Presented now from NoteWorthy Music and Larry Lee (his rather brilliant idea), the premiere edition of “Muse Unveiled,” in which songwriters tell us about the inspiration for and creation of a favorite song of theirs. Read Larry’s The Last Hoedown here at NoteWorthyMusic.org.
First published: Fall 2017 in The Wires and the Wood
Remastered by NoteWorthy Music July 2020

But it won’t be the same

It can’t be like home

It can’t feel like home

To you there  ~Larry Lee, “Spaceship Orion”

Randle Chowning and Larry Lee

Randle Chowning and Larry Lee | Photo by Jeff Farabee

In 2015, Larry Lee and Randle Chowning were inducted into the Missouri Writers Hall of Fame and each received the organization’s prestigious Quill Award – the first time it had been awarded to songwriters. Most of my Ozarks friends will, like me, immediately think of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, seeing those two names together.

For this young man, a fresh graduate of Fair Grove High School in the early 70s, and the crowd I ran with, the Daredevils were our neighbors and heroes all in one. They looked like me and my buds, and they knew where Bois D’Arc was. But we weren’t flying to London to make a record with Glyn Johns, who produced everybody – from Led Zeppelin to Linda Ronstadt, from Dylan to Clapton. They were.

Today, they have gold records on their walls from those days. “If You Wanna Get to Heaven,” from their self-titled debut album, reached 25 on U.S. charts in ’74, and “Jackie Blue” reached number 3 in ’75 from It’ll Shine When It Shines, the band’s sophomore album. The “Dares” opened for the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and nearly everyone who was anyone at the time. And they headlined plenty of heady bills themselves; Steve Martin once opened for them.

All my Colorado friends of a certain age, also remember the Daredevils … and wonder where they went and when they went there. Some remember “Colorado Song” and some know the band once recorded at Caribou Ranch, the famed studio near Nederland, Colorado. But as big as they were, as talented, as well loved by those of us who were watching, they never quite reached that next level. They might have been the Eagles, but they weren’t.

Why?

For the Song

“When you choose a life as a songwriter or artist of any kind,” says Lee, “your chances of making a decent living aren’t very good. So you have to have the passion. But if you’re willing to ride the passion train, then your life is going to be fulfilled.” For Lee and Chowning and the other Daredevils, the passion was never to be road-warrior rock stars. They didn’t want to relocate to L.A. “We all had our little farm houses we rented,” says Lee. “We were Ozarkians.”

They didn’t want to live on the road. “We never did a full tour,” adds Chowning. “That’s 90 days, across the country. And the label wanted us to, badly. If we would have done that, who knows? But we voted, and the band did not want to be out more than two weeks at a time.”

The passion was for the song.

There’s a New Bijou in Town

“No matter what anyone tells you, there wouldn’t be an Ozark Mountain Daredevils if it wasn’t for Randle Chowning” said Larry. “He was the catalyst. He put that thing together.” And what did he put together? “The Daredevils began as a writers’ co-op,” continues Lee. “That’s what we were. We had a mutual admiration for the process.”

“The Daredevils began as a writers’ co-op.” ~Larry Lee

In 1972, Steve Canaday – who was to have a long relationship in and around the Daredevils until his untimely death in a 1999 plane crash – opened the New Bijou Theater in Springfield, Missouri. Lee worked there, and it was a popular club for young musicians and the counterculture surrounding them. Chowning wrote songs and played them around town when he could. He had seen Lee play a few originals with Granny’s Bathwater, a popular local band, and approached him. Chowning said he knew John Dillon, who wrote songs, and that maybe it would be nice to gather at the club to see what everyone was doing. Dillon wrote some with Steve Cash, a local poet and harmonica player and brought him along.

Before long they were helping dial in each other’s songs and playing at the New Bijou on off nights. Canaday started recording the group and took a tape to New York and managed to worm his way into the office and ear of legendary record producer, John Hammond at Capitol Records. The tape caught Hammond’s attention, which caught the attention of other labels. When the dust settled, the band of hillbilly hippies had landed a deal with A&M Records. Within eighteen months of tentatively forming a “songwriters’ co-op,” The Ozark Mountain Daredevils (recently shortened from Cosmic Corn Comb and his Amazing Ozark Mountain Daredevils – nobody wanted to be Corn Cob) was on a plane to London to cut an album with the big boys.

Ozark Mountain Daredevils

OMD founding members L-R: John Dillon, Michael “Supe” Granda, Buddy Brayfield, Randle
Chowning, Steve Cash and Larry Lee | Photo courtesy of Randle Chowning

Nashville Cats

Though the Daredevils continue to make music today, the band, with the exception of Dillon, Cash and Michael “Supe” Granda, on bass from the beginning, has gone through a number of personnel changes over the years. Chowning left first and started the Randle Chowning Band. His first solo album, Hearts on Fire, received multiple plays during my young family’s road trip from Fair Grove, Missouri, to Orlando.

