To again lay eyes on Black Oak Arkansas--the most critically reviled Southern rock band of the '70s, a horde of longhair hillbillies who marched in overstuffed Levi's straight out of the Ozarks, frightening clergymen, drinking, toking and providing the soundtrack for 8-track-and-Schlitz parties all over the country--is like meeting your high school's biggest stoner at a 30-year reunion. You look at him and think, "Oh my God. You're alive."
What are the odds? Even in its heyday, BOA struggled plenty, and its heyday is nearly a quarter-century past. True, it drew big crowds back then, ranking as one of the top-grossing live acts of the early '70s, right alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival and Grand Funk Railroad. Yes, it notched three gold albums and one Top 30 single, a raunchy cover version of LaVern Baker's "Jim Dandy to the Rescue," which quickly became the act's signature tune and a personal anthem for lead singer James "Jim Dandy" Mangrum. And it might even be true that Mangrum's peroxide blond mane and hyper-sexualized stage manners--he often humped the washboard he played--inspired the histrionics of front men like David Lee Roth.
But between its home town of Black Oak (population 227), where the band was formed in 1969, and Jaxx, the nightclub in Springfield where it played Friday night, stood plenty of obstacles. Not the least is what could politely be termed a lack of technical proficiency. Critic Robert Christgau once summed it up bluntly: "They never achieved competence--they are actively untalented."
And there have been lineup changes, a heart attack, a near-fatal car accident, a falling out with a longtime manager and a death, not to mention a libel suit against a fundamentalist preacher who, in 1976, lambasted BOA as "a mongrel group of satanic origins promoting drugs, sex and revolution." The band prevailed, pocketing $59.75 in court costs.
Yet here they are, putting the crotch in crotchety and touring behind BOA's first original studio album in decades, "The Wild Bunch." Once again the band is raising hell as well as hard-to-answer questions. Among them: How could Black Oak have possibly survived? And is its grindingly generic party-on rock actually inept? Or have these guys outsmarted everyone by tapping directly into rock's eternal urge to get, as one BOA tunes puts it, "hot and nasty"?
"I never expected to live this long, I'll tell you that much," Mangrum says with a toothy smile.
He is sitting on the tour bus before the show, a gracious, grinning host. Wedged into black leather chaps and sipping a Coke, he could be Jon Lovitz's older, beefier brother. His memory, he says, is nearly shot, but he remembers a few stories. There was the day that Jimi Hendrix stole his bag of Acapulco Gold, or the night he was watching "The Tonight Show" and heard Mick Jagger praise his singing. (At the time, Mangrum was breathing in a lungful of pot smoke from an electric bong, and thought for a moment that he was hallucinating.)
BOA first disbanded in 1980 but has reunited and toured with various lineups over the years, mostly for crowds of Harley-Davidson bikers. The current incarnation, however, is "my dream team," Mangrum says. It includes two other original members, Rickie "Ricochet" Reynolds on rhythm guitar and Pat "Dirty" Daugherty on bass, friends from his high school days.
So at midnight on Friday, BOA took the stage again, looking like a cross between a Spinal Tap tribute band and medical experiment involving a spleen truss. To say that the years have not been kind to Mangrum understates time's ravages by a Hot Springs mile. He emerges onstage waving a gnarled cane, and his much-flaunted six-pack abdominals have turned into a keg. He still ecstatically scrapes away on his washboard and still sermonizes between songs like a half-mad minister.
The crowd tops out at about 150 as BOA works over "hits" like "Hot and Nasty" and "Uncle Elijah." Artistically, Black Oak hasn't grown any since the '70s, but it hasn't shrunk much either, which is about the most you can expect. The band plays with arena-size grandiosity and even bigger smiles, which is ultimately why an evening with BOA is so winning. Southern rock started as manna for America's disaffected, rowdy youth. Then it became part of the bloat that punk attacked when it emerged in the mid-'70s. But it never died and never will die, and now it's providing steady paychecks to three high school buddies from Arkansas, all of them amazed to be alive, all of them elated to resuscitate the spirit of Jim Dandy one more time.