Big Smith band hangs up collective overalls

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 1,348 views 

FAYETTEVILLE — After 15 years, Big Smith, a bluegrass band comprised of brothers and cousins and one friend, is calling it quits. They’ll hang up their overalls and put away their instruments — sort of.

Music is such a part of members’ lives, they won’t totally stop playing. It just won’t be as this much-loved incarnation.

The band’s last shows in Fayetteville are this Friday and Saturday (April 13 and 14) at George’s Majestic Lounge on Dickson Street. Tickets can be bought here.

Jody Bilyeu, singer and mandolin player, said they started the band because they couldn’t swing a fiddle without hitting a musician in their family. Their intentions lingered for a long time before they finally took root, as his brother, Mark Bilyeu, was discovering his family and musical roots.

Jody remembers Mark playing an opening set for Jody’s blues band at the time. Donning overalls and a straw hat, Mark played his guitar and sang the traditional tune “Worried Man Blues.” Jody realized that even if no one came to see the band, he’d love to be doing that with his younger brother.

Back then, in the 1990s, Mark hosted an open mic night at The Bar Next Door in Springfield, Mo., their hometown. One night, a washtub bass player and washboard player sat in.

“The crowd really responded in a way I’d never experienced as a live musician,” said Mark, 42.

Gradually, various cousins sat in to play, and the members of Big Smith emerged. First, it was brothers Mike Williamson on bass and Jay Williamson on washboard. Jody basically learned to play mandolin on stage, and Rik Thomas was the sound guy until he joined the rest on stage, playing banjo and ukulele.

The band focuses on tight, often fast, musicianship — on instruments including mandolin, banjo, upright bass, guitar, fiddle, washboard and drums — and intricate harmonies made better by their shared genetics. They inherited a unique vocal blend from their parents, and have the ability to sing in harmony by ear, Mark said.

“We come from the hillbilly,” said Jody, now 46. “Nobody else was doing it, and it spoke to so many people.”

Though Jody had played blues and Mark was a rock ’n’ roller at heart, they eventually settled back into their acoustic roots. Mark said they wore their Ozark roots on their sleeves — or overalls — as they played original music with clever, sometimes wry, lyrics that talked about the environment (“Quarry Anthem”), society (“No Sir”), cultural pride (“Trash”), home (“Backwater”), love (“Bareback Ridin’”) and more.

There was a gap in regional music after the breakup of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, a commercially successful Springfield band that was most active in the 1970s and is now in semi-retirement.

“There was nothing that was really touching the area’s roots like we were,” Mark said.

By fall 1996, the Big Smith band was in place.

Being a family band had its ups and downs. No matter what disagreements might arise, their family elders were watching, and they still had to speak to each other as a loving family, Jody said. They learned to be mature with communications, but also kept frustrations bottled up as they dealt with them.

At one point a few years ago, they were going to break up or fire the bass player, Mike Williamson, because of poor communication. They decided to continue the band and soon enlisted another cousin, Bill Thomas, to replace Mike(Bill is Rik Thomas’ brother). More people questioned the exit of Mike and his sousaphone than the arrival around that same time of Molly Healey, the only unrelated band member, who joined them on fiddle.

Healey had known some band members since before they were a band, from the Springfield music scene. She often sat in with Big Smith over the years and regularly played in a trio with Mark Bilyeu and Cindy Woolf. Healey, Woolf, Mark Bilyeu and Big Smith are all represented by MayApple Records, a label based in Springfield.

For Jody, he could never have foreseen the “amazing experience” of being in this band with his family and friend. They established relationships with other bands and communities where they played.

That tight-knit aspect was underscored during a recent crisis, when Bill had a stroke while playing a show at Cherokee Casino in West Siloam Springs, Okla., in January. Bill spent a few days in a Fayetteville hospital following his stroke, which was triggered by high blood pressure. During that time, the band and family members didn’t pay for meals or lodging — all of that was covered by friends and businesses in the area.

Mark said that his cousin picked a good town to get sick in. They were touched and humbled by the generosity. “We’ve always known Fayetteville people to be, well, family really,” Mark said.

In the wake of Bill’s stroke, a spate of benefits were held, including one last month at George’s Majestic Lounge. Reed Herron, the bass player from Speakeasy, has filled in for Bill so the band could fulfill its performance obligations. Bill returned for the first time to play March 15 with the band, and hopes to play the rest of the farewell tour. (Their friend Herron remains on standby.)

