HighTone Records of Oakland, California, is now in the process of putting Springfield music back on the national map, having released four Whitney-produced CDs — The Morells’ Think About It, The Bel Airs’ Got Love, The Domino Kings’ Some Kind of Sign, and Brian Capps’ Walk Through Walls — and sponsoring a cross-country tour featuring all four acts. Billed as “Big Noise from Springfield,” the tour kicks off this Friday, August 12, 2005, with a live two-and-a-half-hour broadcast over XM Radio Channel 12, X Country. The program, the first live XM concert broadcast of its type, will be repeated in its entirety several times; portions of it will then be aired on several different XM Satellite Radio channels.
Located in the south-central part of the Show-Me state, Springfield, Mo. boasts a rich country music legacy. In the 1950s, it threatened to rival Nashville as the genre’s capital. Nashville’s venerable “Grand Ole Opry” was slow in making a move from radio to television, but Springfield promoter Si Siman was quicker to the draw, convincing ABC to televise his popular weekly “Ozark Jubilee” radio broadcast in 1955. Hosted by Red Foley, the live TV show ran for five years and gave national audiences their first real glimpse of country music. “Ozark Jubilee” served as a launching pad for the careers of numerous performers, including young Brenda Lee and Springfield-based vocalist Porter Wagoner, who cut his first hit records at Springfield radio station KWTO. Others ssociated with Springfield include country singers Marvin Rainwater and Wynn Stewart, rockabilly singer-songwriter Ronnie Self, and songwriter Wayne Carson.
National focus on Springfield diminished after ABC pulled the plug on “Ozark Jubilee,” but there remains in the city of some 150,000 people a thriving regional American roots music scene. Much of it is centered on Lou Whitney, a record producer, engineer, studio owner, bassist, singer, songwriter, bandleader, and raconteur who’s been a Springfield fixture since 1970.
The four acts represent different, yet related, aspects of contemporary Missouri roots music. The Morells, a quartet led by Whitney and guitar virtuoso D. Clinton Thompson, are the most eclectic of the bunch, throwing roadhouse rockabilly, garage rock and R&B, hillbilly swing, comedy numbers, surf songs, and bouncing beats perfectly suited to dancing the twist into their often daffy mix. Based in Columbia, Missouri, the Bel Airs are a trio that serves up highly danceable blues and R&B tunes, many featuring the distinctive two-part vocal harmonies of bassist Dick Pruitt and his guitar-playing brother David. Springfield’s Domino Kings, a quartet fronted by master guitar twang-banger Stevie Newman, cover broad stylistic territory, from Bakersfield, California-inspired honky-tonk to Lubbock, Texas-spiced rockabilly. And stepping out on his own is former Domino Kings member Brian Capps, a singer-songwriter who is backed on his debut recording and on the “Big Noise from Springfield” tour by the Morells.
The current Springfield roots sound in many ways reflects the diverse musical influences Lou Whitney has soaked up during his lifetime. Born 62 years ago in Phoenix, Arizona, he experienced twang early on, attending dances featuring Duane Eddy at the Electricians’ Union Hall and stopping along his newspaper route to watch Lee Hazelwood and Al Casey working at Arizona Recorders. “It would be like 118 degrees in the hot Phoenix summer afternoons,” he recalls, “and I’d go in that cold place and they’d be in there drinking beer at two in the afternoon. I thought, ‘This has got a lot of pluses going on.’”
While working toward a degree in real estate at East Tennessee State University, Whitney began playing throughout the South with a succession of soul bands that sometimes backed vocalists such as Arthur Conley and Bobby Lewis. After graduation, a national real-estate chain sent him to Springfield, but he quit after a year and formed a Top 40 band with Thompson that evolved into a New Wave group called the Symptoms, then into the Morells and their alter egos, the Skeletons. When the Morells/Skeletons aren’t doing their own records and gigs, they’ve stayed busy working as a backing band on disc and/or on tour with a wide variety of performers.
Often billed as the Hired Guns, they’ve lent their deft musicianship to such artists as Steve Forbert, Boxcar Willie, Jonathan Richman, Robbie Fulks, Syd Straw, and Dave Alvin.
The Studio, Whitney’s 24-track Springfield recording facility, is the place were musicians from Missouri and beyond have been flocking in search of an authentic rootsy sound, as well as Whitney’s sound musical advice. “He was around the first time this music was around,” the Domino Kings’ Stevie Newman says of Whitney. “He has a real firsthand knowledge of it because he’s heard it before.”
A highly active live music environment also accounts to the vitality of roots music in Missouri, Springfield in particular. “There’s always been a mix of working-class rock‘n’roll and country music,” says David Pruitt of the Bel Airs. “There’s a common thread. It’s a regional thing. Almost any traveling musician playing blues, R&B, or roots music will tell you they love it when they get to the Midwest because you get good crowds in the clubs. You make more money playing the cities in the Midwest than you do on the coasts. People go out to see the musicians here, and the musicians go out to see the other bands. You get the cross-influence from the other bands playing in the area.”
Those cross-influences will become more widely apparent as four of Missouri’s finest — the Morells, the Bel Airs, the Domino Kings, and Brian Capps — hit the highway with HighTone Records’ “Big Noise from Springfield” tour.
“BIG NOISE FROM SPRINGFIELD” TOUR:
8/12/2005 WASHINGTON DC XM Satellite Radio Live Broadcast
8/13/2005 CHARLOTTE NC Double Door
8/14/2005 RALEIGH NC The Pour House
8/15/2005 ARLINGTON VA (DC) Iota Cafe
8/16/2005 BALTIMORE MD The Funk Box
8/18/2005 HOBOKEN NJ (NYC) Maxwell’s
8/19/2005 PITTSBURGH PA Club Cafe
8/20/2005 CLEVELAND OH Beachland Ballroom & Tavern
9/10/2005 NASHVILLE TN Americana Music Association Conference 2005
9/14/2005 DEARBORN MI Tenny Street Roadhouse
9/15/2005 MILWAUKEE WI Shank Hall
9/16/2005 MADISON WI The Harmony Bar
9/17/2005 BERWYN IL (CHICAGO) Fitzgerald’s
9/22/2005 KANSAS CITY MO Knucklehead Saloon
9/23/2005 ST. LOUIS MO Duck Room at Blueberry Hill
10/5/2005 HOUSTON TX Continental Club Houston
10/6/2005 SAN ANTONIO TX Casbeers Bar & Grill
10/7/2005 AUSTIN TX Continental Club
10/8/2005 DALLAS TX All Good Café
“Ah, the delights of the Ozarks: boating, camping and -- surprise -- good tunes, too. The best-kept secret in southwest Missouri may be the lively music scene, and four new CDs from Springfield-based acts offer evidence.”
-- Associated Press (AP)