Ozark Mountain Daredevils founding member Larry Lee is still writing songs and playing instruments in southwest Missouri as his 50-plus-year career in music keeps rolling along. (Photo courtesy of Dale McCurry/NoteWorthy Music)

“I don’t want to appear vain, but posting this mention kinda made my morning coffee taste a little sweeter,” said Ozark resident Larry Lee — Americana singer-songwriter, recording artist and longtime Nashville producer. 

The “mention” was a Facebook post of a popMATTERS piece titled “10 Pop Songs Too Good to Be Hits.” One of them was Larry’s composition, “Jackie Blue.”

In his April 2023 popMATTERS story, writer Marc Edelstein — a self-described “professional music snob” —  lists 10 artists who, rather than write “common-denominator ‘hits’ for the masses,” delivered these songs with such “depth and complexity that, by all rights, should never have glimpsed the Billboard Top 40.”

In addition to Lee’’s song, the short list from the story includes, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues, “Synchronicity II” by the Police and other names and titles you would most likely recognize. 

Lee was a founding member of Springfield’s Ozark Mountain Daredevils, a nationally recognized band from the country-rock movement of the 1970s. Along with several of his outstanding OMD compositions (“Spaceship Orion,” “Within Without,”) 1975’s “Jackie Blue” was the band’s biggest hit. 

The song caught the ear of iconic British producer Glyn Johns (the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, the Who) while producing the band’s sophomore album, “It’ll Shine When It Shines.” After a few suggested tweaks — including reidentifying Jackie as female — the single reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, while spending two weeks at No. 1 on the Cashbox Singles Chart. Nearly 50 years later, the song remains a radio staple — somewhere along the line becoming a BMI Million-Performance recipient.

For those of us who know Lee, we recognize it as a stretch for him to post something flattering about himself. 

“I have to count my blessings,” Lee said, ignoring your objections. 

“As you know, I’ve been very fortunate,” he insists through a sly smile. 

Sure. It’s true. We do know. But we also know he has devoted a life to honing his craft and art and continues to make new music. 

“When I met Larry,” said Harry Stinson, longtime member of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, “I met a kindred soul on the road less traveled. His musical paintbrush always surprises me with unexpected, enchanting, graceful and intimate portraits — the kind of art I want to immerse myself in.” 

The Wonder Years

Lee was born and raised in Springfield. His father was an accountant and his mother, “a mom — a very underrated occupation.” 

Before Larry Lee was born, his dad had been a big-band singer, appearing on the radio from ballrooms up and down the east coast. 

“He had a tremendous record collection and always had music playing — often show tunes and musical scores as well as symphonies and the big-band crooners, Lee said.”

During his elementary and junior-high years, Lee and his dad would winter vacation in New York, New York, for a week of Broadway shows. 

“Because of that and the music he would play at the house, I had so much music just seeping into my genes,” Lee said.. 

The result is that Lee is in love with a broad spectrum of music, from classical symphonies to classic Beatles. 

“It may not be evident to others, but the music I write draws on all of these influences and styles,” Lee said.

Lee’s first band was while he was in the eighth grade, scoring gigs playing for neighborhood adults’ cocktail parties with two of his friends, Bill Jones and Hugh Wapole. He later teamed with those two buddies and three other Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State University) students to form Lewie and the Seven Days. In 1966, their band landed a spot on a USO tour to beautiful Southeast Asia. 

“A letter from the Selective Service notifying me that I was to be drafted was in the mail upon my return from that USO tour,” Lee said. “Having just gotten home from Vietnam, I had no desire to go back, especially carrying a rifle. So I chose to enlist in the Navy.” 

Going to the Chapel 

“I think Larry is one of the kindest, most empathetic and caring people on planet Earth, for one thing,” said Mike Smith — fellow Navy veteran and iconic Ozarks broadcaster, founder, and host of KSMU’s “Seldom Heard Music” for more than 40 years. 

“He’s one of the good guys,” Smith said. “I admire him as a songwriter and as a person, so much.” 

Smith also shared the broadstokes of a favorite story about Lee, who confirmed the details.

For about two-and-a-half years of his Naval service, Lee was stationed in Puerto Rico.

“One day I was walking past this little chapel on the base and for some reason I walked into it,” Lee recalled. “There was this old upright piano down front. I didn’t play, but I remember lifting up the cover, reaching down, and hitting a single note. So then I hit that note with another and another until I found one that sounded good with the first note. And then I found another note that sounded good with the first two. And over time I just found these chords.

“I didn’t know they were chords; they were just notes that sounded good together to me. Then I memorized them and started putting them into songs. I wrote almost daily, eventually adding lyrics to go with the tunes. I’ve always come up with songs and put lyrics to them. I can’t do the Elton John thing where someone gives me a poem, and I put music to it.”

Back home, Lee played some of his songs for his longtime friend and collaborator, Bill Jones, and asked for advice about where and how to learn more. 

