20:20 — 20 questions, 20 answers

Published December 4, 2020

In part 14 of our series,

D. A. Callaway —decades-long music maker and music buyer at Silver Dollar City

(SDC), the Ozarks’ famed theme park—abides our queries.

Join us as D. A.: Shares ridiculously fun memories as a River Rat. Reveals the closing of a chapter in a life story in which he finds daily joy. And reminds us we are descendants of people who have persevered through difficult times before.

~ NWM

D. A. Callaway

Photos courtesy of D. A. Callaway

20:20 with D. A. Callaway

NWM 1: Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician, promoter, and human of Earth.
D. A.: D. A. Callaway, former professional musician. I’ve been a talent buyer and festival producer at Silver Dollar City since 1993. I love to work in the garden and experience life with my loving spouse, Marye. I also enjoy being a grandpa.

NWM 2: Name three things that make you smile.
D. A.: My family, my co-workers, my golden memories.

NWM 3: You began working at Silver Dollar City (SDC)—the Ozarks’ famed theme park—in August 1976 as the piano player at The Medicine Show. Today you are SDC’s Entertainment Manager. We’re guessing you wore many hats along that path. Tell us about some of the highlights that stand out from that journey.
D. A.: Silver Dollar City’s long list of performers and colorful characters greatly influenced my path. Life is fun, and it’s up to each of us to make it so. If we think and speak positively, we can ease tension and lift the mood of everyone around us.

It was an honor to know Shad and Mollie Heller and play piano for them in Branson’s Toby Show. That’s where I met master musician Greg Becker, and we teamed up together as The Smith Brothers on numerous occasions.

A definite highlight was playing trumpet and acting the fool for eleven years in the River Rats Dixieland Jazz Band at Silver Dollar City. I shared the stage with my life-long friend Richard Vahldick and some other very creative musicians. The River Rats gig was so much fun it bordered on ridiculous. I still can hardly believe it.

Life is fun, and it’s up to each of us to make it so.

I also got to participate in street entertainment and various other shows at the theme park, including playing piano in the saloon show, robbing trains, a two-year stint with Dean Webb and Rodney Dillard [Original members of The Dillards] and a Branson show called The Memory Makers.

Then in 1993, my mentor, Rex Burdette, led me into a new direction as a talent buyer. It was the challenge I needed to advance in the company and extend my career in music. I enjoyed booking the contract performers for indoor and outdoor entertainment at Silver Dollar City. And in 2005 I was put in charge of SDC’s brand new Bluegrass & BBQ Festival and, the following year, Southern Gospel Picnic.

Fast forward to 2011: Our Bluegrass & BBQ Festival won the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) award for Event of the Year. Then in 2017 we brought home the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award. That iced the cake for me and recognized the years-long efforts of a first class team of stage technicians, brilliant marketing staff, and all the willing hands and helpful hearts required to produce an event on the magnitude of Silver Dollar City’s Bluegrass & BBQ Festival—possibly the biggest bluegrass festival in the world, ever!

River Rats at Silver Dollar City

River Rats at Silver Dollar City in the early 1980s

NWM 4: We’re sure there are more names than you have time to list, but who jumps out as a major influence on your music and/or career?
D. A.: In my youth, vinyl records and an upright piano were my closest friends. When my schoolmates were listening to rock & roll, I was listening to vintage jazz, old country, black gospel, and novelty recordings. My mother was really into Christian music, especially quartet singing, and I was probably influenced by her more than anyone.

In my youth, vinyl records and an upright piano were my closest friends.

NWM 5: Tea, coffee, or hot chocolate?
D. A.: Coffee, and lots of it.

NWM 6: Has anything positive come out of the COVID shut-down?
D. A.: COVID made us thankful for the joys of yesteryear. You don’t miss the water until the well runs dry, the saying goes. And COVID reminded us how much live concerts and theater have meant to us. Entertainment has been a source of happiness and joy since ancient times. But, COVID also taught us to find contentment in solitude. We don’t have to run around all the time. Our ancestors were homebodies, so we know it can be done.

NWM 7: What are you most looking forward to when things return to normal?
D. A.: I want to be in the parking lot when a big shiny tour bus pulls in. I want to help unload a great band or gospel music group. I want to shake hands, tell jokes, and celebrate life with visiting artists from around the country.

NWM 8: Among your many duties as Entertainment Manager is as coordinator of SDC’s Bluegrass & BBQ Festival—a job that has resulted in you being named Bluegrass Promoter of the Year multiple times by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA).

Share a couple of highlights with us from your years presenting the top names of Bluegrass.
D. A.: I’m a seven time Bluegrass Promoter of the Year, as voted by members of SPBGMA. Our team has presented Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, IIIrd Tyme Out, Lonesome River Band, Kenny and Amanda, Darin and Brooke, Steep Canyon Rangers, Dailey & Vincent, and just about every nationally recognized performer in bluegrass. We’ve also booked a whole lot of southern gospel, western music, classic country, and several great dance bands.

D. A. Callaway SPBGMA Promoter of the Year

D. A. Callaway, seven time SPBGMA Promoter of the Year

NWM 9: Favorite food? What would you choose for your last meal?
D. A.: Home cooked food nearly always beats restaurant food, at least at our house. And since I try to use sugar sparingly, I believe I could break my rule and eat a whole pecan pie baked by my wife. Yum, yum!

