Interview with Riverrock (Dan Smith)

Interview with Riverrock (Dan Smith)

by Christian Lamitschka for Country Music News International Magazine & Radio Show

Lamitschka:  Music has many new fans throughout Europe who may be hearing about you for the first time. How would you describe yourself and the music you play to someone who has never seen or heard you?

Dan Smith:  The short answer is; Americana meets British Invasion. If you take bluegrass, country, country rock, Southern rock, classic rock and old time rock & roll and add a little r&b, blues, soul and Western swing and then add in a large chunk of 60’s pop music from England, Ireland and Scotland, then throw in a silly sense of humor, you’re looking at Riverrock. We started playing together in 1974. The members were John Mumma, Paul Mumma, Jim Blanton, Steve Hall and me (Dan Smith). Out of the original five members, and after many years of people coming and going, we have three original members and one veteran KC musician making us a quartet. John and Paul Mumma and I, who started the band all those years ago, are back together with our newest member, Allen Blasco. John plays banjo, pedal steel and bass guitar. Paul plays acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle and mandolin. Allen plays electric and acoustic guitars and harmonica. I play the drums and washboard. All four of us sing and we take turns as lead singer, with three and four part harmonies.

Lamitschka:  How was the last year for you? What were your highlights?

Dan Smith:  This has been Riverrock’s best year since the early 1980s. On March 5th, we were inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame, which already included the likes of Brewer & Shipley, Kansas, Melissa Etheridge, Martina McBride, Pat Metheny, Shooting Star and Oleta Adams. And then in July, we completed our first full-length album in over thirty years.

Lamitschka:  What is your latest CD and how’s it doing?

Dan Smith:  The CD is Shuddup & Party! It’s a collection of twelve songs of many styles written by the band, with some covers. We are getting great reviews from DJs all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. By last count, we are being played on fourty-seven radio stations out of the one hundred we targeted overseas and it’s only the first few weeks of the campaign.

Lamitschka:  How did you choose the title for the CD?  Is there a story behind the name?

Dan Smith:  Riverrock was playing a benefit at a club in Kansas City, Kansas around 1994 and the audience was yelling songs out while we were setting up. I went up to the mic yelled back: shuddup and party! It was all in fun. But later, I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head. So, I thought, real stars get to play what they want. In a perfect world, the band would choose their set list and their fans would just eat it up. So the song, Shuddup & Party!, is about dealing with people who think musicians are the same as a jukebox or YouTube.

Lamitschka:  Do you write the songs yourself? If not, how do you go about finding the songs for your CD?

Dan Smith:  Everyone in Riverrock has written songs over the years. We like to think of ourselves as an outlet for any good music that fits our talents and sense for what works musically. This CD has eight original songs and four covers. And, from the looks of the DJs‘ choices overseas, they are equally excited about everything on the album. We wouldn’t rule out original music from other sources in the future. Our last album, Midwest Man (1980), had only two songs writen by band members and eight new songs from other writers. There were no real covers from known acts.

Lamitschka:  Please tell us about the songs on your album (influences, etc).

