Big Smith plays authentic and intellectual hillbilly music … No, really.
By Shea Stewart
The Springfield, Mo.-based band Big Smith is familiar to metro music fans. They’re those five family members — either brothers or cousins — and one non-relative who play “hillbilly” music. (Certainly not bluegrass. At least not in the traditional sense of the genre. There are no drums in “real” bluegrass.)
They are a familiar sight because they play a Little Rock club two to three times a year, packing fans in and shaking them on down with their high-spirited hillbilly music.
The band — brothers Mark (guitar) and Jody Bilyeu (mandolin), and Rik Thomas (ukulele, mandolin and banjo) and Bill Thomas (upright bass), and cousin Jay Williamson (washboard and trap set) along with Molly Healey (fiddle and cello) — mix a little old-time mountain, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, country and blues in their powder keg and set it on fire. The resulting musical explosion is raucous acoustic music, a hillbilly hoedown as craggy as the Ozarks but still quite charming due to the group’s harmonies, with each member singing. It’s music that is joyous and unconstrained. Authentic, but highly literary and slightly academic, but not in a boring, stuffy way. It’s just … intellectual hillbilly music. Most of the members of Big Smith either are academics (Jody Bilyeu has a doctor of English) or come from an academic background. And the band’s lyrics can be poetic. Tunes such as “John Elvis” could stand alone as a short story, with its tale of the dead man writing “a fair line when his wits were around.”
So yeah, it’s hillbilly music. It possesses all the rugged passion of the mountains it escapes from, and it’s as quick-witted as it is quickly moving, with an added dose of Ozarks mojo.
But the band’s music is not bluegrass music. It’s an entirely different creature.
“We used to allow people to think we were a bluegrass band so we could get hired at bluegrass festivals,” said a laughing Jody Bilyeu. “And occasionally a bluegrass festival still likes our stuff, and knows what it is. But we have percussion, and we don’t write about driving mules and living in the Blue Mountains of Kentucky because we didn’t do any of that. We don’t have the repertoire and we don’t sort of have the bluegrass attitude, and we certainly … well, not certainly but it’s close — don’t have the bluegrass instrumentation. We got percussion.
“We’re not a bluegrass band so the hillbilly label was sort of available as a term that applied to the music we make and the region so it was sort of easy. In terms of radio genre, I’m sure you could stick us anywhere from Americana to singer/songwriter or wherever.”
Whatever label it’s saddled with, the music of Big Smith has discovered a fanbase. Formed in the fall of 1996, the band grew out of Mark Bilyeu’s weekly gig as a solo performer, and Big Smith has slowly branched out from its Springfield base, touring as far as the West Coast and Europe, and transforming into a Midwest or Midsouth institution (depending on what region the Missouri Ozarks belong to).
“Mark started as a solo act playing hillbilly music, which was crazy at the time because no one was doing that, and he just started adding [members],” Jody Bilyeu said. “They had run out of instruments by the time I’d joined which is why I’m playing mandolin.
“The way our family works is we had a mandolin lying around the house so that’s how that happened.”
But what the band hasn’t done a lot of is recording its sound in the studio. Beyond the 1998 self-titled debut, the 2000 release Big Rock and their newest, Roots, Shoots, and Wings, the band only has two other albums, both live; Gig and Live at Lonestar (a gospel set paying tribute to Big Smith’s musical roots). Ten years passed between Big Rock and last year’s Roots, Shoots, and Wings. (The band did record the two-disc children’s album Hay to Zzzzzz: Hillbilly Songs for Kids in the interim.)
That’s slowly changing, though. With the addition of Bill Thomas in 2007 and Healey in 2008, Big Smith has become a “full-time” band, touring usually Thursdays through Sundays, which affords members time with their families. And the band is finishing up a follow-up to Roots, Shoots, and Wings.
“We’re on the verge of having a new, studio CD,” Jody Bilyeu said. “All the tracking and stuff is done. We’re just at the mastering stage, and we’re pretty excited about it.”
No release date has been offered, and the band hasn’t “set a deadline or anything like that,” Jody Bilyeu said.
“We’re just making sure everything is done, and we’re happy with it,” he said. “That’s our schedule.
“We had the doldrums … not producing an adult CD for a long time, and we sort of did some things to address that and get the creative juices flowing again. We’re ready to hit the ground running and keep the creative output up.”
SEE THE SHOW:
Saturday’s Bringing Back the Ballroom benefit at the Dreamland Ballroom in downtown Little Rock is headlined by Big Smith. Doors open at 7 p.m. with the music at 7:30 p.m. with opener Johnson’s Crossroad, an Asheville, N.C., band that plays self-described “Appalachian soul,” a collection of bluegrass, old country and Appalachian old time. Big Smith takes the stage at 9 p.m. Following the two bands there will be an Old School Soul Dance Party with Seth Baldy. Tickets are $10 in advance and $14 day of show.