NWM 10: Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your life as a promoter?
D. A.: I think I knew we were in for a struggle when the trouble first started in China. And other countries immediately began trying to curtail the virus. Concerts and sporting activities began to be cancelled. Business and tourist travel was restricted. That was so unsettling. We knew in early spring 2020 that change was coming. Hard times have since devastated the live show industry. Many folks had to find a different way to make a living.

NWM 11: How do you express your creativity other than through music?
D. A.: Growing vegetables is very rewarding. I write a little, too, mostly for my own amusement. And I’ve been an active Facebook contributor.

NWM 12: What was your first concert as a fan?
D. A.: As a child, I saw several great gospel concerts, because that’s what my Mother liked. When I got old enough to drive, and if I had ticket money, I would meet up with friends and enjoy whatever was playing at the Shrine Mosque in Springfield, Missouri.

I met my wife at an Earl Scruggs show in 1976. The show rained out, and our lives together began.

I don’t remember my first concert, but I met my wife at an Earl Scruggs show in 1976. The show rained out, and our lives together began.

D. A. Callaway
D. A. & Marye at Flamekeeper premier 2019

D. A. with wife Marye at premiere of
Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story

NWM 13: In a story we are writing for Bluegrass Unlimited about our favorite bluegrass DJ, Mike Smith—founder of KSMU’s Seldom Heard Music—he told us you approached him nearly two decades ago about creating the KSMU Youth in Bluegrass Contest.

What has it been like to work with Mike and up-and-coming stars of bluegrass for this event?
D. A.: Mike has a passion for acoustic music, of course. And he knows so much history and discography. He’s an iconic personality, very influencial. And I’ve learned a lot just by tuning in to Seldom Heard Music.

In February of 2002, I asked Mike to help create an opportunity for young bluegrass musicians and their families to come together in support of the future of the music we loved. Mike and I, along with Silver Dollar City Publicity Director Lisa Rau, created the first KSMU Youth in Bluegrass Band Contest, which took place in 2003.

Since that time, we have witnessed tremendous fan support for the contest, and we have seen hundreds of young players participating. We have witnessed the growth of a wonderful community of musicians, no doubt with many lifelong relationships.

2018 KSMU Youth in Bluegrass participants

2018 KSMU Youth in Bluegrass participants

NWM 14: Pet Peeve?
D. A.: Most of my trouble comes from the fellow in the mirror. He is a challenge.

NWM 15: What not-so-obvious aspect of your life has been changed by the pandemic?
D. A.: Since school days, I’ve studied the news and kept up on current events. I’m not as interested in that anymore. It seems that whatever you want to believe will be supported by some media source, even if it’s blatantly false. That is because viewership sells advertising. It’s a curse. I try to think more about local and family issues than national and world news, because situations outside our circle of influence can be time and energy wasters. As John Prine said, “Blow up your TV!”

NWM 16: What are some favorite “oldies” you listen to?
D. A.: I enjoy traditional American music; Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, The Osborne Brothers, western swing artists like Bob Wills and Spade Cooley. I like The Statesmen, The Blackwood Brothers, Mahalia Jackson. I also like old jazz players such as Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, as well as Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael, and Frank Sinatra. However, I mostly listen to current music because it helps me in my work.

NWM 17: What contemporary acts do you enjoy?
D. A.: The people I’m hearing on bluegrass radio are outstanding. Balsam Range, Michael Cleveland, Doyle Lawson, Del McCoury, Carolina Blue, Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Rhonda Vincent, and others. Of course the up and coming bluegrass stars including Sierra Hull, Noam Pikelny, Molly Tuttle, Jake Workman, Becky Buller, and Billy Strings are just delightful. I feel encouraged by the contemporary writers and artists who are forging ahead with new music.

D. A. accepting The Les Beasley Impact Award 2013
2013 National Quartet Convention

NWM 18: How do you keep yourself centered or able to cope with stress during these trying times?
D. A.: I walk. Stress is not new. The world has always had wars, plagues, and other grounds for anxiety. We must remember that we are descended from people who faced difficulties and emerged victorious. And if I get in a tight spot, I ask The Creator to look in on me.

NWM 19: If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
D. A.: The golden age of music includes the creative and innovative work of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, etc. I would like to peek in on them from time to time.

NWM 20): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
D. A.: I say hold on to your hat. Events come and go. Situations seem so pressing when we’re in the middle of one. Then a little time passes and we’re on to the next thing. We have no idea what’s coming. Some of it will be hard, but some of it will be delightful. I want to see as much as I can. We humans must have faith in our own ability to adapt and survive.

We are descended from people who faced difficulties and emerged victorious.

My life in music has been one of many powerful experiences and undeserved blessings. Few people have had as much fun as I have. But 2021 brings change. I will pass the talent buyer’s torch to my longtime associate, Amanda Carson. I intend to stay involved because I’m not ready to quit, and I suspect there’s some great adventures around the next bend. I’m so grateful for forty-five years of employment at Silver Dollar City, and for the many outstanding individuals that made it all so good.

D. A. Callaway “You Got a Friend in Me”

D. A. Callaway

D. A. Callaway

D. A. Callaway began working at Silver Dollar City in August 1976 as the piano player at The Medicine Show. Today he is SDC’s Entertainment Manager. He has been a talent buyer and festival producer there since 1993. He is a seven time Bluegrass Promoter of the Year, as voted by members of Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. In 2011 the Ozarks-based theme park’s Bluegrass & BBQ Festival won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award for Event of the Year. And in 2017 D. A. and SDC brought home the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award.

To learn more about D. A. visit https://www.facebook.com/D.A.Callaway

You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with Chandler Holt

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