If You Wanna Get To Heaven

My high school years were in the 70s and 80s. I grew up in a rural, agricultural community and attended school with a bunch of kids that were a product of that setting. It was an exciting era in music, producing what some still call “the best music ever.” Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Eagles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, 38 Special … Southern Rock – a blend of edgy country and rock ‘n’ roll. (We might call it Americana Rock today) We loved that music – still do. It’s hard not to turn it up every time a favorite anthem shows up on the radio. And it’s interesting to note just how many of those bands lasted for decades, with a lot of them still performing to this day. Proof that great music stands the test of time.

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils is one of those bands that carved out a niche for themselves, notching a few hits along the way, managing to sustain a longevity that finds them still entertaining audiences old and new. They were once described as, “a ragtag collection of hippies, bohemians, and musicians of no fixed ambition.” Their music contributed significantly to the soundtrack of a generation for sure, with hit songs like, “If You Wanna Get To Heaven,” and “Jackie Blue,” likely finding their way on many a mix-tape.

The Daredevils’ began their musical journey in Springfield, Missouri in 1971, as musicians Larry Lee, Steve Cash, Michael Supe Granda, John Dillon, Buddy Brayfield, and Randle Chowning teamed up their creative forces. It took them a while to settle on a name though. Originally they called themselves the Family Tree, changed it to the Burlap Socks, and then the Emergency Band.  Eventually, in a nod to Commander Cody, who was one of their musical heroes, they settled on a catchy little moniker – Cosmic Corncob & His Amazing Ozark Mountain Daredevils — The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, for short.

Recently, The Daredevils released their first studio album in 21 years. I caught up with founding member John Dillon to peak behind the curtain of this iconic band.

47 Years And Counting
“I Think it’s 47 years,” John said. “We started in ‘71. I haven’t done the math recently, but it doesn’t matter. When you get to the end of those kind of numbers, it doesn’t matter anymore, It’s just a long time,” he said laughingly.

It’s an accomplishment that not many bands can say anymore. “That’s true,” John said. “There are just a few of us out there that get into these kind of timelines; the Dirt Band’s one, they’re good friends of ours, and I guess the Rolling Stones perhaps, and the Eagles.”

That’s pretty good company for a band that’s been full time for basically the entire 47 years. “I’ve done this ever since 1971. There were six originals and there are three of those originals still left. We’ve play every gig primarily, with a few exceptions, just based on circumstances.”

Along the way, John and the guys have done other things of course. He had what he called “a pretty loose partnership” with a couple of guys doing marketing and advertising. “I was the media cat,” he said, “which means basically radio and TV. I’m comfortable in those territories. We did a lot of jingles – my biggest hit was the O’Riley jingle.”

Acclaimed music producers Glyn Johns and David Anderle heard the young band play at the infamous Cowtown Ballroom in Kansas City one night. They were on a scouting mission, looking to discover a band with a uniquely American sound. Impressed by their depth of original material and tight harmonies, he made a recommendation – and just like that – the Daredevils were signed to a record deal with A&M.

Catapulted To Success
In 1973 the young band accompanied by roadies, girlfriends, wives and families, were whisked off to London, England where they recorded their self-titled debut album, (often referred to as the Quilt Album).  It spawned their first hit song “If You Wanna Get to Heaven,” written by John and Steve Cash.  The album was ranked in the 100 Top Pop Album Artists that year, and forever cemented as one of the iconic bands of the 1970s musical era.

“It was surreal,” John said; “an out of body experience. Two of the guys had never even been on an airplane. And, we were going over to cut with Glyn Johns who is still considered to be one of the greatest producers that ever lived. Back in those days he was the man. We got a whole record deal based on his communication with A&M. Our record was out and the song, “If You Wanna Get To Heaven,” was climbing the charts before we ever met an executive from A&M. We we’re very, very fortunate.”

Here is this young group of guys banging it out in local bars one minute, and the next, they find themselves with a record deal, a hit record, and notoriety

everywhere they went. “It took a long time to adjust, actually,” John said. “Getting airplay and hearing your song on the radio was just mind blowing, really. We all basically lived on farms around Springfield Missouri and just had this sort of hippie existence, and the next thing you know, we’re being called to play giant festivals, going to New York City, doing the Bottom Line club, and places like that. It was just a new world. And then, we actually had to go do another record on the heals of that. (The second record produced the number one hit, “Jackie Blue”) It took us a couple years to adjust. It was just mind blowing. It was quite a ride – Still is,” he said. The band eventually cut six records with A&M, plus a greatest hits package.

“Obviously we’re not touring like we once did,” John said. “We were on the road a lot in the beginning, just all the time. It was really intense, and it was really intense for 20 to 25 years.”

Over the years, band members have come and gone, while the band continued to record and tour, entertaining their long standing fans as well as their music finding a new generation. “It’s the weirdest thing, in the last maybe four or five years, we’re finding younger people coming to our shows. It’s just the oddest thing. Of course we have our fans who are the baby boomer people of the 60s and 70s. It’s such a loyal fan base. Not as big as someone like the Grateful Dead or some larger groups, but our fans are just so loyal all around the world. And then, all of a sudden, maybe it’s their kids, or their friends, but we have these younger people coming. It’s just bizarre to me. It’s wonderful though. We don’t play that often anymore. But maybe when we do, part of the mystique is that we are still playing, that we’re, well, we’re still alive,” he laughed.

A New Record
“We had this warehouse full of songs, and we just decided to go in the studio last year, just for fun, and do maybe an E.P. But when we got in there, there were so many songs and everybody was so excited about it that we just kept going. Finally we had to call a halt. I think we had 18 songs close to finished, 16 totally in the can, and we just said we’ve got to stop. And so we decided to just finish it up and put it out ourselves. The response has just been terrific. I’m really proud of this thing because it’s brand new. It’s just sounds cool. And at this stage of the game, to be able to come up with those kinds of songs; and I think they’re powerful tracks. So I couldn’t be happier about it.”

With three of the original co-founders still on board, and their signature sound and style still intact and vibrant, the Daredevils will likely be at it a little while longer. The newest record album, Off The Beaten Path (2017), was co-produced with band member, Nick Sibley. The 16 new songs offer solid proof of their dedication as heartfelt songwriters and musicians.

By Greg Tutwiler