It may come as a bit of a shock to area music buffs who recognize him as a local music legend, but Joplin’s Shawn Smith’s first true love had little to do with rock ‘n’ roll, sound checks or smoke-filled concert halls.
Rather, his focus was entirely on America’s favorite pastime — baseball.
Blessed as a young man with a 6-foot-3 frame and a left arm that could blister the inside corner of the plate with a 90-plus mph fastball, Smith wanted nothing more than to become a major league pitcher. He received a full scholarship to Crowder College based on his four years as a varsity starter at Diamond High School. As a member of the Roughriders, he pitched alongside Andy Ashby, who would go on to earn a 98-110 record with four Major League Baseball teams. Smith made it as far as playing for the Fairfield Hilltoppers, an independent A-ball team in Cincinnati, Ohio, before he was forced to move back to the Joplin area after his father began suffering heart-related problems.
Smith was still dreaming about toeing the rubber, perhaps resurrecting his baseball career, when he was asked by his older brother Larry to sing lead for a band named “Anonymous,” set to sing for a crowd of 300 at a pig roast in Jasper. It was a moment, Smith said, he’ll never forget.
“It was a high,” Smith said of the gig with a chuckle, “a high I had never felt before. The crowed called for an encore. Can you believe that? I was hooked. It’s like hitting a home run — when you hit it, you know it’s gone. Same thing with singing. There’s just this tremendous high when the crowd is following your words, your singing, your moves.
“I gave up on baseball and have been playing music ever since,” he said. “I’ve made the minor leagues in two things in my lifetime: One is the game that I love. The other is music.”
Rocking the house
Today, Smith is the front man for the long-running regional band Big Smitty. They’ve been plying their trade — rocking venues by singing a wide assortment of cover songs mixed with original content — for the past 20 years. Put that into perspective. According to Rolling Stone magazine, the average lifespan of a typical rock band is identical to that of an average U.S. marriage — seven years.
“We’re constantly busy,” Smith said with a shake of his head and a growing smile. “My vocal cords will tell you that much.”
Last year, Big Smitty played a record 52 gigs — an amazing number, Smith said, considering he and his five band mates — Scott Hill, Waylon Schultz, Kevin Allen, Steve Gilliam and Chris Gray — have families of their own while holding down full-time jobs. This year, they’ll end up playing 46 gigs, including a well-received show two nights ago at River Bend Casino in Wyandotte, Oklahoma.
Their next gig is a unique one — a celebration party on Saturday recognizing their 20 years together as a working band. It will take place at the Wilder’s Event Center, formerly the Kitchen Pass, at 1208 S. Main St. Tickets are $8, and the music takes off at 8 p.m. About half of the band’s 32 former members will be present and on stage Saturday, along with three other bands.
“To our credit, we’ve worked out butts off,” Smith said. “We’re one of the oldest bands around. We’ve also worked our way up to being one of the best-paid bands in the area.”
Venue owners, he continued, “know what they’re going to get when they call us; they know people will come and see us play.”
Singing and stomping
Though baseball may have dominated his early years, Smith has been singing since the age of 4. The Smith boys were the sons of a Church of Christ minister, and he and his four older brothers grew up singing a capella in the church.
He played with various bands but really didn’t hit his full stride until Big Smitty was established in October 1999. At the time, the group was known as Big Smitty and the Manbas. They played local hot spots in downtown Joplin such as the famed Kitchen Pass and Champs.
As they geared up to entertain the masses, however, Smith began suffering from chest pains — at times crippling, he said of the pain. After seeing a doctor, he was told he would have to have open heart surgery — a hole had been discovered in his heart. Recuperating after the successful surgery, he visited Las Vegas.
“Every club I went to, the bands were playing dance music — you know, Kool and the Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire,” he said.
His band back home certainly wasn’t playing the Bee Gees. Rather, the Manbas had embraced heavy rock, covering songs by Metallica and AC/DC.
“I felt the way to go was funk, disco — dance,” Smith said.
It’s a decision, he said, that would eventually split the band apart. Following the breakup, Big Smitty emerged in 2001, sans the Manbas. Smith trusted his gut, he said, and 20 years later, his instincts had been proven correct — they’ve opened for a number of successful bands, including .38 Special, Molly Hatchet, Quiet Riot, Foghat and Nazareth.
“The guys really bought into the dance stuff,” Smith said of his bandmates. “Yeah, we still do AC/DC, but our (primary) set is always 12 to 13 slam dance songs.”
Why soft rock and dance music?
“It keeps the girls dancing,” Smith said, smiling. “The bar owners love that. The guys (out on the dance floor drinking) like that. The recipe has worked damn near 20 years now.”
While Big Smitty is known primarily as a cover band, the band has also produced three CDs filled with 20-plus original songs.
“I would rather do my originals, honestly, but most people want to hear the covers,” he said, “and that’s just a part of the game — if you want to work, especially at the casinos, you’re going to do covers.”
The band’s covers range across the rock spectrum, from Michael Jackson and Foreigner to Robert Palmer and Van Halen. Still, “I play three to four original songs at each show,” he said.
His most popular original songs include “Coming Again,” “Life” and “This is My Town,” the latter written in the aftermath of the 2011 Joplin tornado, raising $8,000 in donations for those who suffered most from the EF5 tornado.
Life to its fullest
Smith embraces a simple mantra when it comes to how he lives his life: “Live it to its fullest.”
“My point, and what I’m trying to stress to everyone, is you’re not promised a tomorrow. So hey, let’s make this thing fun,” he said. “As long as people enjoy the music and everybody’s having fun, I’ll continue to do it. But like sports, when it becomes a job and it’s no longer fun, then you know it’s time to quit.
“But I’m not there yet,” Smith said with a wink.