Rural roots run deep for this hillbilly band
by Jim McCarty
Smith performs in a Columbia night club. From left are Jody Bilyeu,
Mike Williamson, Mark Bilyeu and Jay Williamson.
night at a Springfield nightclub called Cartoons and a one-man warm-up
band has just finished its act. The crowd is polite but restless. Its
obvious theyve come for something else, a local band called Big
Finally five men
take the stage and assemble behind a collection of instruments. Its
standing room only and the room vibrates with the clapping of hands and
stomping of feet.
someone yells. Others take up the cry. Members of the band just grin and
launch into a rowdy bluegrass tune. When the songs last notes fade
the chant begins again: Play trash!
Any other band
might be intimidated by such a response from their audience. Not Big Smith.
They know their fans are calling for the groups theme song.
When the band
hits the chorus on Trash the house really goes wild. Everyone
knows the words and they sing along to the strains of the mandolin, stand-up
bass, guitar and washboard: Dont call me trash till
youve slept in my trailer. Till youve dug up my roots.
Till youve lived in my blues. A man thats on wheels
aint my notion of failure . . .
a were sick of getting kicked around song, says
Mark Bilyeu, who wrote and sings the irreverent anthem. Its
kind of a challenge to people who look at our culture and sort of write
it off as no culture at all.
That songs like
Trash, Burn Down the House and Backwater
have such universal appeal is a tribute to Big Smith. Their concerts attract
a huge following thats as diverse as their music.
On any given night
you might find old hippies in tie-dyed shirts, 20-somethings with bare
midriffs, rednecks in seed hats, senior citizens and an occasional Ph.D.
plays his Uncle Chesters 1946 Martin guitar while Rik Thomas
backs him up.
What other group
could create a frenzy with a song dedicated to the most utilitarian of
devices, a 12-inch, 3-speed, Oscillating Fan? Or switch so
effortlessly between bluegrass, folk music and gospel sometimes mixed
with trombone, tuba or snarling electric guitar?
If you would
have told me that I would have become somewhat of a groupie to a bunch
of hillbilly musicians I would have said no way, says Cynthia Ruzicka,
a Big Smith fan from Springfield. That was not me. Im the
person who listens to symphony music on public radio.
Yet Cynthia can
be found dancing and singing along with hundreds of others any time Big
Smith performs near Springfield. Like other Big Smith fans, she says the
group plays music she can identify with.
is just bringing out something that has been stifled in me all my life,
she says. We are all crazy about them my sisters, their husbands,
it just goes on and on.
brothers Jody and Mark Bilyeu, Mike and Jay Williamson and cousin Rik
Thomas began with a solo act by Mark. I started mixing in
a lot of old time stuff and bluegrass, even gospel music, in my sets,
Mark says. Mike on bass started sitting in. Then we added Jay on
washboard. Finally Jody joined in to make it complete.
Rik became the
bands knob twister (sound man) but he also plays guitar
and sings. On any given night the band might be joined by any number of
cousins or friends playing fiddle, banjo or guitar.
Big Smith has
been around five years, but the boys in the band, who are all related,
have been playing together much longer. We were always playing together
at family gatherings, Mark says. Not just Big Smith but the
whole family. The reason these cousins got together is we all played professionally
in different combos in Springfield.
Music goes deep
in this family, which was among the original settlers of Christian and
Taney counties. The real roots of Big Smith go back to folks like Grandpa
Hosea who was in demand for his fiddle playing and Uncle Chester, whose
1946 Martin D-18 is the only guitar Mark owns.
If you dig
down deep in our family history you will find ballad singers, Mark
says. It died out but we revived it in our family. Grandpa Cupp
was a ballad singer. I interviewed Grandma and she sang four of them for
These old tunes
are echoed in many of the cuts on the bands three CDs. For example,
Poison, written by Jay, is based on the true story of Uncle
Charlie, who loses his fiancé to the guitar player in his band.
Charlie drinks poison, then dies with the last note of his farewell tune.
Other Big Smith
songs speak of the changes coming to the Ozarks. Marks Quarry
Anthem celebrates the defeat of a proposed quarry. A song called
Barrel Springs laments the loss of an Ozarks spring. No
Sir, another one of Marks efforts, tells about a run-in with
the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
self-titled intro album and a second called Big Rock, the
group also cut a gospel CD that was recorded live at the Lone Star Church
in Christian County. It features a solo by the bands inspiration,
Grandma Thelma, who before her death in March often took the stage with
Big Smith wearing red high-top sneakers.
was a tremendous influence on our family, Mark says. She was
the first one to get saved. Her influence spread religion throughout our
band poses for a publicity photo.
Big Smith is a
hard band to classify. We started out as a hillbilly band. Thats
as good as any description, Mark says. We play a variety of
music because we want to. Were not out to break or create any molds.
Adds Rik, I
dont think any attempt was made to appeal to any certain group.
Where our music comes from is family roots and gospel. What we play, thats
just what comes out.
Calling this a
hillbilly band doesnt do justice to what Big Smith does. Sure theres
the washboard percussion played by Jay. But from time to time Jay slips
behind a drum set to liven things up. Theres Jody on the mandolin,
an instrument he learned to play on stage. But you wont find a banjo
in the group, and fiddle players are limited to guest appearances.
big Mike, who wields the bass with ease. On songs like Backwater,
though, Mike sets aside his bass in favor of a battered tuba. He also
picks a mean trombone.
With enough original
music to fill an evening performance, a fourth CD on the way and a huge
following that extends beyond the Ozarks, Big Smith can honestly say it
has arrived. The band is riding a tidal wave of support for alternative
country music from listeners who want to see the genre return to its roots.
Yet this originality
keeps them from getting much air play since only about 100 radio stations
nationwide play this style music. That doesnt phase Big Smith.
earning a living, Rik says of the bands success. By
most bands standards that arent a national band were
doing pretty good.
You can learn
more about Big Smith, buy their CDs, sample their songs and find out their
concert dates at www.bigsmithband.com.