry Lee (drums, keyboards, guitar, vocals), Steve Cash (harp, vocals), Michael “Supe” Granda (bass, vocals), and Buddy Brayfield (keyboards, oboe, vocals)—started out with four songwriters singing lead and melting their voices together endearingly. Soon after, the other two had songwriting and lead vocal credits.
The Quilt Album, as it is known, is a front-to-back classic. Notorious among the ten songs, and a perennial fan favorite, is Steve Cash’s “Chicken Train,” which has absurdist lyrics and country harp by Cash, mouthbow by Dillon, and barnyard chicken clucks by all. Cash’s “Black Sky” blends swampy rock with visionary lyrics and the enigmatic line, “It’s everything you do and nothing that you did,” a way for Cash, who was influenced by beat poetry and Buddhism, to emphasize the presentness of the present moment.
Larry Lee contributed the introspective and gorgeously sung “Spaceship Orion” and “Within Without.” “Standing on a Rock” is Dillon’s song of agrarian hope with a call to “get back to the country, look around and find you a home / better get back to the country, that’s where we all come from,” a theme popular with the back-to-the-land movement. Dillon also chipped in the meditative “Colorado Song” and the album closer, “Beauty in the River.” The latter is infused with sublime spirituality and a declaration of transformation:
We must all stand in the water
We must find it when we roam
It don't matter what is said
We can wake up from the dead
And roll away the stone
We can roll away the stone
Randle Chowning, who was the impetus behind getting the Daredevils together in late 1971, sings the haunting “Road to Glory,” the lyrically impressionistic love song “Country Girl,” and the rocking Cash/Dillon-penned “If You Wanna Get to Heaven,” the band’s first radio hit in 1974. They enjoyed an even bigger smash in 1975 with “Jackie Blue,” a piece of melancholy soft rock from their second album so beautifully crafted and sung that it, like “Heaven,” remains an emblem of the times.
The Ozarks are where the band members resided and the place where their songs were inspired, composed, and nurtured. (This is true fifty years later, except for Supe Granda, who lives in Nashville.) While the band members bore the counterculture in appearance, attitude, and lifestyle, they were also inheritors of a local tradition that had produced Ozark Jubilee on ABC TV and the influential radio station KWTO, which for years had staff musicians who went on to greater fame. Si Siman (1921–1994) was behind a lot of music business in Springfield across this generation. Waves of aspiring singer-songwriters were drawn to southwest Missouri, where an enduring music subculture developed. In boxing terms, from Ronnie Self and Wayne Carson to the Skeletons and the Morells and beyond, Springfield has always punched above its weight.
The Daredevils came out during country rock’s second wave. In the mid- to late-1960s, country music embedded in American popular culture as the Band and the Byrds put out groundbreaking albums and Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons, and many other artists outside of traditional country explored the form. In 1972 and 1973, significant country rock albums poured forth from artists new and old, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, self-titled LPs by Manassas, Linda Ronstadt, and the Marshall Tucker Band, Poco’s Crazy Eyes, New Riders of the Purple Sage’s The Adventures of Panama Red, and the Eagles’ Desperado.
The Daredevils, who didn’t sound quite like any of these artists, continued to follow their multifaceted muse on their own terms, favoring rock, pop, country, mountain folk, and other sounds on the albums It’ll Shine When It Shines (1974), whose basic tracks were recorded at the rustic Ruedi Valley Ranch near Bolivar, Missouri, The Car Over the Lake Album (1975), Men from Earth (1976), Don’t Look Down (1977), and the live double album It’s Alive (1978). They toured Europe twice, played stadium gigs on bills with the top talent of the day, and got on television with appearances on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and The Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack. When A&M Records suggested the band relocate to the West Coast, the OMD demurred, preferring life in the Ozarks for themselves and their growing families.
By the end of the decade, country rock and its cousin, Southern rock, were on the outs in the record industry. Sales for their self-titled 1980 album were tepid, and the band entered a long period in which they cut albums sporadically and went through personnel changes but retained a loyal fanbase.
Today, the band is comprised of two founding members, John Dillon and Supe Granda, and a raft of talented players from the Springfield music scene, all of whom have impressive credits outside the OMD: Bill Jones (saxophone, woodwinds), Ruell Chappell (vocals), Ron Gremp (drums), Dave Painter (guitar, vocals), Kelly Brown (keyboards, vocals), Nick Sibley (guitar, harp, vocals), and Molly Healey (fiddle, cello, vocals). Charter member Steve Cash died in 2019. This long-running configuration has shown its potency in musicianship and songcraft on the recent albums Off the Beaten Path and Heaven 20/20 and on the new singles “Jackie Blue 2” and “More Cowbell.”
To paraphrase B.B. King, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils have been around a long time and really paid their dues, making distinctly sweet their recent recognition. In 2022, the Daredevils enjoyed their debut performance at the Grand Ole Opry and are appearing there again on July 1. The band was the subject of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils: Backstage, a feature-length documentary produced by Ozarks Public Television in 2022, and they staged a collaboration with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra that they will be repeating in Branson in August 2023. Their performance at the National Mall on July 4 as part of the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival ranks among the group’s highest honors.
Michael Kuelker is a teacher and writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils on Record: A Narrative Discography (FM Books & Music, 2022), which draws on archival sources and more than fifty hours of oral history that he conducted with the six founding members of the Daredevils as well as with other band members and insiders.