Dan Smith:  Well, I’ll just go down the list: I wrote the song, Shuddup & Party!, during a burst of creativity in th 1990s. But Riverrock broke up in 1997 and it wasn’t until we got back together in 2009 that there was an outlet to finish the recording I had started in 1996. Former Riverrock members, Frank Brown and Greg Warrell play the piano and bass guitar, respectively. We finished the recording in my old studio in Kansas City, Missouri and mixed it in my new studio, that I built this year, in Raytown, Missouri. House of the Rising Sun, the old Animals classic, just popped up in a jam on stage one night with Paul Mumma kicking it off in an upbeat 2/4 tempo. John and Allen jumped right in on the harmonies over Paul’s melody and it just clicked. It’s been a staple on our set list for a couple of years now. Kind A Heart, written by John Mumma, was part of a collection of his songs from the 1980s. We all heard an old cassette version and everybody loved it. So, we recut it in the studio this year. It has a little 60s country feel with a super catchy chorus. John ovedubbed the steel guitar in the second half and it grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Allen Blasco actually wrote We’re Still Here in a hospital emergency room during a visit to Los Angeles, California in the spring. He thought he was having a heart attack or something. He wanted a song that summed up where the band is today. What’s cool about it is that it could also be about a couple. Let the listener decide. Paul Mumma came into the studio one day and said he’s just written an instrumental and named it after his daughter, Celie. He passed the chart over to his brother, John and an hour later, we were recording the basic tracks. We took liberties with multitracking, but Celie’s Reel is the real deal, with only band members playing nine instruments. It’s a cross between bluegrass and Irish music. I wrote Your Love is and Oasis for my wife, Linda, back in the 90s. It was my first attempt at writing a real song. I had this loop going around in my head with a steel guitar melody that I made up and then the chorus with the oasis line just slipped right in, making it a complete song. The cool part was when, after fifteen years of adding little things to it, my old friend, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band agreed to come to my studio and he added the banjo riffs to compliment the Dobro, played by Jeff Elsloo. The sad part is that my wife, Linda, passed away in June and didn’t get to see or hear the new CD. But, she was there when John McEuen tracked a couple of songs and heard the final mix that ended up on the CD. And, she new about the great cover concept that now is used to promote Riverrock. John Mumma’s collection from the 80s included The Cholesterol Song. This always gets big laughs when people hear it. We also went track crazy with this one and gave it a big ending. It’s almost like a funny Johnny Cash song but with a more contemporary subject. Who doesn’t get tired of having people tell them what they should be eating? Life is more fun when you take a few risks. Besides, nothing but health food is boring.
Ghost Riders in the Sky was the first song we cut in my new studio. What started as an exersize in getting used to the new studio turned out to be a favorite of many DJs. Allen Blasco bought a baritone guitar a couple of years ago and Riverrock started playing Ghost Riders to show it off on gigs. After maybe two takes, we started to add steel guitar, hamonica and vocals. Later, John added some banjo to the chorus. We mixed everything but the baritone guitar, drums and bass in the background with lots of reverb for a haunting sound. We’ve always played it as an instumental and it goes over very well at county fairs and concerts. Allen presented Goin‘ to the Track (to get my baby back) to us at the studio one evening and we had the basic tracks a couple of hours later. This is Allen Blasco’s tribute to the old rock & roll bands of the 50s with a little Coasters and Elvis influence. It’s another one of our humorous songs that also gets people up to the dance floor. Just about every reference to racing and gambling is used, both literally and as double entendres. We really amped up the do-wap vocals and had fun with it.
I’ve Just Seen A Face, a Beatles song, has been on our set list for a long time. We borrowed from the Dillards bluegrass version, except for the washboard. Paul Mumma wanted to do this in the studio and it turned out to be the most true-to-live song on the CD. We really sound just like this live and often start our shows with it. Hey, we love the Beatles as much as we love country and bluegrass music. So, this is a perfect fit. Allen Blasco’s other band (yes, he cheats on Riverrock), is Kansas City based Neon Blue, a blue-eyed sould band with horns. He’s been in love with the Memphis sound since he was a kid. We were trying to add some good dance tunes to our sets for some gigs and Allen pulled this one out by Otis Redding. When John Mumma played the pedal steel guitar instead of the horns and Otis Redding‘s whistling, we new we had something special. It’s always good live and it turned out great in the studio. The last of my three songs that I wrote and began recording in the 90s was North Dakota Waltz. I simply challenged myself to write a waltz. I took a familiar theme for me after three and a half decades of playing the Midwestern American states and came up with a song about the least populated state, North Dakota. It’s all in fun. We always loved to play the North Dakota State Fair in the summer. But every verse was like a road map across the state. Frank Brown put in all the crazy organ, tuba and piano sounds over my Polka drums and John Mumma added the banjo, which I panned to the left opposite John McEuen’s mandolin to the right. McEuen messed with the song until he had the perfect mandolin intro. It’s a fun, upbeat song and the perfect for ending the CD.

Lamitschka:  What is the difference between your last CD and your current one?

Dan Smith:  Besides thirty-one years? Seriously, Midwest Man, which became a Billboard Magazine Recommended LP in 1980, was a producer‘s album. It was recorded at The Soundshop in Nashville, Tennessee and produced by Michael and Joe Meyers We had a bunch of session men in on it. Two of our heroes, Randy Scruggs (son of Earl) on guitars, banjo and Dobro, and the late, great Vassar Clements on fiddle were on it. Our then lead singer, Rick Harrelson, was the focal point. All but a couple of songs were chosen to feature his voice. Midwest Man made Riverrock stars in the Midwest ofAmerica, but it didn’t break nation-wide, let alone internationally. I did have some success in 1986 as Rick Harrelson’s manager with a Comstock Records release of a single, Lovin‘ You Like This, in Europe. We came very close to having Rick tour overseas with Riverrock, but it just didn’t develope. Shuddup & Party is all Riverrock as far as production goes. With my own studio, record label and publishing company, it‘s more do-it-yourself. This is typical now in a world of indie labels and home recording gear. Most of the money spent on Midwest Man was in the recording, production and manufacturing. Shuddup & Party!‘s budget is aimed at promoting overseas and here in America, since we saved on the front end.

