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Rural Missouri Magazine

 

Big Smith
Rural roots run deep for this hillbilly band

by Jim McCarty

Big Smith performs in a Columbia night club. From left are Jody Bilyeu, Mike Williamson, Mark Bilyeu and Jay Williamson.

It’s Friday 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. It’s obvious they’ve come for something else, a local band called Big Smith.

Finally five men take the stage and assemble behind a collection of instruments. It’s standing room only and the room vibrates with the clapping of hands and stomping of feet.

“Trash!” someone yells. Others take up the cry. Members of the band just grin and launch into a rowdy bluegrass tune. When the song’s 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 group’s 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: “Don’t call me trash ’till you’ve slept in my trailer. ’Till you’ve dug up my roots. ’Till you’ve lived in my blues. A man that’s on wheels ain’t my notion of failure . . .”

“It’s a ‘we’re sick of getting kicked around’ song,” says Mark Bilyeu, who wrote and sings the irreverent anthem. “It’s 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 that’s 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. candidate.

Mark plays his Uncle Chester’s 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. I’m 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.

“Maybe this 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.”

Big Smith — 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 band’s “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 me.”

These old tunes are echoed in many of the cuts on the band’s 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. Mark’s “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 Mark’s efforts, tells about a run-in with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

Besides their 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 band’s inspiration, Grandma Thelma, who before her death in March often took the stage with Big Smith wearing red high-top sneakers.

“Grandma was a tremendous influence on our family,” Mark says. “She was the first one to get saved. Her influence spread religion throughout our extended family.”

The band poses for a publicity photo.

Big Smith is a hard band to classify. “We started out as a hillbilly band. That’s as good as any description,” Mark says. “We play a variety of music because we want to. We’re not out to break or create any molds.”

Adds Rik, “I don’t think any attempt was made to appeal to any certain group. Where our music comes from is family roots and gospel. What we play, that’s just what comes out.”

Calling this a hillbilly band doesn’t do justice to what Big Smith does. Sure there’s the washboard percussion played by Jay. But from time to time Jay slips behind a drum set to liven things up. There’s Jody on the mandolin, an instrument he learned to play on stage. But you won’t find a banjo in the group, and fiddle players are limited to guest appearances.

Then there’s 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 doesn’t phase Big Smith.

“We’re earning a living,” Rik says of the band’s success. “By most band’s standards that aren’t a national band we’re 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.

 

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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