When my wife and I moved to Springfield, Missouri, in late 2018, I had no idea how vibrant the music community would be in this town of 200,000+ people in the heart of the Ozarks region. Within a few months, I was participating at a weekly open mic night jam where musicians, singers, and songwriters gathered to perform a wide variety of music, which was mostly classic rock, country, pop, and the occasional folk tune. As we became more immersed into the community through work and social activities, I learned this part of the country has an incredible musical legacy going all the way back to the early 19th century when immigrants began to settle in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, bringing with them musical traditions from southern Appalachia rooted primarily in Scotland and Ireland. Old time music jams, or house parties, lasting all night sprang up throughout the hills and hollers featuring various stringed instruments like fiddles, mandolins, banjos, upright bass fiddles, and guitars. Weekly old time and/or Bluegrass music jams still exist today in the rural Ozarks in places like McClurg, Missouri, and Mountain View, Arkansas.
The regional music scene gained national attention in the 1950s with the “Ozark Jubilee,” a live, nationally broadcast country-western variety show on ABC Television originating from the Jewell Theater in downtown Springfield from 1955 through 1960. Many country music stars began or advanced their careers by appearing on the Jubilee including Porter Wagoner, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, and the Philharmonics. The Ozarks Studies Institute of the Missouri State University Libraries is in the process of locating and digitizing episodes of the Jubilee and making them available to the public on YouTube, a project with which I have been directly involved. The playlist is at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLjcjShg6ypA54TjijKG6ty9WpPDxkn-Xw
Many people in the Springfield area argue that the “Ozark Jubilee” opened the door for another major movement in the entertainment industry centered about forty miles south in the little hill town of Branson, Missouri. Just as the Jubilee was going off the air in 1960, the Herschend family was building a 19th-century-style Ozarks theme park just west of Branson they would call Silver Dollar City. One of the major attractions of the park was live music, mostly consisting of traditional fiddle or square dance tunes but also Bluegrass. As country music rose in popularity across the nation, a few entrepreneurial musical families saw an opportunity to open theaters for country music variety shows along Highway 76, the hilly, curvy road that connects downtown Branson to Silver Dollar City. With the theaters came restaurants, hotels, shops, and other attractions. By the 1980s, some of the aging country music stars of Nashville, and even some of the younger ones, began either playing shows along the strip or opening up their own theaters. Over the next two decades, Branson exploded into a tourism mecca offering family-friendly entertainment centered around country music, with a whole lot of white Protestantism and patriotism thrown in for good measure.
The Branson boon began to wane as the 20th century ended, although Highway 76 is still filled with a multitude of tourist attractions and theaters and all the trappings that accompany them. Fortunately, nearby Springfield continued to be a music town, although it never aspired to be like Branson. Many people here maintain, and I would agree, that the Springfield music scene is more authentic, with only minimal interest in attracting tourists. We have certainly seen our share of that authenticity. The first band we heard in Springfield was on New Year’s Eve 2018 at Moon City Pub on Commercial Street, which was also the location of the weekly open mic night I would begin attending. The name of the band was Mood Ring Circus, an ensemble of four twenty-something guys who were gifted musicians, singers, and songwriters performing their original, hard-driving tunes. We were blown away. As it turned out, the lead singer for the band was also the host of the aforementioned open mic night. His name is Justin Larkin. The pub closed down during COVID, and the owners sold it; however, Justin has continued to host open mic jams at several locations around town.
