Big Smith

Roots, Shoots & Wings (Review)

by Joshua Heston and Dale Grubaugh

Musically and lyrically, Big Smith present themselves unabashedly and with notable versatility.

Formed in 1996, the Springfield, Missouri-based group is made up of cousins Mark and Jody Bilyeu, Bill and Rik Thomas and Jay Williamson.

Recently, Big Smith was augmented by fiddle player and music theater vocalist, Molly Healey.

The group has developed a passionate fan base and those fans will definitely get a kick out of the group’s latest offering, Roots, Shoots & Wings.

In many ways, Big Smith is simply a back-porch hillbilly band from the White River Hills of Missouri.

As such, their style involves a raucous presentation coupled with rhythms, lyrics, and vocal qualities which resonate with their fans.

The album Roots, Shoots & Wings — kicked off to a jarring start with the rather goofy My Overalls (Don’t Fit Me Anymore) — could actually be considered a bit of hillbilly rock opera.

There is a lot to listen to on this 16-track album and Big Smith’s versatility produces a mixed bag of results.

Ain’t Got Nobody is an almost-Flapper-era scat-jazz romp while Coal Miner’s Blues is plain, homespun traditional blues in every sense of the word.

“Don’t plug up your ears / Though it shivers your spine / Go take some real air / With a good glass of wine” sing the Bilyeus on the original work Cicada, amidst guitar and mandolin riffs which sound remarkably like a locust swarm.

It’s not easy-listening, but it is well-researched.

Brady And Duncan — a traditional selection — has been upgraded to a toe-tapping, gum-flapping, rock-tinged uproar.

The album contains a lot of original material with several high points.

Forest For The Trees (written by Jody Bilyeu) is a touching lament to lost love.

Summertime (written by Jay Williamson) is lyrically strong and musically appealing. The track has the dreamy, unpolished qualities of a Gram Parsons and The Byrds album, complete with quality licks.

Mountain Man’s Lament is a heartfelt “hills and hollers” song with a particularly haunting chorus.

The song is penned by Jerld Cummings of Windy City, Missouri*.

Weaker offerings include It’s A Good Day, It’ll Be Okay, Sunday and Medical Emergency.

Medical Emergency proves only Big Smith could rock out wildly with words like “transient ischemic attack” in this track whose beat sounds eerily similar to the old George Jones’ classic Love Bug.

It’ll Be Okay begins strong with a distorted guitar solo but quickly declines into a rather dreary version of contemporary praise-and-worship style-music.

It’s A Good Day is — lyrically — the weakest offering of the lot with a repetitive refrain consisting mostly of the title words, proving that just because something rhymes does not necessarily make it good.

Marijuana gets a nod in the lost-love ballad, Sunday, as Rik Thomas sings, “Hey roll me another / I want to waste an hour or two or three.”

The album is rounded out with Texas swing (Texas Can Wait), Zydeco (Toted A Load) and traditional Irish (Handsome Molly) as well as a nod to old-time country in the Jimmie Rodgers influenced Ride That Train.

Big Smith makes a big splash with the bar crowd, both in and out of the Ozarks and, as such, has garnered a passionate fanbase willing to go to bat for the developing group.

They have plenty of attitude and some impressive musicianship, but they are still singing to their choir.

Whether they can muster the qualities needed to cross genres and step out to mass appeal is yet to be seen.

March 2, 2010

* Windy City, Missouri, is a wide spot in the road between Spokane and Reeds Spring Junction.

plate 1. From left, Jody Bilyeu, Jay Williamson, Mark Bilyeu, Molly Healey, Bill Thomas and Rik Thomas, c. 2008. Images courtesy of Big Smith.

Images courtesy of Big Smith. Artwork by Katie Canada.

Big Smith

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  • My overalls (Don’t Fit Me Anymore), Mark Bilyeu
  • Ain’t Got Nobody, Bill Thomas
  • Coal Miner Blues, Traditional
  • Cicada, Jody Bilyeu
  • Brady and Duncan, Traditional
  • Forest For The Trees, Jody Bilyeu
  • Mountain Man’s Lament Jerld Cummings
  • Ride That Train, Jay Williamson
  • Molly Healey, Texas Can Wait
  • Medical Emergency, Jody Bilyeu
  • It’s A Good Day, Mark Bilyeu
  • Toted A Load, Bill Thomas
  • Handsome Molly, Traditional
  • Summertime, Jay Williamson
  • Sunday, Mark Bilyeu
  • It’ll Be Okay, Jody Bilyeu
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