REVIEW: “The Center of Nowhere” Documentary is Feeling and Vibe of Springfield Missouri Music



The Center of Nowhere – Documentary – Songs of an Unsung America – Springfield, MO

This is an engaging documentary. A laid-back intro to what is obviously a well-kept secret. A Muscle Shoals, AL that’s hush-hush. A more down-home Austin & Nashville without the glitz & traffic. There’s stunning photography, colorful likable personalities, exceptional informative interviews, recollections, good music & food in a little Ozark town in the center of the country.

For writers of poetry & novels its Chautauqua, NY & for musicians this is the place.

The Spirit & Sounds of Springfield, Missouri — directed by David Hoekstra. Is a wonderfully crafted, well-paced, excellently-filmed documentary (The Center of Nowhere – Songs of an Unsung America – Springfield, MO – drops Sept 25). The hard-to-get-to town where the Mother Road Route 66 was planned & started in the 1920s. It’s the home of Springfield cashew chicken — concocted by a Missouri-Asian who put his signature on a small American town – to their delight. It adds to the abracadabra of Americana, rich in history & helped along by many notable musicians & neighbors who help narrate splendidly. While Austin & Nashville have a scene – Springfield has a feeling, a vibe in its soil & air.

Clever animation is added sparsely with humor. Participants talk about the town, the river, its music, musicians, community, its food & its churches. Compressed into an hour & a half it documents what even a city boy can appreciate (I watched twice). It encapsulates what is good about this country.

The name artists talk endearingly & never seem to endorse it. I think they want awareness but not necessarily an invasion of outsiders. The tale opens with a bright-eyed & enthusiastic Ozark Mountain Dare Devil Mike Granda. Then, singer Robbie Fulks, the late Merle Haggard, Massachusetts’ native Jonathan Richman, the Golden Palomino’s Syd Straw, & a young ambitious Kenyan musician Patrick Mureithi who also likes the cashew chicken. Lending some credibility, is legendary Brenda Lee (a 10-year old powerhouse vocalist in the 50s), members of The Dictators/Del-Lords Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, Dave Alvin, Scott Kempner, & Andy Shernoff.

Producer Dan Penn, & many other lesser-known local artists & music producers share stories. Penn recalls antics with singer-songwriter Wayne Carson (who wrote the 1966 classic “The Letter” for The Box Tops & later covered by Joe Cocker. “Always on My Mind” – a hit for both Elvis & Willie Nelson). Segments focus on the late executive Si Siman who developed many artists is remembered by friends & family. His humorous episodes with the late singer Ronnie Self (who wrote Brenda Lee’s hits “I’m Sorry” & “Sweet Nothin’s”).

A visit with the late well-respected local producer Lou Whitney (Syd Straw, Jonathan Richman, Wilco, Robbie Fulks) points out landmarks like an old Carter Family residence. Red Foley’s 50’s country TV show Ozark Jubilee with Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Pat Boone, Porter Waggoner, & Wynn Stewart. His stage band had the amazing lead guitarist Grady Martin. The Black gospel vocal group The Philharmonics performed & surviving member George Culp reminisces backing artists who recorded there. They backed everyone The Jordanaires didn’t.

The film explores the musical role of the church. The inclusion of religion is done with expertise & what could’ve slowed the narrative momentum down in the storyline – didn’t.

Food is included as cameras visit where the cashew chicken is made, & Red’s, a popular burger joint. The story is loaded with local entertainment Big Smith, Papa Green Shoes, King Brewer, clips of The Skeletons & the alt-rock band Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin, among others. Many musicians are low-key top tier players. Reliability is their key. They can go toe to toe with any famous world-class performer & leave them sweating whole notes.

So, “find another way to say ‘love’” is their lyrical question. And in Lou’s words. “…they’re more like they are then they used to be.” I think I understand what he means.

If you’re a music aficionado or musician – don’t wait for PBS to air this.

It’s a project created from dedication to a genre & of course, a very special place. But don’t go there.

You can view this film on Amazon Prime.

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