A confession: I saw the Ozark Mountain Daredevils on the very tour this CD was recorded. I remember Pure Prairie League opened, and except for “Jackie Blue” and “Amie”, I had no clue as to what to expect. I do remember walking out of the show with the feeling I got more than my money’s worth, so as I do this review, I will be fighting off flashbacks of an unexpected enjoyable night in Carbondale, Illinois. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way…
As the reminiscing about the OMD (no, not Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark) percolates… the bug bit me while in their “home turf”, as most of the band members hailed from Missouri. They were quite popular in the region. They got their start in 1971, landed a recording contract with A&M Records, and released their debut two years later. It spawned the hit “If You Wanna Get to Heaven”, which wound up being quite popular on college radio. But even with their debut, it was hard to discern what sort of template the band was under. Were they southern rock? Were they folk-rock? Were they southern pop? Were they alt-country before their time?
One thing the Daredevils were was funny. Even then, their live shows reflected their sense of humor, as did some of the lyrics to their songs. In fact, they embraced their humorous side, but in a way it backfired on the band, by denying them overall national exposure. Many people outside the region took their humor as hillbilly rock or, even more derivatively, “hick-rock”. And in the irony department, their one huge, nationwide hit (“Jackie Blue”) is probably the worst song in their musical canon - but it was the only song that didn’t sound like them. “Jackie Blue” brought the band mucho in the way of exposure, but when people started digging into the rest of their repertoire, they found no other song like it.
This is not to say the OMD didn’t make some excellent music - they most certainly did. And they were definitely fun to watch on stage. But with a limited audience, they parted ways with A&M in 1978 after five studio albums. So instead of the obligatory greatest-hits package to close out the band’s contract, the label thought putting out a live album (hits inclusive) would be the way to go. That spawned It’s Alive, a 16-song overview of the band tearing it up on stage (with one exception, which we’ll get to shortly).
The question regarding It’s Alive is why this review is taking place in 2005, when the album was released 27 years ago. That’s because New Era Records, which owns the rights to all things Ozark Mountain Daredevil, is on a re-release program of the band’s material. And even though many of the previous albums are out there, the best one to get is the live puppy. It even makes “Jackie Blue” a bit more palatable.
Fans of the band will be happy to see It’s Alive finally out on CD; it sounds a tad crisper than the vinyl version, and the 16 songs are all able to fit on one disc. As far as the roster breakdown, the band’s secret weapon is harpist Steve Cash, whose efforts boost the uptempo songs to a higher level. And the key to what songs are at a high level can be found in the writing credits: any song penned by guitarist/pianist/vocalist Larry Lee is one to steer clear of, since those are the most commercial. Lee co-wrote “Jackie Blue”, and was the sole writer for their minor hit “You Know Like I Know”, a song that throws out the scant reminder of Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain” (remember, we’re talking mid-‘70s here). “Followin’ the Way That I Feel”, another Lee tune, sounds like a Doobie Brothers outtake.
The better stuff is the hillbilly rock, for sure. “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” features excellent harmonica work by Cash, bouncy guitar work from John Dillon, and the catchphrase “If you wanna get to heaven, you’ve got to raise a little hell!” “Noah” is the hit song that deserved a better fate. It has a killer hook and a great chorus. The opener, “Walkin’ Down the Road”, is the prototype “hick rock” song, complete with vocals of a train engine (“Choo-choo! Choo-Choo!”). “Chicken Train” is the same way, but features both a harp and a mouthbow (better known as a Jew’s harp). “Ooh Boys (It’s Hot)” is a simple anthem about (and these are guitarist Mike Granada’s words) “Hot summer weather and ice cold beer.” And you won’t hear any crowd noise during “A Satisfied Mind”. That’s because the song was recorded in the men’s room before one of the band’s gigs. (They liked the acoustics.)
With all the bands from the ‘70s working on reappearing 25-30 years later to revive memories and replenish bank accounts, some of said bands are a curiosity. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils fall into that category, simply because most of the country didn’t really follow them the first time around. I’m slightly prejudiced here; I happen to like this album, but that’s because I lived the OMD experience in 1978. Being a New Yorker, there wasn’t a mad rush for the band back in their heyday in this region, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a screaming desire for a revival. And serving an educated guess, I would say that most of the country feels along the same lines. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils are a nice, regional band; always were. But with all the varieties of music out there right now, OMD doesn’t stand a chance to get re-recognized outside of their former popular turf. It’s Alive is a good listen overall, but does anyone really think there will be a hillbilly-rock revival any time soon?