Lamitschka:  You recorded with John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. How did that happen to come about?

Dan Smith:  Kansas City’s legendary Cowtown Ballroom was a favorite venue for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in the early 1970s. After it closed, the Dirt Band had many friends here and would often choose to stay between Midwestern gigs. John had heard about Riverrock from some Dirt Band fans in K.C. and came out to see us in late 1974. He ended up on stage with us and we jammed all night. Over the years, including when he was out of the Dirt Band for awhile, I would sit in with him on solo gigs with my washboard. Last year, he was playing a show at Knuckleheads in Kansas City with Matt Cartsonis and Craig Eastman. We had kicked around the idea about recording together in emails. Since I was going to be on the show at Knuckleheads, I asked if he would like to run up the hill, just five minutes away, and drop a couple of tracks. John agreed, if we did it after sound check. So, between sound check and the concert, I drove John up to my old recording studio and recorded his wonderful contribution to our CD in less then a hour. There’s a great photo of John on the mandolin in front of the Home of Riverrock sign that appears on the inside cover of the CD.

Lamitschka:  Who inspires you musically and how deep do your musical roots run?

Dan Smith:  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the template for Riverrock in the beginning. They embody the style and energy, as well as the diversity that gives us the freedom to do or try just about anything musically. There’s also a Buffalo Springfield influence. The new CD shows that. They had no musical borders and there was no clear lead singer. And, they stretched accross more genres on three albums that even the Beatles did on all of theirs We come from a time in America when there was only three TV networks to turn to. Top 40 radio included everything popular. You could hear Little Jimmy Dickens, followed by The Rolling Stones and then The Jackson Five on the same station. The American suburb was a breading ground for garage bands all wanting to be recording stars. All our parents supported us in music. Especially Allen Blasco’s parents. His mom and dad, Lou and Betty Blasco, are also in the Kansas Music Hall of Fame as song writers and publishers. His mother co-wrote the hit song, My Happiness. My mother Janet Smith, was Riverrock’s manager until she passed way in 1984. My father, Jack Smith and the Mumma brother’s father, Sam Mumma were both attorneys and helped with Riverrock‘s legal stuff. Former Riverrock member, Jim Blanton, has left his musical legasy in the form of his son, Jake Blanton. Jake is on tour with Brandon Flowers of The Killers as his main sideman. My brother, Steve Smith, conducts the Olathe Community Orchestra in Kansas and performs with KC’s top jump boogie band, AnnaLee and the Lucky So & So’s. My brother, Phil Smith, lives in Glendale, California and plays drums for A.J. Croce, son of the late, great Jim Croce.

Lamitschka:  What do you think about today’s music scene versus its past and where do you see it going in the future?

Dan Smith:  Every generation has the right to decide what is the music of their day. So, I’m OK with today’s music. I run a recording studio where hip-hop, country and rock could happen in the same week. The kids need an outlet to produce what’s in their musical souls and I’m glad to provide it. On the other hand, I miss the days when it was harder to get into the business uneless you could really perform, without Autotune and YouTube, giving just about anybody a chance to be a star.

Lamitschka:  What do you think about today’s music industry?

Dan Smith:  It’s way too fad oriented, for my taste. Record companies used to hang with their artists for awhile. They’d try two, three, even four albums before they‘d quit on an artist. Now you have to come out of the box with a hit record or it’s goodbye.

Lamitschka:  If you had the chance to change something about the music industry, what would it be?

Dan Smith:  Go back to the talent scout plan. Have real A&R departments that search for and develope the act and then find the songs, no matter what the source, followed by a relaxed and inspiring recording session.

Lamitschka:  What was your big break that got you into the music business?

Dan Smith:  After starting Riverrock, we got work right away as a house band, working six nights a week. This was a big help. We built up a big local following and got very tight as a musical unit. After that, we started on the state and county fair circuit, while still working popular nightclubs, and then became the local favorite to open for many, many big names. We also had good friends at the biggest radio station in four states who would play our albums.

Lamitschka:  What inspired you to become a songwriter?