Lee left the Daredevils in the early 80s. In 1983 he got a job in Nashville with a small publishing house and made the move. He stayed in Nashville for 23 years – writing songs, picking up session work and, eventually, producing records. Like Chowning, Lee has gold records on his wall, but some of his are from his work as a producer. Lee had thirteen number one hits with Alabama, alone.

“Jimmy Buffett called Lee needing someone to go on tour with him to play and sing high harmonies.”

Larry met and became friends with Norbert Putnam in the 70s. Norbert had played with Elvis and was a producer for Jimmy Buffett and Dan Fogelberg and many more. Putnam, who was working on Buffett’s Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, asked Lee if he would sing background. “I said, ‘Hell yeah,'” says Larry. “So I met Jimmy and sang with him, and we became friends.” In ’85, about the time the publishing house closed shop, Buffett called Lee needing someone to go on tour with him to play and sing high harmonies. “Hell yeah,” was again the reply.

Lee’s association with Putnam also led to his work with Alabama, Restless Heart and others. “In the 90s and beyond, country music became really video conscious,” says Lee. “One night I met an A&R guy for one of the major labels who said they were looking for a new male performer. I had met a young singer-songwriter who I mentioned, and the guy’s first question was, ‘What does he look like? We’re looking for someone who looks like he just came off a soap opera; we don’t even care if he can sing.’ “I thought: ‘What the fuck business am I in – the music business or something else? I decided I had been there, done that and came home.”

Beyond Reach

For about nine of those twenty-three years, Chowning also lived and worked in Nashville. “The first thing you discover when you move to Nashville is that your postman is probably a better guitar player than you,” says Chowning. “That’s almost a given.” Chowning had some songs cut and enjoyed his life in Nashville, but it never quite clicked for him, professionally.

Aside: The Quill Award

Even though I had received a few gold albums from past years from the recording industry, it was a special honor — and the first of its kind — in 2015 to receive the Quill Award from the Missouri Writers Hall of Fame. Even more eventful was my long-time friend and musical partner, Larry Lee, receiving the award at the same time. The banquet was wonderful, and it was a great evening. ~ Randle Chowning

The Quill Award along with induction into the Writers Hall of Fame was of course an honor and was very unexpected. What was really nice about the ceremony itself was having members of my family there, especially my son Kashi. The only person missing was my father, who in no short measure instilled the love and appreciation for music I developed at an early age. I’m sure he would have been very proud. ~ Larry Lee

“Around 2000 or so Randle called me up,” says Lee. “We had stayed in contact. He had moved there, too, but I didn’t see him very much. He had a publishing deal and he was trying to get songs cut. He said, ‘I am doing demos, but I don’t know if I am doing them right – in the Nashville way. Could you just take a listen and see if you have any advice?’ He brought a cassette and all the time I am listening, I am thinking that I don’t know as a Nashville producer if I could revamp them to fit into the format. They sounded like Randle Chowning songs and Randle Chowning songs are what I first loved in the Daredevils. My advice? ‘I would just do your own album. Let these songs sound like you and forget about Nashville.'”

“So I had some songs and Larry had some songs and we worked on them and released what was supposed to be one album under the name Beyond Reach,” Randle says. “We just wanted an acoustic sound, no drums,”  Larry adds. “Let the songs come through rather than put a lot of crap on them, which I had done a lot of in Nashville.” Now, with three albums to their credit, Beyond Reach includes Dave Wilson, a Springfield musician and songwriter.

Beyond Reach

Beyond Reach L-R: David Wilson, Randle Chowning, Larry Lee | Photo by Jeff Farabee

Always the song

“You know I was good friends with Wayne Carson [a Springfield songwriter, who wrote “The Letter” and other top 40 hits]. He always wanted to be a recording artist, but never quite made it. But he was a huge songwriter, and, in some ways, we – Larry and me and the other Daredevils in the beginning – just wanted to write songs and get checks in the mail.”

“Songwriting, to this day, remains a bit of a mystery,” says Larry, with the mystery showing in his eyes. “But at the same time it is a craft that one needs to hone, and I feel like over the years I’ve come a long way toward doing just that. To have your peers acknowledge your work is very gratifying, and it makes me feel like following the words, and not being afraid to scrap an idea or to do a complete rewrite. That’s how I’ve somehow learned to make it to ‘the end.'”

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils  “Jackie Blue”

To learn more about Larry and his life in music as well as to view his outstanding nature photography, go here: https://larrymichaellee.com/

For three songs written by Larry for Beyond Reach, go here: https://larrymichaellee.com/with-beyond-reach

Dale McCurry

Dale McCurry

Writer and Editor

Following years as a reporter and editor of a handful of weekly newspapers, Dale McCurry was co-founder and publisher, writer and managing editor of High Notes Magazine on the Western Slope of Colorado and The Wires and the Wood in his native Ozarks. Today, he wears all of those hats for NoteWorthy Music as well.
Contact: Dale@NoteWorthyMusic.org.

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