Because of their music and their demeanor as a “down-home” band, they got inside the lives and hearts of their fans to a level that some bands don’t get a chance to do, Jody said. The line between fans and friends became blurred, as many fans became good friends, a turn that was “gratifying and unexpected.”

“When we announced that the band was disbanding, that sort of drove it home all of a sudden what we had meant to people and the kind of impact we’d made,” Jody said.

Jody said he’s been in bands before where people were relieved the musicians stopped. But with the news last November that they were soon done, “people cried.”

While trying to make the band work day to day, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger purpose, and doubt can set in.

“What we’d done had meant something to some people, and that made it mean more to me,” Jody said.

Over the years, Big Smith has recorded several albums. The band has opened for musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, The Avett Brothers and the Del McCoury Band.

Mark has been making a full-time living with music since age 25. After the 2005 release of Homemade Hillbilly Jam, a documentary featuring the band and its music, Big Smith members decided to do music full time.

Before they made that leap, some were trying to hold down full-time jobs and then travel on the weekends for performances — a difficult feat logistically, and leaving little time for family. Bilyeu was teaching creative writing at Missouri State University. Having the freedom to quit their day jobs made every aspect of being a band more manageable.

“We were able to pull it off, fortunate to be able to make a living playing music,” Mark said.

There was a lot of pressure to make that living. They tried to play every every weekend, to maximize their schedule with shows that would draw bigger crowds. They did about 115 shows a year at the peak, filling in with weekday gigs if they fit into their travel route. They took no real breaks.

Their income has varied over the years. In the “salad days” of playing the now defunct Chester’s Place in Fayetteville, each band member (then just five guys) might leave a show with $1,000 in his pocket.

“It worked; we did it. We didn’t always make as much money as we wanted to,” Jody said. And, at any given time, half of them were in relationships that provided supplemental income.

They expanded their geographical touring spots in the last few years — and even played a country music festival in France.

If they hadn’t tried it, they would have always wondered what they might have done. But eventually, they decided it was time to stop their life on the road.

“It’s a hard life, and it wears on you after a while,” Jody said.

Jody’s first obligation is to keep a roof over his two kids’ heads and clothes on their backs. He won’t relocate because his web of family is in the Springfield region. He has a secondary level teaching certificate and has applied for several jobs. He’s also been “daylighting” with an online editing job, something that could become full time.

“I’m looking for work that I’d enjoy and would be good at,” he said.

Still, Jody can’t imagine that he and other band members won’t be still involved with music. He’s waiting until it’s all over, after the band’s final show in June. Then, “I’ll see what I could do that would bring value to people and fulfill me creatively.”

Jody said he’ll miss performing with the group, and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. And, he’ll continue writing music: “Oh, yeah, that’s sort of pathological.”

The same goes for Mark, though he doesn’t have another band or solo album (he’s already done one) in the works.

“I think I will always play music,” Mark said.

He and his wife, Lizzy, own and operate MayApple Records, and he’s produced many of those records. At one point, he was taking on too much, with the record label, the band and his family, and he burned out with recording.

For the near future, he has some studio and production work lined up.

“Now that I’ll be at home a lot more, I’m excited to do more work on the recording end of things. I’m re-energized,” Mark said.

The hard part was deciding that their life as a band would end, Mark said. With that determined, they wondered if they should make an announcement or just play until they weren’t playing anymore.

“We decided that our fans would like to know,” Mark said, so they planned their farewell tour. They have some shows lined up at bigger theaters and arenas, going out with a feather under their collective cap.

Mark will most miss being in front of the Big Smith audiences, seeing regulars on the road and hanging out with them after the shows.

“When the good times were good, the camaraderie after shows at the hotel, playing music and having fun, getting to see people week after week — that will be weird not to have that,” Mark said.

One of Jody’s favorite Big Smith memories occurred at the Outland Ballroom, a Springfield haunt. Dozens of sweaty people jumped up and down to a frenzied song, and then the song ended abruptly. There was one last collective thump heard when the crowd’s feet hit the floor. “It was sort of like the crowd supplied the song’s last note.”

There will be a chance for a few more of those fan-supplied moments in farewell shows that continue through June. Gigs include opening for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils at an April 21 show at the West Plains (Mo.) Civic Center and at a May 4 show at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts in Columbia, Mo. Big Smith will also play two sold-out shows May 5 and 6 at the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield.

The band’s final show is June 9 at the Crossroads, a new outdoor music venue in downtown Kansas City, Mo., where they’ll again open for the Daredevils.

“We wanted to get back to everywhere where we knew we had fans, to see us one last time,” Jody said.