Family Affair

Gigging cousins Big Smith keep traditional tunes from going extinct

Big Smith

Off Broadway

Big Smith is a band of cousins -- first cousins, to be precise. They sound like your grandfather's grandfather's parlor band, high on a jug of blackberry wine, playing every tune as if their ideal future audience was a crew of hippies, working-class punks, farm boys and smart-as-hell bluegrass pickers, all overdriving their Pontiacs to get to the gig on time. Big Smith plays fast and loose with acoustic country music, but even your grandfather's grandfather would know it was traditional all the same.

Hailing from Springfield, Missouri, the five members of Big Smith -- Mark and Jody Bilyeu, Jay and Mike Williamson and Rik Thomas -- have been gigging relentlessly for six years. In the last two years, they've finally caught on in St. Louis. Along the way, they've learned a lesson many local bands refuse to study. (Don't like being called a "local band"? Then hit the road, Jack and Jackie!) Bands, especially rock and country bands, build an audience and genuinely become bands on the road.

"From the start," Mark says, "we had a blind ambition to get settled into all those venues and towns that we could reasonably drive to, play at and still get the guys back in time for their day jobs. We'd play small crowds who weren't into us. But we went back and went back. In a city the size of St. Louis, the numbers are on your side. The core group that likes you will spread the word; eventually you can find an audience crazy enough to dig what you're doing. At first, St. Louis folks might not have known what to think of us. I remember coming up here the first time -- the alternative-country thing was going on. The bands we played with were more on the mellow, melancholy side of country, which we are not at all. Our rowdiness can be a shock."

For whatever reason -- economic, social or aesthetic -- the preferred option for bands both in St. Louis and nationwide is to make a recording and use that recording as a promotional tool, as if having a slick-sounding CD -- which said band spent too much time and money on at Clayton Studios or Music Masters -- were some sign of legitimacy. And of course it isn't. Big Smith has followed a different track. They've used their Midwestern locale to barnstorm Columbia, Lawrence, Fayetteville, Joplin, Little Rock, Tulsa and St. Louis. They keep their live sets fresh and unpredictable; like the Deadheads who frequent their shows, they've fallen into the taper culture and have used it to their advantage.

"There's a guy in St. Louis, Boa, who records all our shows and gives us copies," Mark says. "He's a great guy, and we appreciate it. But I don't know if the whole bootleg/CD/tape-trading thing has been good. If I were to sit down and quantify it, I just don't know. We're an independent operation; we rely on sales of our CDs on our Web site. At one level, it's good for spreading the music, introducing others to Big Smith. On the other hand, burning CDs that we have available isn't productive. But with the taper culture happening, the emphasis now is that music itself should be free in some sense. And I can't argue with that; I think a little pressure on the whole music industry is a good thing. Now, CDs have to look and sound more attractive to compete with the other stuff that's out there."

Gig, a double-CD set recorded over three nights at the Outland in Springfield, testifies to the band's deep devotion to and immersion in live performances. "The only philosophical problem we had with the album," Mark says, "is that it's still only a slice of what we do live. You come see us three weeks later, and the show is totally different. The record just captures one little moment in time." Gig marks Big Smith's fourth release and second live effort: The first was a collection of gospel songs recorded in a little country church. Gospel gets only one nod on the new album, the parodic "Southern Baptist." "I haven't taken a poll," Mike laughs, "but our extended family is all Baptists, and they really seem to like it. We can't get out of a family gathering when we're not forced to sing it. There is an uncle that's a Baptist preacher, and I hope he thinks it's funny, but I'm not sure."

The rest of Gig rips through not-quite-classic Big Smith songs such as "12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan," "Backwater," "Die Dead Die" and "Trash." But the set's focus -- its soul, even -- are the traditional tunes, some of which were likely first heard at Bilyeu-Williamson family gatherings and others that were learned in an equally traditional fashion: from recordings and from tape-trading.

"I heard Woody Guthrie do 'Worried Man Blues,' and then the Stanley Brothers clinched it for us," Mark says. "'Old Joe Clark' we just pulled out of the air; it's just one of those songs floating out there. 'Crawdad Hole' was another we pulled out of the air. 'Old Bill Jones' we heard on a cassette tape that a fan had given us. 'Willow Garden' -- I remember hearing that on a tape of Danny Barnes from the Bad Livers. My version owes to his version. Of course, it's in the soundtrack of Raising Arizona; Holly Hunter sings it to her son in one scene."

Some may find the following fact appalling; some may find it inconsequential (it's neither): Many, if not most, of Big Smith's fans were probably introduced to public-domain tunes such as "Hot Corn, Cold Corn" and "Darlin' Corey" through the band's live performances. Aficionados of old-time music will blanch at what the band does with a Carter Family song, but traditional music wasn't made for scholars. It was made by and for people who warped and woofed their way through it from the start.

"There may have been a time," Mark reflects, "when we said, 'Don't play "Old Joe Clark," because all the bands are doing it.' But that's obviously not the case anymore. For a long time I had this idea that we wouldn't have the same legitimacy if we didn't play mostly original material. I feel comfortable about that now; I'm not worried about it. I'm really happy to be playing these older songs. In the early days of Big Smith, we didn't have that many original songs, and we worked up quite a repertoire of traditional tunes."

But whether by way of banjo or Telecaster, washboard or doghouse bass, mandolin or bones, drums or sousaphone, harmonies that soar or sometimes sour, Big Smith offers a momentary stay of extinction -- the disappearance of folk songs and traditional melodies and harmonies. In the end, it's a family tradition, one that carries them through the inevitable spats and squabbles over setlists, arrangements and direction.

"Almost in a bizarre way, our family is very close, very affectionate," Mark says. "That carries over even when we have problems. It's like an unwritten rule: Those are things you work through. If you were just playing with another person, you might have ego squabbles that fester and get worse. [Morells member and recording engineer] Lou Whitney said that of all the bands he has worked with, we seemed to get along better than any other. That really surprised me -- at first."

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