“Bill said the chords I was coming up with and the way I played them were really unique, and that if I took lessons, they would just try to make me play like everyone else,” Lee said. “’Your instincts are good; trust your ear,’ he told me. Therefore, when I write songs, I don’t really have any boundaries. I mean, if it sounds right to me, I play it. I don’t think about it theory-wise.”

No business like it 

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. Lee’s association with Nashville player and engineer Josh Leo led to his work with Alabama, Restless Heart and others. 

Lee has gold records on his wall, some of them from his work as a producer. He produced 13 No. 1 hits with Alabama alone.

Lee met and became friends with Norbert Putnam in the ‘70s. Putnam had played with Elvis and was a producer for Jimmy Buffett and Dan Fogelberg and many more. In 1976, Norbert, who was working on Buffett’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” asked Lee if he would sing background. 

“I said, ‘Hell yeah,'” exclaimed Lee. “So I met Jimmy and sang with him, and we became friends.” 

In 1985, 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. 

“In the ‘90s and beyond, country music became really video conscious,”  Lee said. “Focus away from the music crept in through the years, and one night I met an (artists and repertoire) 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 f— business am I in, the music business or something else?’ I decided I had been there, done that and came home.”

A Little Trip

Larry’s pet project for the past few decades has involved him as a founding member of the Vinyl Kings (formally known as The Del Beatles), an accomplished band of veteran Nashville musicians, songwriters and producers who have worked with hundreds and hundreds of recording artists. The list includes names such as Carole King, Sting, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Neil Young, Shania Twain, Vince Gill, Steve Winwood, Tina Turner, Mark Knopfler and many more.

The Vinyl Kings’ first albumA Little Trip” a cult classic from 2002 — is a testimony from each of these successful career musicians of how it all began for them when they saw the Beatles on “the Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. The genius of the record is that the Kings managed to create an album of original tunes echoing the evolving sound and feel of the Beatles — neither impression nor caricature, but a pure, loving homage.

Twenty-plus years later, the band, which founding member Stinson jokingly calls “the Final Kings,” is three songs deep into “Big New Life,” a long anticipated project releasing a wave of several new songs throughout the year. 

“We were determined to do something positive in this project,” Lee said. “Something with a promise of better things to come. All revolving around love.” 

They succeeded.

“What attracted me to working with Larry was not only his ability as an artist but his abilities to also get inside of a job as a songwriter, musician, producer, and performer,” Leo, a Vinyl Kings co-founder said. “He brings all aspects together for the good of the project.”

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member and Kings founding member Jim Photoglo agrees.

“I met Larry in ’84, on my first visit to Nashville, at The Bluebird Cafe,” Photoglo said. “I knew very quickly Larry was a brother. Not only did we go on to make music with The Del Beatles/Vinyl Kings, Larry co-produced, engineered and played percussion on two of my solo albums.”

“Of all the music I’ve made or been involved with over these many years,” Lee said, “this music made with these dear friends represents perhaps the high point of it all.”

Show Me Home

In 2015, Larry Lee and fellow OMD co-founder Randle Chowning were inducted by Smith into the Missouri Writers Hall of Fame, and each received the organization’s prestigious Quill Award, marking the first time it had been awarded to songwriters.

When asked about the award as a career mile marker in a 2020 interview with NoteWorthy Music, Lee said, “I’m fortunate to have actually had a 50-plus-year career living from the making of music. Not an easy thing to do, and not one without my share of hard times. So my situation is very different from many here in my local music scene who are younger than me. I’ve been in the right place at the right time more than once.

“The Quill Award along with induction into the Writers Hall of Fame was of course an honor and was very unexpected,” Lee continued. “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; I’m sure he would have been very proud.”

Larry Lee kept making new songs 

“Songwriting, to this day, remains a bit of a mystery,” Larry said, mystery peering from 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.'”

It’s not the end; the songs remain. They continue to come, for “a writer’s gotta write.” 

Lee’s choices aren’t for everyone, but they’re his. Among them, his fearless choice to not rest on his laurels and play the same set for 50 years. Some of his best songs were written since his days with a major American record label, though his solo work has been popular in Asia since the 1980s, including the 2022 release, “Lost Songs,” via Sony Japan.

“The Last Hoedown,” as recorded by Beyond Reach, a trio with Chowning and outstanding Ozarks fiddle player David Wilson, is a nearly perfect Americana singer-songwriter song. Period. Perhaps it’s too perfect to be a hit, but that’s beside the point. The song is the point, not the platform, not the applause and accolades. 

The song.

Dale McCurry

Dale McCurry

Dale McCurry is a co-founder of NoteWorthy Music and publisher and managing editor of “High Notes” and “The Wires and the Wood” magazines. He has been a published writer for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in more than 25 publications and he has served as editor of hundreds of issues of more than 15 newspapers, magazines, and niche publications. More by Dale McCurry