We have become good friends with Justin and his family. He has produced and recorded me performing several of my own original songs and a few covers in his garage studio. He plays multiple instruments on the recordings and sings harmony parts. This year we are working on a song we wrote together titled “Miles of Time,” which is an absolute rush for me. Justin is about the only person I know personally who makes his living performing music. He plays mostly in southwest Missouri but occasionally tours through the western states playing in clubs, breweries, and restaurants. He is immensely talented as a musician, vocalist, and songwriter. His music is streaming on multiple platforms, and he has his own website at https://justinlarkinmusic.com/
The second musical group we heard was a married couple, Shannon Stine and Natalie Wlodarczyk, two women who call themselves The Shandies. They both play guitar and sing, performing mostly in southwest Missouri. The Shandies are wonderful songwriters, musicians, and vocalists. They have a dedicated page on Spotify. Their shows are a nice mix of their own music and eclectic selections of mostly soft Americana tunes from the last fifty years. The third performer we heard was a solo act, a guy named Dallas Jones. Equally talented on the guitar and the keyboard, Dallas has a voice that could have come straight out of Nashville. He is also a multi-generation cattle farmer. It has been a pleasure getting to know him over the past few years. The genres of music we are drawn to are similar, which include pop, soft rock, and country from the last fifty of so years. Although I am older than Dallas by a couple of decades, we both cut our musical teeth on the folksy tunes of John Denver. Dallas did me the great honor of playing and singing with me for a set at one of my gigs in town early in 2023. Dallas also has a dedicated page on Spotify.
One of the performers I met and befriended at various open mic sessions in town is a guy named Brian Pitts. He’s only a few years younger than I am, so we grew up listening to a lot of the same kind of music, mostly rock and pop music from the late 1970s and into the ‘80s. Brian was the front man in a touring band back in ‘80s but fell out of performing for about 30 years to raise a family and build a career. He has a great voice and is an accomplished drummer. During the COVID pandemic, Brian really concentrated on learning how to play the guitar well enough to accompany himself singing. His efforts paid off, and we began to harmonize with one another during our respective open mic sets. People began to compliment us on how tight our harmonies were, so we decided to work up a few sets and put together a duet vocal show, with Brian on guitar and me swapping back and forth with guitar and keys. He came up with the clever name, “Openly Gray.” Brian is really striking while the iron is hot. He has joined several different acts: an Eagles tribute band, a Yacht Rock band, and a Hall & Oates tribute band. His vocals are excellent for these genres.
There are far too many solo and group performers in the Springfield area for me to include in this post, but here are a few more. I am only including people here who perform regularly. All of these people have either their own websites or pages on online musical platforms and/or social media.
Joe Dillstrom and his band, The Paper Moons – a multitalented solo musician, vocalist, and songwriter who also performs with a group playing soft jazzy and romantic classics.
Molly Healey – a looping violinist, cellist, guitarist, pianist, and singer-songwriter who tours with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, the most famous band to come out of Springfield; she often serves as a recording session musician for soloists and ensembles in the Ozarks; she also has a regular Sunday evening gig with Dallas Jones in town.
Red Light Runner – one of the best cover bands in Springfield, featuring the powerful vocals of Drew Beine and the phenomenal guitar skills of Steven Sparks, who also plays in multiple bands, including Mood Ring Circus mentioned above.
Paul Thomlinson and Innuendo – another incredible cover band in town; Paul is a killer guitarist and vocalist who is a front man for the Eagles tribute and the Yacht Rock bands that Brian sings with, plus he is the other half of the Hall & Oates tribute band with Brian; Paul is also an intelligent, all-around great person.
Devlin Pierce and the Song – Devlin is a fine songwriter and guitarist with one of the most powerful voices around.
David Hoover – an Ozarker at heart who channels James Taylor and Jim Croce like no one I’ve ever heard; David is one of the best acoustic guitar players in the area.
Trent Prewitt – in his early twenties with his eyes on the prize of becoming a hit in Nashville; Trent has a wide-range country voice and is comfortable on both guitar and pedal steel; he is a songwriter and also plays occasionally with a few local bands.
Michael Evens – a sweetheart of a guy with the voice of an angel; Michael plays multiple instruments and has been a big part of the open mic scene behind the curtain in several locations in Springfield.
Don “DR” Randolph – at last, someone older than I am! DR has been playing and singing music with multiple bands in the area for decades; he is one hell of a bass player and a mainstay in the jam band of mostly older rock and country players that hosts an open mic session on Monday nights in town.
Rory Joyce – I cannot end this post without mentioning the man who hosted one of the open mic jams in town; he inspired and encouraged many of the amateurs in the area and was quite an accomplished musician and vocalist; sadly, Rory died in 2022, but his legacy lives on at the open mic night he started and built in Springfield.