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The Ozark Mountain Daredevils- The Ozark Mountain Daredevils (1973)

March 3, 2011

All right, it’s truth time.  In the name of journalistic integrity I have to share something before I do today’s record review.

I’m sort of a hillbilly.

I’m a high school graduate, student at the University of Missouri, the host of a radio show and I consider myself pretty well read and informed about the world around me.  Yet, at the bottom of everything, I hail from northwest Missouri, play several bluegrass instruments, love the outdoors and get way too excited about country and folk music.  It’s just as much a part of who I am as watching obscure films and listening to vinyl records is.

I also thought this was appropriate

It’s this cross-pollination of hillbilly and hipster within me that I think truly endears me to today’s record, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ self-titled 1973 debut.

The Daredevils were a collective of local boy singer-songwriters bedecked in flowing facial hair from the Springfield, MO area who came together in 1971 through gigging at local bars and theaters.  They were signed to A&M after playing an unplugged, candle-lit set to producers David Anderle and Glyn Johns, which I feel comfortable calling one of the coolest major label signings of all time.  The band was then shipped off to Olympic Studios in London to record what would become affectionately known as the “Quilt Album.”

Few bands that I can think of open and close their first record with such effective calling cards.  “Country Girl” is a shining of example of the upbeat country rock that makes up about half of the record.  It expertly fuses together a solid rock n’ roll beat and vibrant bass line with distinctly country vocal phrasing and harmonica work that wouldn’t sound at all out of place in an old train song.  The closer, “Beauty in the River”, in sticking with the images that the title evokes, this track feels like standing in the middle of an old-fashioned baptizing.  What is more joyous than the sound of woodcutting as percussion and a homespun choir?  Not much, I’ll tell you what.  Even if you’re not the church-goin’ type, this track will make you wish you were, even if just for a moment.  If the whole album chugged along like this for 40 minutes, we’d have an enjoyable, but average record on our hands.

The second track, “Spaceship Orion,” shows us that we are dealing with an entirely different kettle of fish.  Instead of another swinging country tune, we are presented with a slow, graceful ode about the end of the world.  Pretty trippy stuff for a bunch of Missouri boys, but it is pulled off excellently.  The almost choral backing vocals perfectly pump up an achingly direct lead.  Glyn John’s production really shines on this track.  It’s truly a headphones tune, with the guitar (and what sounds like a mandolin) leaping from channel to channel and the vocals drifting forward in a fittingly spacey manner.

 

Like this, but in your ears

There are two other slow-burners on the record.  Side One’s closing track ‘Colorado Song” and “Road to Glory.” The former is a very pretty song with a nice electric guitar solo, but it’s the extended coda that really knocks it out of the park.  An ascending round of “la-la-la’s” circle the speakers over vibrant cymbal crashes and a rolling guitar part that makes you feel like you’re being carried down the mighty Colorado.  “Road to Glory” takes the same musical concepts and turns them on their head.  Instead of the good vibes that we are given in “Colorado Song”, we are instead presented with a tension-filled fiddle and bleak lyrics about winners losing all, lovers crying in the valley, and a “road to glory/somehow hidden in the past.”  The tension finally breaks around the three-minute mark and last two minutes are an extended vamp with the violin and multiple mouth harps sharing the spotlight.

Following “Orion”, we return to the energetic with two tracks that would go on to be concert favorites throughout the band’s career.  “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” (released as a single and climbing as high as #25 on the US charts) is a toe tapper of the top degree and certainly a showcase for Steve Cash’s harmonica.  The lyrics are simple, and effective.  The magic music that they sing is coming from a radio in the alley is the same sound that they were making on this record.  It sounds quaint, maybe, but it’s far from being silly.  No, the song with the silly lyrics would be the one that comes right after this.

Oh man, “Chicken Train.”  I’m actually not sure how I can objectively speak on this song because it is such a part of my childhood.  It is thanks to this song that I a) can play a pretty mean jaw harp, and b) have a tendency to make chicken noises at inopportune times.  Perfectly capturing the surreal and silly side that the band is remembered for, in concert, this tune would allegedly be stretched out long enough for the members of the band to strut around the stage squawking and flapping their arms.  Hard to believe out of a band whose bassist had a penchant for wearing a Superman costume on stage, but, honestly, who doesn’t think that sounds like a good time?  Frankly, no words can do this piece justice, so how’s about you just give a listen to the band playing it on the Old Grey Whistle Test.

[livevideo id=8C7BFE6D88CD498F8F97BE1C79E5913A]

For being pigeonholed as a country band, the Daredevils definitely knew how to get the body moving, with “Black Sky” standing as a prime example.  Michael Granda’s bass is in the forefront here along with a bottleneck slide riff and hi-hat riding drum work building a tight groove that you can’t help but move along to.  To see another example of groove building in a more subtle and acoustic manner, one need look no further than the Side Two opener, “Standin‘ on the Rock” with its two acoustic guitars working in tandem, one plunking out a boom-chick rhythm while a second pulls out liquid bare finger slides.  The addition of a tambourine and another dueling of fiddle and harmonica give the track the air of walking into a hootenanny in progress when the band is just starting to get hot.

Finally, for those in the mood for a guitar jam, we have the penultimate track, “Within Without.”  The first half of the song rolls along on the back of a series of cascading arpeggios of the Roger McGuinn school before the lead guitar morphs into a line that Clapton would be proud of.

So, this is the beginning of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ story.  If you enjoy this record you should definitely check out their other records, specifically It’ll Shine When It Shines (1974), The Car Over the Lake Album (1975), Men From Earth (1976), Don’t Look Down (1978), and the live 2-LP It’s Alive (1978).  Not many bands from Missouri that I dig have made it big, so it brightens my heart every time I get to bring these boys up.  If you haven’t heard them before, I recommend you take this opportunity to get acquainted.  If you haven’t heard them in a while, now would be a good time to come back and partake in what the Daredevils’ have to offer, and if you’re like me and just can’t get enough of these guys, then just keep on doing your thing.

Have any thoughts on this record? Do you have a story about the Daredevils? Another Missouri band that you think should get some credit?  Anything on your mind that isn’t about genitalia or Charlie Sheen?  Feel free to post it in the comments below.

-ZAK

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