Dan Smith:  For me, it was a wave of ideas hitting me at the same time and an ugency to finish them. Again, I don’t really know about the others in the band. But I know it’s not an every day occurance. Allen grew up with song writers, so I’m sure he started before any ot the rest of us. But, we did have original songs on our recordings as early as 1975. Riverrock had an instrumental on the first album. And I think four on the second album, Still Live & Pickin, recorded in 1977

Lamitschka:  What’s unique about you that will differentiate you from other artists?

Dan Smith:  Riverrock’s fun factor is invaluable. We laugh off the mistakes and make fun of ourselves and always try to have a good time. We also are older and more experienced that most working bands.

Lamitschka:  What moments in your career stand out in your memory as highlights and achievements which you are proud of?

Dan Smith:  Among the many would be when we started getting on big name shows and traveling around America. We also had a couple of big time booking agents. The Jim Halsey Company, who represented The Oak Ridge Boys, Mel Tillis, Roy Clark and Freddy Fender, signed us in 1977. Then in 1980, we were signed to Variety Artists by Gordy Singer, who had been the manager of Jim Croce and John Denver. When we were signed by Variety Artists, they represented Jeff Beck, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, The Guess Who and Asleep at the Wheel.
Showcasing at the Old Time Pickin‘ Parlor in Nashville and having agents fight over us was a cool, if fleeting moment. Recording in Nashville was a dream come true that really did make a difference.

Lamitschka:  When you get time off, how do you like to relax?

Dan Smith:  I love to ski, which is hard to do in Missouri. John likes baseball and doing things with his sons. Paul is a family man that doen’t let the band get in the way. Allen collects vinyl and even is in a club of collectors and loves to watch Kansas City Cheifs football

Lamitschka:  What has been the biggest disappointment in your life?

Dan Smith:  If you mean as an artist, then it’s not breaking into the big time when we were young and could enjoy it for a long time. On a personal level, dealing with mortality with loved ones and friends who we miss all the time and can’t be here to see what we’ve become.

Lamitschka:  Is there any place you haven’t played that you would like to?

Dan Smith:  I can’t think of any place we WOULDN’T play. We’e done clubs, weddings, concerts, fairs, prisons, schools, parties, benefits, openings, radio and TV. We’d LOVE to play where our CD is getting airplay. Europe, Asia, Australia or really anywhere we can get to that pays our way and keeps us in business would be wonderful to perform in.

Lamitschka:  Many music fans today get their information about artists online. Do you have your own website and what will fans find there?

Dan Smith: is our main website. The Links page will take you to our Facebook, MySpace and Reverb Nation pages. On the site, we have an About Us page with the band bio, critic’s reviews,a list of major shows, events and venues we have played, our awards and a list of major artists we have worked with. There are also pages for members‘ bios, our shedule, a photo album, discography, a contact page, video/music page, news/blog page, a links page and on-line store.

Lamitschka:  How do you feel about being inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame?  What has it done for your career?

Dan Smith:  It’s a HUGE honor to be among some of the Midwest’s most noteworthy names. This years‘ inductees included Count Basie, Charlie Parker, The Rainmakers and Chely Wright.
The award is a great way to introduce the band to new people and it has opened doors that had been closed for many years.

Lamitschka:  Fans are always hungry for good road stories. Do you have one you can share with us (come on don’t be shy)?

Dan Smith:  Riverrock was once the back up band for Minnie Pearl. We played an opening set on the Tulsa Opry and the went into She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain When She Comes as Minnie Pearl came on stage, singing and waving. Then we just stood there for half an hour while she told her jokes that she had performed thousands of times at the Grand Ole Opry. She wondered out loud if I ever wear out my washboard (lots of laughs) and then we backed her while she sang You Are My Sunshine. Riverrock always seemed to have some mechanical problem with every road trip. On one show about 1976, we were booked with Cal Smith (the Country Bumkin) in Longview, Texas. The engine started to fail in the van, so our bass player, Steve Hall rented a big truck and we put the van INSIDE the back of the truck. On the way home the trailer hitch broke and we had to hire a welder to fix it. We were paid about $900.00 and every penny went to the repairs. And, we still had to pay the agent‘s fee! We would have made more money staying home. But, then, we wouldn’t have this story. If you are looking for the juicy stuff. You’ll have to wait for the book.

Lamitschka:  Most careers don’t last as long as yours.  What’s given your career the staying power?

Dan Smith:  Pretty much, Riverrock has been like family. I trust my bandmates and love them like brothers. And, there has always been someone from the original five involved in some way, keeping the dream not far from reach.

Christian Lamitschka ( )

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