The name might conjure up images of a movie about a poor backwoods hillbilly family or one of those TV programs where a guy travels the world eating strange foods.
But Deep Fried Squirrel is actually a Springfield-based bluegrass band that delivers up the kind of quality entertainment that has resulted in a sizable following in a wide radius around the city, stretching from Hot Springs, Ark. to the south, Kansas City to the north and Cape Girardeau to the east.
DFS regularly performs close to 100 times per year, always including multiple gigs inside the BARn at Brian and Joleen Durham’s Piney River Brewing in Bucyrus. The five-man ensemble was there again last Saturday.
“This is one of the best places we play,” said banjo player and vocalist Deakin Mooney. “The crowd is great; they’re not just here to talk to each other – they come here for a reason: To hear the music and have fun.”
Deep Fried Squirrel formed about six years ago when Mooney and friend Jake Norman decided to put a group together. Along the way, personnel has ebbed and flowed a bit, and now the band consists of Mooney on banjo and vocals, Norman on guitar, Eric Mathewson on fiddle and vocals, Kolt Kendrick on mandolin and vocals and Dave Smith on stand-up bass.
Mooney and Norman first met while playing the Springfield band circuit in the mid-1990s. On their website, the guys describe their sound as “progressive newgrass,” which consists of “a distinctive style that melds bluegrass, country, rock and blues.”
“It’s just writing music and playing it on bluegrass instruments,” Kendrick said.
DFS has recorded two albums (“Southwest Missouri Home” and “Shuffle Off This Mortal Coil”) featuring almost entirely original songs, most of which were written by Mooney and former band member Caleb Fairchild. Mooney said that when he was young, he was influenced by artists like Harry Nilsson, Cat Stevens and Roger Miller, and that he’s glad Fairchild is still a contributor.
“I think his songs are the best ones we have,” Mooney said. “He said he’ll keep writing stuff for us as long as we’ll take it.”
But while the Squirrel’s recordings are all about original, Ozarks-style sounds, one of the group’s signature components of live shows is up-tempo bluegrass versions of pop songs – from Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” to Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” and more.
Mooney said playing the stylized covers can be attributed to the BARn.
“This place really did that,” he said. “The first one was ‘All Night Long,’ and people here wanted more of that. So we learned ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and it progressed from there. Once when we knew we would be doing a big show here for Brian’s birthday and we were going to record it, we learned a handful for that.
“The acceptance of the pop stuff here has been phenomenal, and it’s been fun pursuing and cultivating that.”
Of late, the Squirrel has been performing using one shared microphone, almost like groups would do in radio studios in the 1930s. Last Saturday marked the fourth time the band had performed in “single-mic” mode.
Gathering around one microphone requires teamwork and an almost choreographed set of movements.
“It’s a whole different beast,” Mathewson said.
“But it’s the way they used to do it, so it’s kind of cool getting back to that,” Kendrick said.
Mooney said the band even plans to enter single-mic competitions.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “It makes us play more together, and we’re beginning to realize how to make it work best for us.”
The members of Deep Fried Squirrel have “day jobs” ranging from courier (Mooney) to framing company owner (Norman), real estate appraiser (Mathewson), construction (Kendrick) and “living off the land” (Smith). Being together for an average of close to two shows a week has led them to develop an appreciation for each other –and for audiences.
“When you play for a group of people, a relationship is made and it builds as the show progresses,” Smith said. “There’s an exchange going on; it’s like a mutual give and take where both sides are giving and receiving in equal measure.”
“I find it to be like meditation,” Mooney said. “I don’t even remember what happens up there on stage. You get into a state where you’re doing everything you can possibly do in a single moment.”
“When you get going,” Kendrick said, “you don’t really even think about the music. You just play.”
“I’ve always said it’s where I get my thrills,” Norman said. “Some people like to ride motorcycles and stuff like that. I play music.”
Mathewson said the crowds at the BARn always represent an interesting mix of the people of the Ozarks and other areas.
“It’s like an oasis of culture in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“And we appreciate the support we’ve gotten from this place,” Mooney said. “We go places and you might play in front of 15 people and two of them are actually listening. It’s always different here. There’s always a good crowd and everyone is involved.”
“I don’t even remember what happens up there on stage. You get into a state where you’re doing everything you can possibly do in a single moment.”
To learn more about the band, view a schedule or find out about booking, log onto www.deepfriedsquirrel.com.